Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
This is an old tale, and many of you may have heard it already. But as it is Hanukkah, I can be forgiven for repeating an otherwise well-known story about the Chinese Jews.
Jews might have migrated into China over the Silk Road since as early as the height of the Roman Empire. One tradition states that the first of them left Jerusalem after the Roman emperor Titus conquered the holy city, arriving in China eventually via Persia.
Ethnographers have also previously identified a population in China that they thought might be of Jewish descent. And because they did not observe Hanukkah, it was inferred that they left the Holy Land before the Maccabean Revolt. But this theory has turned out to be questionable.
One of the problems with identifying early groups of Jewish migrants is that there was no universally agreed upon name for Judaism. A passage in some ancient record might refer to a population that declined to eat pork, but that description would apply to Muslims as well. The modern Mandarin term “Youtai,” derived from the Hebrew, did not enter common usage until relatively late. Other historical names identified with the Jews include “Shuhu,” “Wuotuo,” “Lanmao Huihui” (“blue-hatted Muslims”), and “Tiaojin” (“picking out the sinew,” referring to the biblical injunction against eating the sciatic nerve, Gen. 32:32).
The earliest reasonably firmly established group of Jewish immigrants are often known as the Kaifeng Jews, referring to the city where they settled and where their community can still be found. They would have arrived in China during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.), or possibly earlier. Kaifeng was the capital of the Song empire at the time. So it made perfect sense as a place for new immigrants to settle — as much sense as immigrants today settling in New York or London. But when, in 1127, Jurchen invaders captured northern China and forced the Song government to relocate its capital farther south to today’s Hangzhou, a portion of the community may have relocated there as well.
The Kaifeng Jews’ numbers were never great. The high watermark of their population has been estimated to be about 5,000. But the inevitable vicissitudes of history, of wars and revolutions, of floods and famines, mean that even today their number is only estimated at 2,500.
And over the centuries they intermarried with the Chinese. There was something convenient about the marriage of Hebrew and Confucian traditions: Rabbinical law makes Judaism matrilineal, while Confucianism requires only the passing on of one’s family name, which is done through the male line. A Chinese man and a Jewish woman marrying would thus satisfy both traditions: the children would be Jewish but would bear their father’s surname.
Nevertheless, the Kaifeng Jews managed to carry on their culture in isolation, if increasingly precariously, for a thousand years. In 1605, the Jews momentarily thought they might have found a co-religionist when one of their own went to Beijing to take the highest level of the civil service examination — for the jinshi degree, which would qualify him for high office. The Jewish gentleman, named Ai Tian, went to visit a man from a faraway land who, he was told, worshipped only one God. This man turned out to be the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. When Ai Tian saw Ricci’s image of Madonna and Child, he thought it was a depiction of Rebecca with Esau or Jacob.
Ricci was deeply disappointed, having previously been intrigued by the possibility of Christians already established in China. Shortly thereafter, though, he received a surprising offer from the rabbi in Kaifeng: If Ricci would convert to Judaism, the rabbi would make him his successor. It speaks to the precarious state of Jewish identity in Kaifeng even four hundred years ago that the rabbi would offer his job to a Jesuit. Ricci declined the offer. When the old rabbi died, his son became the rabbi, but he was said to be “quite unlearned” in Jewish traditions. Several members of the community ended up converting to Christianity at Ricci’s behest. Ricci held a dim view of the community’s future: “They were well on the way to becoming Saracens or heathens.”
The Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s and ‘60s, the third greatest war in human history by body count after the two world wars, did tremendous damage to the Kaifeng Jews as it did to many other communities. In the chaos, the synagogue, believed to be built in 1163, was destroyed. And the community scattered before returning to Kaifeng to rebuild their homes.
By today, Judaism as passed down has largely been forgotten in Kaifeng. Many Kaifeng Jews have grown up being told that they’re Jewish without having any idea of what that means. But thanks to our globalized world and international travel, the Jews of Kaifeng have connected with other Jewish communities around the world and rediscovered their heritage. Some have even gone to Israel to study and even adopted Israeli citizenship.
A lamp that was supposed to burn for one day burned for eight days instead, and that was considered a miracle — that’s Hanukkah. But then, a small community carrying on its traditions in isolation for a thousand years must be some kind of miracle as well.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."