Joy Katzen-Guthrie's Jewish Heritage Tours of China

The Kaifeng Synagogue, built in 1163, destroyed by flood three centuries later and rebuilt twice.
Model at Beth Hatefutsoth, Israel, photo courtesy of Virtual Jerusalem

Compiled by Joy Katzen-Guthrie

  • Some historians trace a Jewish presence in China to the time of the first Temple, when Israel was divided into two kingdoms. In approximately 721 B.C.E., the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom, exiled the ten tribes living there and enslaved them in Assyria. Legend and some historical evidence indicates one or more of the ten lost tribes may have found its way to China and settled there. The B'nei Menashe, a community of Jews still living in India as well as having emigrated to Israel, has passed down for 2,700 years an oral history describing their escape from slavery in Assyria to Media/Persia, through Afghanistan, toward Hindu-Kush, then to Tibet, then to Kaifeng, reaching the Chinese city around 240 B.C.E.

  • The B'nei Menashe believe their ancestors went in various directions from China, some to the Mekong River into Vietnam, the Philippines, Siam, Thailand and Malaysia, some to Burma and west to India. In the 1970's, the community began researching the origins of its religion and came to the conclusion they were descended from Jews. Evidence of their Jewish roots includes a variety of ancient customs such as performing circumcision on the eighth day following birth, honoring levirate marriages, offering sacrifices on altars and wearing shawls that resemble the Talit. Over the years, they began to learn and practice Judaism. Today about 5,000 practice as Jews in Northeast India and across the border in Myanmar. Since 1997, Bnei Menashe have emigrated to Israel, where they have formally converted and have become an important community within Israel.

  • In the mountainous area of northwest China near the Chinese-Tibet border lives an ancient people called Chiang or Chiang-Min of West Szechuan, who number about 250,000 living in fort-like villages in the high mountain ranges, who may be descendants from the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Scottish missionary Torrance, who visited Cheng-du in the early 1900's, insisted the Chiang-Min strongly resembled the Israelites. He noted that their customs were reminiscent of ancient Israelite tradition, including the use of an ancient Israelite-like plow drawn by 2 oxen, never by ox and ass together (according to the Biblical stipulation, "You shall not plow with an ox and ass together."). The Chiang-Min believe in one God, and like the ancient Israelite priests, the Chiang-Min priests wore girdles to bind their robes and bore a sacred rod shaped like a serpent, reminiscent of the brass serpent fashioned by Moses in the wilderness.

  • Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, a foremost scholar of Jewish history of Asia, has provided additional research regarding the Chiang-Min people. Their language has been lost along with their ancient script. Today they speak Chinese and languages that originate from Tibetan and a slang called Chiaring. Historical maps during the Han dynasty (3rd century BCE - 3rd century CE) display the spread of this tribe through the northwest part of China. They see themselves as immigrants from the West who reached China after a journey of three years and three months, living independently in a monotheistic way of life until the mid 18th century, when they assimilated. According to their tradition, they descended of a forefather Abraham with 12 sons. Their belief is in one God whom they call Abachi, meaning father of heaven, or Mabichu, spirit of heaven, or Tian, heaven. This all-powerful God watches over the entire world, judges the world fairly, rewards the righteous, and punishes the wicked. In the past they had written scrolls of parchment and books, but today have only oral traditions.

  • Traders, pilgrims, fortune hunters, soldiers, adventurers, emigrants, wandering players, and refugees had been traveling the Silk Road for possibly thousands of years before the common era. The traditional date for the opening of the Silk Road is 105 or 115 BC, when the Chinese drove halfway across Asia to link up with a like route running from the Mediterranean to Central Asia. But the Silk Road is actually far older, perhaps by 2,000 years or more. It was, for at least 4,000 years, the main avenue of communications between the Mediterranean and China. Jews are known to have arrived in India and other East Asian lands in 70 C.E., following the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem, and they are likely to have traveled into China at that time seeking freedom from persecution.

  • Tangible evidence of a Jewish presence in China can be dated without question to the early 8th century, when Jews arrived from Persia along the several Silk Roads. Persian-Hebrew writings carbon dated to the early 700's have been discovered in the caves of Dunhuang on China's northern silk route. Jews settled in Xi'an, then the largest city in the world, and capital of China for 11 dynasties. By the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127 CE) a thriving Jewish community had been established in Kaifeng, a city south of Beijing that was then the capital of China and the final destination on the Silk Road. The Jewish community there survived peacefully with its Chinese neighbors for some 800 or more years.

