China's Lost Jews

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

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.

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