Letter from Israel: Aliya of the East Wind
Jewish remnants can be found in every corner of the world. Here is a story about those whose thousand-year journey was made in China.
According to a story handed down for over a thousand years among the Jews of Kaifeng, a Chinese emperor wearied of twisting his tongue around the outlandish names of his Jewish subjects and imposed on them his own family name and the names of six of his ministers. The descendants of those seven families from Song Dynasty times still bear these names: Shi, Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao and Jin.Shi Lei’s family name is Mandarin Chinese for stone, and he’s thinking of choosing Evven (Hebrew for stone) as his family name in Israel. He has not yet decided what to do about his first name, Lei, which means integrity—but then it is in Shi that his identity and history are cradled.
“I’ve known I’m Jewish for as long as I can remember,” asserts Shi Lei (pronounced Sherr-Lay), who was born in Kaifeng 26 years ago and whose skin, hair, features and build are classically Chinese. “I heard it from my father and my grandfather since I was a child. It’s part of who I am. But no, I didn’t know any more than that. I didn’t know Jewish history or thought, Jewish laws, customs or traditions. I’d never heard of Seder night or Yom Kippur or opened a Tanakh. I knew only that I’m a Jew.”
Shi Lei is one of an estimated 300 descendants of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng who stubbornly cling to their Jewish identity; their last rabbi died 150 years ago, Jewish knowledge has dissipated and the once close-knit group (that dates back to the 11th century) has disintegrated into isolated families. The passion of the emotional bond, however, persists. In July 2000, when a visiting American rabbi whom Shi Lei had met only days before suggested he spend a year in Israel studying his heritage, the young man’s answer was an instantaneous “Yes.”
“I was leading a group of American Jews on a study tour of Jewish communities in Japan and China,” says Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, chief rabbi of Tokyo for many years before retiring to Great Neck, New York. “Shi Lei, a college graduate with fluent English, had been referred to us as our Kaifeng guide. From the first evening we met, he had question after question about Judaism, Jewish history and his ancestry. I asked if he’d be willing to spend a year in Israel…studying Judaism and learning Hebrew. Not only he but also his father agreed at once, tears blurring their eyes.”
Shi Lei left shortly afterward—traveling 15 hours by rail from Kaifeng, on the south bank of China’s Yellow River, to Beijing and from there a further 14 hours by air to Tel Aviv. “I wasn’t afraid to go so far,” he says. “Israel is the land of my ancestors. I was going home.”
Shi Lei, who followed his one-year Jewish studies program at Bar-Ilan University with two years at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and now wears a kippa, is not the only Kaifeng Jewish descendant to come home. Four years ago, Jin Guang-Yuan; his wife, Zhan Jin Ling; and their daughter, Jin Wen-Jing, made a similar journey.
“There were people helping Jews from Russia go to Israel,” says Jin Guang-Yuan, 48, a former furnace foreman who now calls himself Shlomo. “They decided to look for Chinese Jews who wanted to go home as well. They came to Kaifeng. When they asked me if I wanted to go to Israel, I said, ‘Of course.’ I’m Jewish. Even my Chinese papers list me as Youtai [Jew]. I’d always wanted to live in Israel. In Kaifeng, there is no Shabbat and we are not allowed to pray as Jews.”
In an article in Judaism (Winter 2000), Irwin M. Berg explains that “It would be dangerous for the descendants to exhibit a commitment to the Jewish religion…. The Chinese government does not recognize the existence of Jews as a protected religious minority, although it welcomes the tourism their presence generates. The government would be especially vigilant to oppose a religious movement with foreign support.”
The decision to leave Kaifeng was harder for Shlomo’s wife, Zhan Jin Ling, 45, who is not Jewish but Han (ethnic Chinese). “Of course I knew Guang-Yuan was descended from Jews,” she says. “Even before we married I knew that. It didn’t matter to me. But I hesitated when he said we should move to Israel. I agreed to go in order to keep our family together.”
When the family came to Israel, Jin Wen-Jing, then 16, was enrolled at Yemin Orde, a Youth Aliyah school near Haifa. This past June she not only received a matriculation certificate to enter university but also appeared before a Haifa Jewish court, which approved her conversion to Judaism. Taking the Hebrew name Shalva (Serenity), a translation of Wen-Jing, the teen is the first descendant of the ancient Kaifeng Jewish community to return formally to Judaism.
“I didn’t want to go through conversion because I’ve always thought of myself as Jewish,” she says in faintly accented Hebrew. “But according to halakha I had no choice. God chose the Jewish people to be His nation, and I wanted to be accepted as part of it.”
Kaifeng Jewish descendants know from their family names and traditions that an unbroken Jewish line on their paternal side stretches back about a thousand years; a group of Persian Jews traveled the legendary Silk Road to the bustling metropolis of Kaifeng, capital of the ruling Song Dynasty, and what proved to be a welcome home. Brought before the emperor, the travelers offered him cotton goods. He accepted the tribute, saying, “You have come to our China. Respect and preserve the customs of your ancestors and hand them down.”
And hand them down they did, but in the chinese style, where personal status is patrilineal. With wives adopting the faith of their husbands, the men were permitted to marry outside the faith.
“The importance of ancestry…is key to Jewish survival in Kaifeng,” explains Tokayer. “Unfortunately, however, there is a halakhic problem. In Jewish law, personal status is matrilineal. However clear the Jewish origins of the Kaifeng community and however strongly Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants feel their Jewishness, they are not recognized as Jews under Jewish law.”
