Kaifeng or Bust!

The Jews of the Song Dynasty

“And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.”

Exodus 1:14, King James Bible


  A brief summary of Jewish history in China *

A Dream of the Red (Jewish) Chamber.

July 1981, Tel Aviv. We slog through blazing heat and stifling humidity all the way across the city, from Rishon Le Tzion in the south to Beth Hatefutsoth in the north, changing buses at the central bus station. It’s cool inside the famous Diaspora Museum – Beth Hatefutsot. In the section on “exotic” Jewish communities we see an image of a compound in the style of Baroque chinoiserie of 18th century European courts: tiled tiered roofs, upturned eaves, fancy yet simple windows. This is the remote ancient city of Kaifeng, China, where Jews have presumably lived for many centuries. On the picture is their synagogue adapted to local tastes. It’s doubtful that we’ll ever get to China – too far, too much advance planning needed to learn the language, and most of the world is still to be explored before China might even show up on my bucket list.

Kaifeng Synagogue (reconstruction)
Kaifeng Synagogue (reconstruction)

Fast forward 33 years to March 2014. Ilya has been invited to teach a brief course of lectures at Zhengzhou University. I look it up on the map: Zhengzhou, a place I never heard of, is a city of 5 million, an obscure provincial capital that none of the Chinese I know have ever been to. It’s the capital of Henan Province, which is not on any major tourist itinerary. There are no attractions in Zhengzhou, except for a provincial museum, a park by the river, and a statue of Chairman Mao. No Great Wall or Forbidden City for you. But… just to the west of it is a UNESCO site with Buddhist cave temples, and to the east – Kaifeng! Luckily, I had accidentally studied Chinese two years earlier (could not pass up an adult ed class right in town). Also, how else would I ever get to China if I skip this chance? So, Zhengzhou sent the invite, Zhengzhou it is.

Zhengzhou – a city of contrasts
Zhengzhou – a city of contrasts

There is some info on the Kaifeng Jews in the guidebooks and online, but it’s not clear if there is anything to actually see (the synagogue is long since gone), or if there are more than a couple of elderly Jews still left. And how would I find them, anyway.

Desperately seeking Shi Lei.

July 2014, Zhengzhou. Having seen the caves, the provincial museum and the park, we have come to our last day in this city. Two friendly local university professors have offered to take us to the fabled capital of the Song Dynasty – the city of Kaifeng! I do some frantic last searches on the internet in the morning right before departing and find a guy who claims to be a certified guide for Jewish sites in China. He lives in Kaifeng. There is no phone number, but I send him an email explaining our urgent timing and asking to call back.

My phone rings in the car halfway from Zhengzhou to Kaifeng. It is Shi Lei, the guide. He says the only place with any materials on Kaifeng Jews is right in his house and we can come to see him there in the afternoon. He explains to our hosts how to find his home.

After climbing a 13-story pagoda, trying to mimic Kung Fu statues in its garden, and galloping through a Song Dynasty theme park (it puts to shame Medieval Times show in Orlando: besides a huge jousting battlefield, it has a lake for live naval engagements), we are heading to a rendezvous with an actual Song Dynasty Jew.

Kung Fu in the Iron Pagoda Park
Kung Fu in the Iron Pagoda Park

In the 11th century, Kaifeng was the capital of the Northern Song. A group of Jews, originally from Persia, wandered in and cleverly presented the emperor with gifts of cotton. The money-savvy ruler (he was the first one ever to circulate paper money) could not say no to an enterprising little tribe. He gave them land in Kaifeng and granted 7 family names to use. The most notable names were Jin ( – “gold”) and Shi ( – “stone”) – typical for European Jews as well. Jews faced no discrimination in imperial China and were eligible for government service without losing their religious identity, of which some Jews took advantage. 800 years later in the middle of the 19th century, the thoroughly sinified  Kaifeng Jews faced extinction of their congregation. This period is described in the novel “Peony” by Pearl Buck. The Nobel Literature Prize winner was not a great writer, but she grew up in China and knew that culture inside and out. At the center of the novel is the family of a prosperous Jewish merchant as seen through the eyes of its Chinese bondmaid. The merchant’s son, like his grandfather, marries a Chinese girl, the rabbi of the congregation dies, and Jewish life seems to have come to an end.

Aquatic battleground (Song Dynasty Theme Park)


Many wars and revolutions later, including even the horrible Cultural Revolution, there are still Jews in the city who vaguely remember their ancestry, but not much more. The government, both central and local, is generally sensitive about its image on minority matters, but does not care about this tiny tribe. Indeed, they look just like their neighbors, speak just like their neighbors, and don’t cause any trouble. This benign neglect, rather than anti-Semitism is typical for Jewish history in China.

Aquatic battleground (Song Dynasty Theme Park)

Where is that street, where is that house…

We exit through the elaborate gate of Qingming Riverside Park, a make-believe Song Dynasty fantasy. A short smiling Chinese man is already waiting for us. This is our Jewish guide. A few minutes later we get out of the car on a dusty byway in a non-descript neighborhood – a mix of newish but low-rise, by Chinese standards, buildings (5-6 stories vs. 25 we typically see in a big Chinese city) with some structures a bit harder to describe. It’s not exactly a hutong, a tight-knit quaint old quarter with its own traditions and life. Those hutongs are all the rage in Beijing now, finally worth preserving as a major tourist attraction touted by street hawkers. This Kaifeng street is one-story, dilapidated, but not very ancient. It’s not clear whether it’s falling apart or being slowly demolished. Needless to say, there are no tourists in sight. As we tread over a dusty path, people sit outside on porch steps or on box-like chairs with rollers, clinging to the shady side of the alley. We pass more piles of rubble and turn into a narrow passage at the end of which is a small courtyard. This is the Jewish “house-museum.”