  • Arab and European travelers, including Marco Polo in the 13th century, spoke of meeting Jews or hearing about them during their travels in China (then called the Middle Kingdom). Polo recorded that Kublai Khan himself celebrated the festivals of the Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, indicating a large enough number of Jews in the country to warrant attention by its rulers. Historical sources also describe Jewish communities at various trade ports, including Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Ningbo, and Yangzhou. Only the community in Kaifeng survived.

  • In 1605, a Jew in Kaifeng heard of a new arrival in Beijing who seemed to believe in the same God. This Jew sought out the visitor in Beijing, who turned out to be Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit who was to become the most influential European ever to serve the imperial court. Ricci's report of discovering a Jewish community in China aroused considerable interest from the Vatican and made the West aware of the existence of Jews there. The Jews of Kaifeng, meanwhile, had never heard of Christianity and were still practicing ritual slaughter and numerous ancient customs, as reported by Ricci.

  • Jesuits visiting Kaifeng during the 18th century were intent on befriending Chinese Jews and studying their holy writings. Motivated by the desire to locate the Torah of the Chinese Jews, which they were certain would include passages referencing the coming of Jesus that they believed had been excised from European Torahs by rabbis of the Talmudic era, they hoped to bring back an original Torah, proving to Western Jews they had been deceived and causing mass conversion to Christianity.

  • Needless to say, Jesuits found no such Torah! They did, however, write letters to Rome that are part of Vatican archives. The letters describe the daily life and religious observances of the Chinese Jews, noting the great pride and care with which they maintained their synagogue. Sketches of the interior and exterior of the synagogue show a typical Chinese courtyard structure with many pavilions dedicated to ancestors and illustrious men of Jewish history. A separate hall for the ritual slaughter of animals included a front table with incense sticks burned to honor the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  • The 1489 inscription of a synagogue stone notes that the first synagogue was erected there in 1163, after the Jews were ordered by the emperor to "keep and follow the customs of your forefathers and settle at Bianliang (Kaifeng)." Honoring one's ancestors was a well-established Chinese tradition. The stone tablet commemorates the reconstruction of the synagogue after a devastating flood in 1461. Numerous floods continued to destroy the synagogue over the centuries. An inscription on the back of the 1489 stone draws parallels between the basic tenets of Confucianism and Judaism, both emphasizing family, honor, tradition, and the moral basis in one's daily life. The notion of Tzedaka (charity) is also noted as being common to both.

  • Over the centuries following the great flood, assimilation, loss of the knowledge of Hebrew as the rabbinical line died out and prominent members of the community left for other locations, and the dilapidated state of the synagogue diminished the confidence of the Jewish community in Kaifeng. Poverty was rampant among the Jews, like that of their Chinese neighbors, causing them to sell parts of the synagogue building and even some of their manuscripts. Scrolls of the Law and other Hebrew manuscripts were sold to Protestant missionaries during the 19th century. Many are now in the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

  • Around 1866, the Kaifeng synagogue was destroyed for the last time. In 1900, the Shanghai Society for the Rescue of the Chinese Jews attempted to help their brethren in Kaifeng. There was talk of financial support to rebuild the synagogue, but pogroms in Russia and the resulting influx of Jews into China diverted the funds to other needs. The synagogue in Kaifeng was never rebuilt.

  • From the late 19th to early 20th century, some 500 to 1,000 Sephardic Jews moved to Shanghai. Along with the house of Jardine Matheson, the Sassoons, Kadoories, and Hardoons came large numbers of Jewish families from Baghdad, Bombay, and Cairo. Many purchased large amounts of real estate in Shanghai. Sassoon alone reputedly owned 1,900 buildings.

  • Joining them in far greater numbers were poverty-stricken Jews from czarist lands fleeing pogroms in the Pale of Settlement, filtering into other cities as well as Shanghai, becoming shopkeepers, bakers, and milliners. Their presence in Harbin alone was approximately 8,000 by 1908 and in Shanghai would come to number as many as 10,000. The Russian Revolution of 1917 practically doubled the size of these communities and served as a stimulus for Zionist activism.

  • Over 35 million Chinese were killed or wounded during wartime. This experience has given the Chinese a deep respect, sympathy, and support for the Jewish people. As early as 1920, in a letter to one of the leaders of Shanghai's Jewish community, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China, wrote, "All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserves an honorable place in the family of nations."

