The descendants of China’s miniscule Jewish community face persecution today.
Banning Jewish services in public. Prohibiting Passover Seders. Removing signs that describe the site of an old synagogue, and burying the ruins of another. Closing Jewish community groups.
The most recent restrictions on Jewish life have come in a place that few people realized was home to a Jewish community: Kaifeng, a rundown city of nearly five million in eastern China. There, a tiny community of approximately 1000 people that traces its Jewish lineage back a thousand years is facing a brutal crackdown from Chinese authorities after a brief renaissance of Jewish identity and pride.
Jews first came to Kaifeng in the Middle Ages when Jewish traders following the ancient Silk Road trading route settled in the city. At the time, Kaifeng was one of the Seven Capitals of the ruling Song dynasty, and was a one of the largest cities at the time in the world, with a population of approximately one million. The Northern Song Emperors welcomed the Jews as guests, granting them residency rights and bestowing seven approved family names that the Kaifeng Jews could use. Some of these family names are still in use today.
The Jews of Kaifeng built a thriving community, establishing their first synagogue in the town in 1163. Smaller Jewish communities sprang up in neighboring towns. The community lasted for hundreds of years, possibly numbering as many as 5,000 during the Ming Dynasty. Kaifeng’s Jews faced little or no discrimination; ironically, this acceptance helped contribute to the community’s end.
Over the years, Kaifeng’s Jews married their neighboring Han Chinese neighbors, assimilating into wider Chinese culture. After a flood destroyed the original Kaifeng synagogue in 1642, the community rebuilt; when that synagogue was destroyed by floods two hundred years later, it was never replaced. In 1851, European missionaries brought a Hebrew Torah to Kaifeng; by then only a few elderly Jews in the city were still able to read the Hebrew text.
Although the descendants of Kaifeng’s Jews stopped practicing Judaism, for years some families kept the memory of their Jewish heritage alive, telling children for instance that it was their family custom not to eat pork.
The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s wiped out even these vestiges of Jewish practice, but in recent years some Kaifeng families have been exploring their Jewish identity and heritage. Starting in the 1980s, curious Jewish travelers have visited Kaifeng to learn about this ancient Jewish outpost; their visits helped stir questions among Jewish descendants there. In recent years, some foreign organizations have held classes and services in the city, further sparking interest.
The Israeli organization Shavei Israel, which opened a center in Kaifeng in 2013, in particular has helped these descendants. Since 2013 over a dozen Kaifeng residents have formally converted to Judaism and moved to Israel. For other descendants of Kaifeng Jews, exploring their heritage is more personal. For instance, one local resident, Guo Yan, has installed a Jewish museum in her apartment, complete with pictures of her ancestors, photos of Israel, and an Israeli flag. Today, about a thousand people in Kaifeng claim Jewish heritage; about 100-200 of them have become active in Jewish activities.
Yet any exploration or celebration of Judaism has had to take place in secret. Judaism is not one of the five officially tolerated religions in China. (They are Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism.) “Anytime it seemed to cross the line of publicity, that’s when there always would be a pushback against the Chinese Jews,” explains Moshe Yehuda Bernstein, an Australian academic who’s studied Kaifeng’s community; “The idea was: ‘We’ll let you do it, but don’t let anybody know about it.’”
In recent months, Chinese officials have clamped down even harder than usual on Jewish activities; “The whole policy is very tight now,” Guo Yan has characterized. Chinese President Xi Jinping has ramped up his country’s attacks on non-approved religions. In Kaifeng, officials have closed the offices of foreign Jewish organizations. Local officials have also been prohibited to keep Jewish education going in the city by holding meetings in private apartments.
Recently, a well that was said to be the site of an ancient synagogue was buried under concrete. A stone marker indicating the former location of another synagogue was removed. Last Passover, public celebrations of the holiday were prohibited.
In September 2016, New York Times reporter Chris Buckley visited Kaifeng’s community. “The Jewish families I met in Kaifeng seemed determined to preserve their revived identity,” he reported. “Some decorated their home with traditional candlesticks for Shabbat, grainy black-and-white photos of grandparents, drawings of Kaifeng’s destroyed synagogue and maps of Israel.” Two couples invited him to share in their celebrations of Shabbat Friday nights; they’d been studying a Torah reading in preparation. Another resident, You Yong, told reporters that he tries to spend Shabbat relaxing at home.
As crackdowns on non-authorized religions continue, however, the remnants of Kaifeng’s once-thriving Jewish community are fearful of yet more persecution.
Dr. Yvette Alt Miller