We have found the Jewish Museum!

A door on the left leads to a proper room. A door straight ahead opens onto a very small area that, I think at first, might be used as a sukka, because it lacks a ceiling. This indeed turns out to be a place for Jewish gatherings, but certainly not a sukka, which cannot be permanent. It is a room for the Jewish study group led by Shi Lei, sort of a “Turns out we are Jews” book club. A few people out of about 500 reportedly still remaining in the city, get together here once a week to learn about their heritage. Shi Lei is naturally their laoshi – teacher. After all, he studied Jewish religion and history in New York City and at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. As for the roof, there were some heavy downpours recently and the roof simply caved in leaving an ugly pile of concrete rubble on the floor. With no outside help forthcoming, money is being collected to repair it, but there is still a long way to go. These Jews may have “gold” in their names, but not so much in their bank account.  

Kaifeng’s roofless “schul”

Israel on the Yellow River.

Shi Lei’s father Mr. Shi Sr. shows up. He is a youngish-looking round-faced fellow who understands a few words like “shalom” but, unlike his son, seems to speak only Chinese. We can’t resist taking a “fathers and sons” picture, a fascinating specimen of Jewish diversity. The Shis lend us blue kippahs for the photo. Blue is the traditional color of head covers for Kaifeng Jews.

Am Israel ehad! [Israel is one]
Am Israel ehad!
[Israel is one]

We enter the museum. It’s one small room that nobody would confuse with a Hermitage gallery or a Forbidden City pavilion, but it has walls (with peeling plaster), a floor and, most importantly, a ceiling still in place. The room contains a couple of non-flat objects but most of the exhibits are pictures. It’s a mix of historic and contemporary: a reconstruction of the Kaifeng synagogue, the one vanished long ago; a design drawing of a Kaifeng Jewish Museum, something that does not exist yet and is unlikely to come about any time soon.

Vanished past and imaginary future.

There are pictures of Shi Lei with western scholars and friends. There is also a clip from an Israeli newspaper excitedly reporting on “a Chinese Jew from Kaifeng studying at Bar Ilan.” There are rabbis in ancient garments, VIP visitors, and Moses standing with his tablets up on a high point which looks suspiciously like the Great Wall of China (the last one – decidedly not a photograph).

Shi Lei at Bar Ilan University.
Shi Lei at Bar Ilan University.

 Shi Lei tells me donations are welcome. Also, there is one souvenir item there for sale. It’s a rectangular sheet of rice paper with the 10 Commandments written in Hebrew next to their translations to Mandarin. Drawn with a brush, Hebrew characters look a bit unusual, but the Chinese side is in nice calligraphy. While the traditional Hebrew lines are severely abbreviated (to fit on the stone tablets), the Chinese text is fully spelled. For instance, commandment number 5 in Hebrew just says “honor …” (“kabed et”) without elaborating. In Chinese it gives the complete rule: “respect your pa-ma [father-mother]” (Zūnjìng fùmǔ)

I hand Shi Lei a 50 Yuan bill with Mao’s face on it (Mao is on all denominations of paper money, facing no competition) and in return receive that concise set of maxims procured by Moses in a brief mountain hike. Unlike Mao’s sayings, which required a whole infamous Red Book to deliver, Mo’s laws’ executive summary fits neatly on one page, even presented in two of the most ancient languages in existence.

Sino-Judean foundations of our civilization.

Shi Lei tells us that he leads English-language tours of Jewish sites in several cities of China. On learning that we came to America from Russia, he talks animatedly about Jewish history of Harbin, where many Russian Jews fled from the Bolshevik Revolution. Looking further back in time, I ask if the world of Jewish and Chinese merchants in Kaifeng 150 years ago was portrayed accurately by Pearl Buck. Shi Lei thinks yes. And it’s exactly that dissolution of the community described by her that he is trying to remedy. We wish Shi Lei mazal tov in all his educational endeavors, whether with his fellow Kaifeng-Youtai or visitors from faraway places. Yet another image of Mao, a cash contribution, changes hands to serve the cause of Moishe, in this case probably by fixing the roof over the schul.

A fantastic show of military and naval feats from the Song Dynasty later in the evening is very tempting, but we must rush back to Zhengzhou: we have an early morning flight to Shanghai. The Shanghai Austrian Economic Summit has invited Ilya to make a presentation (who knew Shanghai was in Mitteleuropa!). Another free dinner is guaranteed.

* That is how it was in 2014. Several years later, benign neglect was replaced by suppression of anything in any  way deviating from what was deemed standard “patriotic Chinese.” That applied even to such innocuous things as Jewish studies. It was part of the preparation for the unprecedented since the time of Mao cult of the new supreme leader Xi Jinping. Here is one news item about it: https: //news.yahoo.com/chinas-tiny-jewish-community-fear-181707679.html