  • In the 1930's, Shanghai was one of the world's only refuges to Jews fleeing Nazi aggression. It was an open city with no passports or other documentation required. Upwards of 30,000 Jews found shelter in the city during the war, forming a thriving community before the floodgates from Europe were entirely closed by the Nazis.

  • In May 1933, Madame Sun Yat-sen headed a delegation from China that included all the important leaders of the China League for Civil Rights, which met with the German Consul in Shanghai to lodge a strong protest against Nazi atrocities in Germany. Throughout the 30's, Shanghai was the center of numerous protests against the treatment of Jews in Europe.

  • Jews living in Shanghai created a community teeming with life, printing newspapers, putting on theatrical productions, forming sports groups and orchestras, gathering regularly at local cafés, and setting up shelters for those in need. The area was dubbed Little Vienna. While the Japanese controlled Shanghai, Jews initially lived where they wished until by decree the stateless refugees (German and Austrian Jews whose citizenship had been revoked by Nazi Germany) were required to live within the crowded Hongkou District.

  • In 1942, Joseph Meisinger, the Butcher of Warsaw, as representative to the Gestapo from Tokyo to Shanghai, arrived in Shanghai on a German U-Boat to force the Japanese to impose the "Final Solution" upon the Jews there. The plan reportedly was to liquidate the city of Jewish inhabitants by rounding up the Jews on Rosh HaShanah, load them onto ships, send them out to sea, and starve them to death. The Japanese showed no interest in the plan, but in compromise, they ordered recent and undocumented refugees to a "stateless" area, thus establishing the Hongkou Ghetto. Sympathetic to the Jews, however, they did not support Nazi racial policies. Meisinger left Shanghai without carrying out his plans.

  • With war's end, the Jews of China found out about the atrocities of the war for the first time. News of the millions dead, the concentration camps, and the loss of their families and communities in Europe brought panic to the ghetto. The anguish deepened as lists of survivors were posted and published. Jews began leaving, many after 1948 for Israel.

  • In 1985, Chiune Sugihara, Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in 1939-1940, was recognized and honored for issuing some 6,000 to 10,000 visas to Polish Jews in Kovno, Lithuania, against orders by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. Those visas allowed thousands, including the entire Mir Yeshiva of Poland, to obtain safe passage to Shanghai and elsewhere. A monument to him was erected on a hillside in Jerusalem and he was awarded the Righteous Among Nations medal by Yad Vashem. On the hillside overlooking Yad Vashem, a tree was planted in his honor and an entire forest of trees planted in his name south of Jerusalem. An estimated 40,000 descendants of his visa recipients, now known as Sugihara Survivors, are alive because of his extraordinary courage and the courage of his entire family. This was one of the largest rescues of Jews in the Holocaust. One of Sugihara's Survivors, Zorach Warhaftig, became Israeli Minister of Religion and was one of the original signers of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

  • Relations between the Chinese and Jews never ceased. The newly-formed Israel voted United Nations membership to the People's Republic of China against Nationalist and U.S. pressure. China and Israel established formal relations in January 1992, and trade and cultural exchange between the two are flourishing.

  • In 1989, Tibet's Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, met with a group of Jewish delegates in New Jersey to discuss the commonalities of Judaism and Buddhism. A year later, eight Jewish delegates were invited to Dharamsala, India, the home of Tibet's Government In Exile, to answer the Dalai Lama's question, "What is the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile?" In 1997, dozens of Seders for Tibet took place nationwide, from San Francisco to Cape Cod. In Washington, D.C., the Dalai Lama attended a Seder for Tibet, whose guests included a Supreme Court Justice, leaders in the Jewish community, and other dignitaries. His Holiness expressed his deep gratitude for the prayers and support from Jews worldwide and reaffirmed his strong belief that the Tibetan people have much to learn from the Jewish experience.

  • An active Reconstructionist Jewish community in Beijing meets at the local Capital Center for Shabbat services, special events, and holiday gatherings and operates a Jewish day school on the grounds of Beijing's Montessori Academy. A Beijing Hadassah International chapter was founded in recent years. Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shalom Greenberg and his wife Dina joined the community in 2001, introducing kosher meals in 2002, opening a Chinese-designed mikvah in 2006 and a kosher restaurant in 2007.

  • Kaifeng is no longer home to an active Jewish community, though upwards of several hundred Jews in China claim to be descendants of the original Jews of Kaifeng. Hong Kong has since the mid-1800s hosted an active Jewish community. Its 7-story Jewish community center complex is one of the largest in the world and houses several kosher supermarkets and restaurants.

