Mandarian in the mikve: return of Chinese Jews
One of the oldest Jewish communities, Chinese Jews are looking to rediscover their heritage in the holy land.
Chinese New Year, February 10, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Last week, the small and unassuming mikve (ritual bath) in Hod HaSharon
witnessed the unfolding of a remarkable scene in the annals of Jewish
One by one, six young Chinese men, all descendants of the Jewish
community of Kaifeng, China, immersed themselves in the warm and purifying
waters before a three-man rabbinical court, thereby completing their long
journey home to the Jewish people.
It marked the first time that a group
of Chinese-Jewish men had undergone a formal return to Judaism in the Jewish
And for Yaakov Wang, as well as the others, it was the fulfillment
of a life-long dream, one that had been passed down to them by their ancestors
throughout the generations.
As a young man in China, Wang first learned
of his family’s Jewish heritage from his grandfather. And while he knew little
about the details of Jewish practice, he instilled within Wang a strong sense of
Hence, whenever Wang went out for dinner with his friends,
he refrained from eating pork, despite the central role it plays in Chinese
And when he told his fellow students in school that he was
Jewish, many responded by saying to him, “now I know why you are cleverer than
me.” As Wang grew older, and began to delve more deeply into Kaifeng’s Jewish
past, he learned that it was a community with a long and rich heritage, much of
it unfamiliar to most of world Jewry.
SCHOLARS BELIEVE that Jews first
settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th
century during the Song Dynasty, or perhaps even earlier.
Sephardic-Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along
the Silk Route and settled in Kaifeng with the blessing of the Chinese
The Jews quickly established themselves in the city, where they
found an environment of tolerance and acceptance, in sharp contrast to much of
the rest of the Diaspora.
In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and
beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous
occasions throughout the centuries.
At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty
(1368- 1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000
By the 17th century, a number of Chinese Jews had attained high
ranks in the Chinese civil service, but along with success came the blight of
assimilation, which took an increasingly heavy toll on the community and its
As a result, by the mid-1800s, the Chinese Jews’ knowledge and
practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community is
believed to have died in the early part of the 19th century, and the
synagogue-building was all but destroyed by a series of floods which struck the
city in the 1840s and thereafter.
Nevertheless, against all odds,
Kaifeng’s Jews struggled to preserve their Jewish identity, passing down
whatever little they knew to their progeny.
In the 1920s, a Chinese
scholar named Chen Yuan wrote a series of treatises on religion in China,
including “A study of the Israelite religion in Kaifeng.” Yuan noted the decline
the community had endured, but took pains to recall that the remaining
descendants still tried as best they could to observe various customs and
rituals, including that of Yom Kippur.
“Although the Kaifeng Jews today
no longer have a temple where they can observe this holy day,” Yuan wrote, “they
still fast and mourn without fail on the 10th day of the
NOWADAYS, IN this city of over 4.5 million, there are still
several hundred people – perhaps a thousand at most – who are descendants of the
Because of intermarriage in preceding generations, most
if not all are no longer considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law.
in recent years, an awakening of sorts has taken place, especially among the
younger generation of Kaifeng Jewish descendants, many of whom wish to learn
more about their heritage and reclaim their roots.
It was this stirring
which prompted Wang and six other Jewish descendants from Kaifeng to make aliya
in October 2009. They were brought to Israel by Shavei Israel, the organization
which I founded and chair.
Previously, we had brought a group of four
young women from Kaifeng to Israel in 2006, all of whom successfully completed
the conversion process within 12 months after their arrival.
recent years, Israel’s bureaucracy grew more taxing, necessitating that we wage
a prolonged battle of more than three years on behalf of Wang and the
I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that on more
than one occasion, the young men from Kaifeng were pushed to the breaking point,
wondering whether the Jewish people truly wanted them back.
they did not give up, and that persistence was rewarded at the Hod HaSharon
mikve last week, where Wang and the other five young Chinese Jews completed
their conversion (the seventh member of the group, Hoshea Tony Liang, did so
IT SH OULD not be this way. It should not be so difficult
and draining for descendants of the Jewish people to return to their
Wang and the other young men are serious about their Judaism. They
spent two years studying in yeshiva, pray three times a day, observe the Sabbath
and the dictates of halacha.
Wang now wants to study to become a rabbi –
the first Chinese rabbi in two centuries! – to help other Kaifeng Jewish
descendants to learn more about their heritage.
“They deserve a chance to
become more knowledgeable Jews,” Wang said, adding, “That is what our ancestors
would have wanted.”
Another member of the group plans to learn how to be
a Shochet (ritual slaughterer) and open an authentic kosher Chinese restaurant
in Israel, while a third, who trained as a dentist in China, hopes to qualify to
work in his profession here in the Jewish state.
disappearing more than a century ago, China’s Jewish descendants are reaching
out to us, looking to re-embrace their Jewishness. A way must now be found to
enable them to do so.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel
(www.shavei.org) which reaches out and assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish
communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.