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Review: The Jews Of Kaifeng, China ? History, Culture, and Religion

Title: The Jews Of Kaifeng, China – History, Culture, and Religion
Author: Xu Xin (pronounced ‘Chu-Chin’),
Publisher: Ktav Publishing,
Jersey City, NJ

My cousin Phil, of Los Angeles, once told me – what I consider an apocryphal story – that during the Korean War, when he was stationed in Hong Kong, he was seeking a synagogue for Friday evening services and was told to go to a small shul atop a hill.

Sure enough he found it - the door was open and the lights were lit and inviting - so he entered and found himself alone. He seated himself, and before long a congregation of men came and all took their positions - the Rabbi, the Chazan, the congregants, and all began davening. My cousin’s jaw dropped – every other person in the shul was an ethnic Chinese, and they were all davening in Hebrew, exactly as in his own synagogue back home.

All the while, one elderly congregant was intently staring at my cousin, and after services, when everyone queued up to have their hand shaken by the Rabbi, this man came over to Phil and asked in perfect Yiddish: “Are you Jewish?”

My cousin replied: “Of course I’m Jewish – didn’t you see me daven together with everyone else?”

To which the old gentleman replied: “Funny – you don’t look Jewish.”

This story captures the essence of this book, which is a scholarly work of research written by a Chinese scholar of ethnography, was researched and written in New York and Cambridge, Mass., courtesy of a grant from The Simon and Helen Scheuer Family Foundation. Ktav publishing house, which has been formerly renowned for their publication of Jewish children’s literature, has, of recent, gone far afield with their publication of many important new titles for adult consumption.

It has been known for many years that Jews settled in parts of China, quite ‘off the beaten path.’ The Polos – Marco and family – alluded to them, and many Christian missionaries, including Jesuits, who were well versed at languages, encountered Jewish communities during their travels.

A famous Nobel Prize winning American author - Pearl Buck – herself the daughter of American missionaries in China, wrote ‘Peony,’ in 1948 (republished as a Bloch/Biblio Press book in 1990), a novel about Jewish life in Kaifeng, which is in the Chinese province of Honan. Ms. Buck’s characters, while Jews, are all ethnic Chinese, as are the people about whom Prof. Xin, of Nanjing University, has written.

From about the ninth century c.e. there has been an indigenous Jewish community almost continuously resident in Kaifeng in northeastern China, as well as other Jewish communities in other places from time to time. Separated as they were by thousands of miles from the rest of the Jewish world and largely cut off from contact with the main centers of Jewish life, the Jews of Kaifeng developed a distinctive culture that was unquestionably Jewish but progressively absorbed Chinese elements.

As our American experience has also shown, their greatest problem was not separation from other Jews, so much as the openness and tolerance of the greater Chinese society. Intermarriage was a frequent occurrence and Jews entered Chinese society will full acceptance as merchants, government officials and neighbors. After a period of time they were so completely assimilated that few of their descendents carry any memory of Jewish ancestry and have assumed the physical appearance of all other ethnic Chinese.

This is a fascinating look into the past, very well researched, that sheds much light on what may have happened to some of the members of our ‘Lost Tribes.’ We would also encourage the inquisitive reader to obtain a copy of Pearl Buck’s ‘Peony,’ to further explore our Jewish heritage among one of the world’s oldest cultures.

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