  • In March 1992, the Israel-China Friendship Society was established. The ICFS has as its goal the strengthening of friendship with the Chinese people, and the organization has been instrumental in assisting both Israel and Chinese delegations in their travels back and forth, as well as the restoration of Jewish artifacts and buildings in China, and the funding of exhibits and memorials that honor the Jewish-Chinese friendship. In March 2002, the Society celebrated its tenth year of existence.

  • In 1998, the Shanghai municipal government provided extensive renovation of the historic Ohel-Rachel synagogue, restoring it to its original beauty. Built in 1920 by Victor Sassoon in memory of his wife, Rachel, it holds almost 1,000 people in its sanctuary. The largest remaining synagogue in the Far East, it has been visited by numerous distinguished guests, including Bill and Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Marble pillars flank a walk-in ark, and wide balconies overlook the sanctuary. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the building was used for High Holy Days services led by Rabbi Greenberg in 1999. Of at least seven synagogues that existed in Shanghai, only this one and Ohel Moishe (built in 1927) remain.

  • Beijing is host to an Israeli embassy, Hong Kong and Shanghai both host Israeli Consulates, and an Israeli Economic and Cultural Office actively presents programs in Taiwan.

  • On March 15, 1999, more than 125 Jews from around China joined for a full Shabbat of prayers, song, and dance on the Great Wall of China. It is said the voices of worshipers could be heard miles away.

  • A traveling exhibition on the life of Chinese-Viennese doctor Jakob Rosenfeld is on display worldwide. Rosenfeld's incredible story of imprisonment in Dachau and Buchenwald in 1938, his release and subsequent travel to Shanghai for refuge in 1939, his enlistment in Mao Zedong's Liberation Army in 1941 where he set up clinics and public-health systems, delivered babies and worked long hours under gunfire, and his promotion to General in the Liberation Army are told in this exhibit. In China, he was adored and beloved for his humane acts and the dedication and self-sacrifice with which he treated his patients - soldiers, generals, and peasants alike. Rosenfeld immigrated to the young state of Israel, where he died in 1952. With the help of the Israel-China Friendship Society, his grave has been restored in Israel and has become a place of pilgrimage for visiting Chinese delegations. In Shandong Province in China, a statue of Dr. Rosenfeld was erected in 1992, created on the occasion of festivities marking the 90th Anniversary of his birth.

  • In May 2000, a delegation of the Israel-China Friendship Society visited China at the invitation of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. The delegation spent 10 days in China visiting Beijing, Shanghai, Harbin, and Tiensin, the last three of which once contained flourishing Jewish communities.The Israel-China Friendship Society was founded in March 1992, two months after the signing of an agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Israel & China. Three Chinese delegations visited Israel at the invitation of the ICFS solely as guests of the organization, in 1992, 1993, and 1995. In 1994, Prof. Jin Pei Lin of Harbin opened the Chinese Institute of Judaic Studies in the presence of the delegation. In the May 2000 visit to Harbin, the delegation signed an agreement regarding the establishment of a Jewish History Museum in the former Jewish Gymnasium in Harbin. The delegation's success fills its participants with the hope of ensuring a continuation of their friendship with the people of China in the future. As they say, another brick was added to the edifice of friendship between the people of Israel and China.

  • During summer 2000, twelve Tibetan teenagers spent three months at Yemin Orde Youth Village on Mount Carmel in Israel, as part of the Tibetan Youth Cultural Pilot Program, to learn from Israelis how to build a nation in exile. The Tibetans held faith that the visit to Israel would help lead them to freedom. The teenagers participated in leadership training and cultural preservation programs at the express request of the Dalai Lama, who has said he feels a particular affinity for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. The Jewish people's return to their homeland after 2,000 years of exile and the achievements of the State of Israel have allowed many Tibetan exiles to believe that their dream of returning to their homeland may happen in their lifetime.

  • A large number of Jews currently practice Buddhism as an enhancement to their Jewish faith. Says Roger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus, one-third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots. While some Jews have made Buddhism their prime faith, others have adopted Buddhist practices such as meditation to further define their Judaism. Referred to as Bhu-Jews or Ju-Bus, many of these individuals are Israelis and American Jews. According to one estimate, three out of four Western visitors to the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism and the seat of the Dalai Lama are Jewish. Most of the street signs in Dharamsala sport Hebrew letters.