The halakhic difficulty is neither insurmountable nor unprecedented, according to Michael Freund, director of Shavei Israel (Returnees to Israel), a newly founded organization that reaches out to those with Jewish ancestry who want to reclaim their Jewishness.
“Returning Jews aren’t a new phenomenon,” says Freund. “There have always been persecutions and forcible conversions and Jews torn away from their faith. Over the years, procedures have been developed for those who want to return.”
He cites the Marranos who arrived in 16th-century Amsterdam 150 years after the height of the Spanish Inquisition, asking to reclaim their Jewishness. “A halakhic mechanism was created to receive them,” he says. “We’re currently researching Jewish sources and halakhic approaches for a model to be used today for this ‘seed of Israel,’ which includes not only the Kaifeng Jewish descendants but also Crypto-Jews from Spain, Portugal and South America and the apparent descendants of the Lost Tribes. Our aim is that when someone of Jewish descent wants to return, there’s both room for them and halakhic leniency in the conversion process.”
For example, with certain communities that have moved to modern Israel whose Judaism is in doubt and a formal conversion required, the length of time mandated for learning about Judaism (usually two to three years) is much reduced prior to their appearance before abeit din and immersion in a mikve.
Shavei Israel continues the work of the veteran Amishav, an organization with similar aims that fought rabbinical suspicion when it was first founded 30 years ago by Rabbi Eliyahu Avihail in Jerusalem. It was through Amishav, then functioning out of Avihail’s apartment before it moved to Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbinate building, that Freund first met Shi Lei.
“I’d just finished a novel about the Kaifeng Jewish community—Peony by Pearl S. Buck,” he says. “And suddenly there was Shi Lei, looking as if he’d stepped straight out of its pages.”
That meeting led to growing Amishav involvement with the Kaifeng descendants. First that organization and now Shavei Israel are helping guide the Jins toward conversion through Israel’s difficult-to-navigate bureaucracy. Avihail translated his summary of Jewish philosophy and practice into Mandarin and plans to furnish a Jewish library at Nanjing University. He also hopes to create a college scholarship and Jewish-studies program in China for economically struggling Jewish descendants and help them come to Israel to study.
The Kaifeng community, staggering under repeated natural, military and economic catastrophes and weakened by intermarriage and acculturation, appealed to world Jewry early last century to help them survive as Jews. Overwhelmed by the refugee crisis of World War I, however, their plea went unheeded.
“Now that we have a chance to remedy the past, we must do so and do so on the terms of the people we’re helping,” says Freund. “Maybe the majority aren’t interested in converting. Maybe all they want is knowledge about the ancestry they’ve honored against great odds.”
This, of course, is the key question. Is there a Jewish awakening, a religious spark waiting to be rekindled, or is the yearning for knowledge no more than curiosity?
Xu Xin, president of Nanjing University’s School of Foreign Studies and professor of the history of Jewish culture, has no doubt. A former Cultural Revolution Red Guard who is an expert on Jewish literature and the Kaifeng Jewish community, he lists the factors he believes prove a Jewish awakening.
“First, Jewish tradition has always remained strong among the Kaifeng Jewish descendants,” he says. “Second, China’s new open-door policy has enabled Jews from the outside to visit them. Some have brought or sent Jewish religious articles and Chinese-language books about Judaism. Others have performed Friday night and Sabbath morning services for the Kaifeng Jewish descendants. All this has generated new Jewish interest among them. Third, the descendants now have greater opportunity to learn about Jews and Jewish history, which gives them increased reason to return to their traditions. Fourth, an increasing number of Chinese scholars are writing about Judaism and studying the Kaifeng Jews, making the descendants more keenly aware of their past.”
Finally, Xu Xin says, the descendants themselves are becoming more active and initiating contacts with other descendants inside Kaifeng and with Jews from outside.
Freund, however, sounds a note of caution. “It’s easy to get swept away by the drama of the Kaifeng story,” he says. “As yet there’s no clear evidence of a general awakening.”
A Jewish community that at its peak (under the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644) numbered some 5,000, has dwindled to no more than a few hundred. In 1988, in the last Chinese census in which Jews were allowed to identify themselves as Jews, there were 700 to 1,000 Youtai in Kaifeng. (Thereafter, concerned the descendants would seek privileges accorded to recognized minorities, the Chinese government changed their official identity from Youtai Houdai, Jewish descendants, to Han.) An unofficial survey 10 years later found only 300 self-declared Youtai.
These figures, however, are not reliable. Some Jews identify themselves as Muslim to circumvent the one-child-per-family ruling (unlike the Jews, Muslims are a recognized minority); others prefer calling themselves Han rather than show commitment to Judaism. While there are no recorded incidents of anti-Semitism in China, ancient or modern, the Chinese government does not welcome religious movements that have foreign support.
Do Shi Lei and the Jin family see themselves as exceptional in their return to Judaism?
“No, there are many like us,” says Shlomo Jin. “Once they see me get Israeli citizenship, others will follow.”
“It’s hard for them to come to Israel and study like I did, because the Kaifeng Jewish descendants have very little money,” says Shi Lei. “But the desire is there.”
Shi Lei and the Jin family are optimistic about an influx of Kaifeng Jews. With his fluent Chinese and English, Shi Lei hopes to help them find a voice in the Jewish world. Shalva Jin, who speaks Chinese and Hebrew and has navigated her way through four years of Israeli high school, also sees herself helping Kaifeng’s Jews settle into Israel.
As far as they’re concerned, their millennium in China was simply an extended stay away from the land that is their true home.