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China's Lost Jews 

Their last rabbi died a century and a half ago, but Kaifeng's youtai are slowly reawakening to their identity

Wednesday, Aug 6 1997
In an obscure corner of China, in a city that was once the country's capital but has long since sunk to the level of a backwater, a settlement of Jews has lived in near-total obscurity for 1,200 years.

They arrived as traders, traveling the Silk Road from the Middle East. Over centuries of residence in the city of Kaifeng, whose ruler invited them to make their official home there in the 12th century, they came close at various times to making contact with their brethren in the West.

They never did. Bad luck, political upheaval, and the sheer inertia of time conspired to keep them isolated. But the Jews of Kaifeng never completely forgot their past. And now, Wendy Abraham, a China scholar at Stanford University, is working to help them revive their traditions.

Abraham, who teaches Chinese at Stanford, first encountered the story of the Chinese Jews while a college student in the 1970s.

Next month, Abraham will lead her first historical tour of Jewish Kaifeng. With it she hopes to bring the Kaifeng story to the attention of a larger audience and reintroduce the handful of Kaifeng's remaining "Jewish descendants" -- whose numbers have dwindled to an estimated 100 to 300 -- to their Jewish roots.

Abraham has led tours of Jewish historical sites in other Chinese locales since the early '80s, Beijing and Shanghai being the best known. Both cities have hosted large Jewish settlements dating back to the 1800s, and they will be on her itinerary, as well. Kaifeng, however, is off the regularly traveled path. And, more important, its residents are ethnic Chinese of Jewish descent, rather than relatively recent Western transplants, as is the case in other Chinese cities.

Abraham's quest to unearth Kaifeng's Jewish history has been complicated by Chinese politics, cultural barriers, and the simple force of forgetting. As was the case with most other ethnic groups to settle in China, assimilation with the majority culture proved impossible to resist. By the early 1800s, the pool of potential rabbis had declined, mainly because of intermarriage. Under Jewish law, Jewishness is matrilineal; in China, ethnicity is considered to derive from the father's side. In the inevitable collision of those two sensibilities, the Chinese custom won out.

It has been more than 150 years since the death of the last rabbi in Kaifeng; with fewer and fewer active worshipers, the number of synagogues dwindled down to one. It reached the point where the congregation left the sacred Torah in the marketplace, in the hopes that someone who could read Hebrew would find it and translate it for them.

By 1866, the synagogue building was gone, destroyed by a combination of damage from the periodic flooding of the Yellow River and neglect. The Jews of Kaifeng simply didn't have the wherewithal to pay for its upkeep. They were so poor, they resorted to selling off bits of their heritage: The synagogue's roof tiles, tinted blue, a color by which the Jews identified themselves, were sold. (Some ended up on a nearby mosque, where they can be seen today.) Also auctioned were two 6-foot stone steles, on which scholars had inscribed the Jews' history during the 1400s, 1500s, and 1600s, as they attempted to document their own connection to Chinese culture. And finally, they sold off the Torah itself. Much of the booty ended up in the hands of Christian missionaries.

At the same time, however, some sense of Jewishness lived on among the descendants. To this day, they make a point of putting youtai, which means "Jewish," in the spot on their national certificates of registry where ethnic Chinese put han. And thanks to an emperor in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) who conferred special surnames on Jews, there are seven such names among the families of Kaifeng. Two of them translate as Stone and Gold.

But Abraham is quick to warn against expecting too much Jewish consciousness among Kaifeng's Jews. On her last visit, in 1987, only the oldest residents had firsthand memories of religious observances. This trip, she'll be seeing their children; most of the people she spoke with earlier are dead.

Abraham is on the lookout for attempts by younger residents to embroider their Jewish experiences in order to cash in on the new interest in them by more affluent Western Jews. "I certainly hope they don't claim to have witnessed Jewish traditions," Abraham says, since she knows they are too young to have done so.

Not many artifacts beyond the steles remain of the Kaifeng Jews in the city. (Though they were sold, the steles never left town and are now on display at the Kaifeng municipal museum.)

Gradually, though, more archaeological evidence is emerging. Just last year, Abraham learned of a Jewish burial ground in Kaifeng. She came to know of it through a circular route.

For years she has been in correspondence with a Chinese scholar in Kaifeng who, although not Jewish, spent most of his life tracking down information about Kaifeng's Jews. He kept most of what he learned to himself out of fear of unfavorable reaction by the Communist government. During one of their conversations, the scholar made a point of sketching out the distinctive shape of Jewish burial mounds in China, without further explanation.

Last year, when he died, Abraham was surprised to learn that he had willed her all his research materials. And included in them was a description of the burial grounds, to which she now had a guide.

Although governmental paranoia has caused Abraham problems -- she was detained for five hours in Kaifeng in 1985 -- governmental policies on research have loosened considerably since then. Now, she finds greedy outsiders hoping to turn the story of Kaifeng's Jews into cash more worrisome than the government. One filmmaker proposed a documentary about "5,000 Jewish brethren who want to go back to Israel" and planned to tap Jewish wallets elsewhere to finance the trip. She calls such a proposition garbage.

"Not only is anybody who knows anything going to laugh you out of the country, but it's very dangerous; you're playing on the sympathies of innocent Jewish people," she says.

Abraham intends to limit her tour group to 10 to 15 people. The 15-day trip is tailored to a Jewish clientele, down to obligatory rest days on the Sabbath and vegetarian "Muslim/Buddhist" (the closest she could get to kosher) meals.

Abraham says Kaifeng's Jews, unlike many of their brethren, never encountered traditional anti-Semitism. The basis of European anti-Semitism, "that the Jews had killed God, that concept did not exist in China." Rather, the Jews of Kaifeng disappeared out of kindness; they were assimilated nearly completely into Chinese culture.

Until the early 1900s, Kaifeng's Jews did, however, keep alive the traditional Jewish desire to someday return to the biblical promised land, Abraham says. But with the start of the Russian pogroms, life-and-death relocation projects of Jews elsewhere took the attention of worldwide Jewry. And that period was followed by domestic upheaval in China that prevented any further outside intervention.

Now, Abraham says, the government, which has historically given Kaifeng short shrift when it comes to civic improvements and tourist promotions, is focusing on the city, given the interest from Westerners. There has been talk of rebuilding the city's synagogue on its original site, now inhabited by a hospital.

"On the one hand, it would be great; on the other it would displace hundreds of Chinese families," Abraham says. And, she notes, it would create a tourist attraction meaningless to most of Kaifeng's residents. Abraham says a more fitting memorial would be to upgrade the hospital in the name of the Jewish community.

And Kaifeng's Jews have begun to respond to the outside interest. Already, a family in Kaifeng has taken to manufacturing yarmulkes to sell to Western visitors. The first one Abraham saw was dark blue with black trim, with the sections of cloth put together in a unique design. It turned out to match exactly the description of the yarmulkes worn by Kaifeng's Jews as recorded in a historical document that the modern-day yarmulke-makers could never have known about.

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick


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