  • "As I practice over the years and continue my life as a rabbi, the more I realize there are amazing parallels between the philosophies of martial arts and Judaism," says Rabbi Daniel Kohn of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, California. Aikido, karate, and tae kwon do are being embraced by Jews in great numbers, cutting across ethnic, religious, and spiritual lines to create a bond among those who practice these them. Says Rabbi Kohn: "My aikido helps complete my Jewish spirituality, and similarly, my Jewish practice and knowledge invests far more spirituality into my aikido training. I think I am a better Jew because I do aikido and a better aikidoga because I am a Jew."

  • Within Jewish homes worldwide, increasing numbers of girls from China are being adopted and raised with a tri-fold heritage as Chinese, Americans and other nationalities, and Jews.

  • On Wednesday, January 23, 2001, the late Feng-Shan Ho, Chinese Consul-General in Vienna 1938-1940, was honored in a ceremony at Yad Vashem. The title Righteous Among the Nations was bestowed upon Ho in October 2000 for his humanitarian courage in issuing Chinese visas to Jews during the Holocaust. He issued hundreds, and possibly thousands, of visas to Austrian in Jews, in disregard of instructions from the Chinese Ambassador in Berlin. Among those he saved were the parents of Dr. Israel Singer, today Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress, who escaped to Cuba with visas issued by Ho. A traveling exhibition about the "Visas for Life" issued by Chiune Sugihara and Ho FengShan has been displayed throughout the U.S., as well as Vancouver, Canada in recent years, aided by the Vancouver Education Center for Jewish Holocaust Study. A Chinese organization in Vancouver, Canada, nominated Ho Fengshan for Israel's International Award for Just Personage, the highest award for individuals who saved Jews. The exhibition will be displayed at the United Nations later in 2001.

  • The Center of Jewish Studies in Shanghai maintains a permanent photo exhibit, organizes Hebrew classes for children and adults in China as well as activities such as television programs and films about the Jews of Shanghai, and leads a one-day tour of Jewish sights in Shanghai.

  • The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences allocated a plot of land at its branch in Shanghai for the building of the new Shanghai Jewish Center that now includes a study center and a Jewish library containing several thousand books donated by organizations and individuals worldwide. The library holds a collection of some 100,000 volumes and is the first library on Jewish Studies in China. The Center also includes a family archive for former Chinese Jews, an academic exchange center, an exhibition hall, and serves as home for a Chinese-Jewish Friendship Club, educational center, and commercial center for consulting and other services for Jewish and other foreign businessmen considering making investments in Shanghai.

  • Kaifeng became home to a Jewish exhibit donated by the Sino-Judaic Institute and located within the Riverside Park of the Qingming Festival. The park itself vividly recreates bridges, streets, shops, canals, docks, teahouses, and folk customs of the Song Dynasty. Materials depict China's Jewish life with pictures and guides in several languages, as well as replicas, books, photos, maps, artifacts, and stone tablets displaying the Jewish history in Kaifeng.

  • The Jewish Cemetery of Harbin, home to over 500 Jewish graves, was restored in recent years through the efforts of Igud Yotzei Sin and the Municipal Government of Harbin, along with Harbin's spectacular New Synagogue, which had been closed for many years and was recently re-opened as a completely restored museum of Jewish heritage. Harbin's Old Syngogue was renovated and sits by the former Jewish Day School of Harbin, which retains its original facade and design both inside and out. In recent years, Harbin's New Synagogue was restored as a museum of the Jewish history of Harbin. Descendants of the original Jews of Kaifeng again are being buried in the Jewish Burial Grounds of Kaifeng, and several descendants of Kaifeng Jews have made aliyah to Israel. Increasing numbers of descendants of the Jews of Kaifeng are traveling to Israel for Hebrew and Jewish studies.

  • In 2002, China hosted an International Symposium on the History of the Jewish Diaspora in China at Nanjing and Kaifeng, an international, interdisciplinary forum bringing together scholars, teachers, research fellows, and some formal members and descendants of those Jewish communities in China. Since then, frequent symposiums on China's Jewish history have been held in China.

  • China's Center for Jewish Studies has campuses in Nanjing, Shanghai, and its newest in Jinan (Shandong Province). Additional studies of Jewish history are available in universities throughout China. Study of Chinese Jewish history is becoming increasingly popular among students in China and worldwide.

  • China remains today one of the only nations in the world that has no history of persecution of Jews.

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