One of the most passionate collectors of Israeli coins is the head chef in
Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. When Xu Long isn’t cooking Peking duck for
visiting heads of state, he devotes his time to researching the history of
It took him 10 years of painstaking study, but last
November Xu Long published a 575-page hard-back on the subject, Money of Ancient
Judea and Israel.
Ironically, his book, which is in Mandarin, is one of
the most wide-ranging on the subject in any language.
“His book starts
with the first coins ever minted in Judea during the Persian period in the
fourth century BCE and goes up to the Jerusalem of Gold 24-carat bullion coin
launched last year by the Bank of Israel,” says Arthur Boxer, CEO of the Israel
Coins and Medals Corporation (ICMC). “He explains the story behind each
Boxer meets Xu Long every year at the International World Money
Fair in Beijing, where display of the book helps attracts local collectors to
the Israeli booth. At a price of 498 yuan, about NIS 250, the book is expensive
“He’s an ambassador for us in China,” says Boxer. “It’s a
numismatic handshake between two great ancient cultures.”
Last week Boxer
and Xu Long met at the ICMC headquarters in Nesher, near Haifa. Visiting for his
second time, Xu Long continues to explore sites not on the typical tourist
itinerary but that figure on Israeli currency and coins. Last time he came
alone; this time he brought six other coin enthusiasts.
“The first time I
came to Israel everything seemed familiar to me because I already knew about
places from the coins,” says Xu Long, 47.
He explains his interest in
Israeli coins: “No one can understand the world without understanding the Jews
first. For Chinese, Jews are special.
They are very smart. You can learn
about people and their history and culture through their coins, and since the
Jews have had a long and colorful history, the cultural content in Israeli coins
is very rich, if not the richest in the world. No other country refers back to
its ancient history in its modern coins as does Israel.”
took place with the help of a Hebrew-Chinese translator after Xu Long was the
guest of honor for a luncheon at the Herzliya Pituah residence of China’s
According to Xu Long, just after the soup (sweet and sour),
the conversation turned to his numismatic passion. “The ambassador wanted to
know what everyone always asks me, how I happened to become interested in this
subject in the first place.”
Xu Long was riding his bicycle on one of
Beijing’s streets when he spotted a foreigner and stopped to ask the man if he
spoke French. The foreigner was Albert Kalifa, an Israeli studying Chinese
medicine in Beijing, Algerian by birth and fluent in French.
“He asked me
if I would like to teach him French and I said, ‘Why not,’ Kalifa says in a
telephone interview from his home in Kibbutz Nir Eliahu. “We met every day for
French lessons for about half a year and he taught me about Chinese customs and
way of life.”
Kalifa knew of Xu Long’s interest in coins and gave him a
few Israeli coins.
“This aroused a great curiosity in him about Jewish
customs and life and he asked many questions. He was insatiable for information
about Israel and Judaism,” says Kalifa. “During his first visit to Israel, he
wanted to see every spot that appears on Israeli paper money and coins. We went
to off-thebeaten- track places like Gymnasia Herzliya, Mikve Yisrael, Beit
Bialik, anything connected with coins. He must have taken about 10,000
“When he travels in the world he also seeks Jewish sites. In
Tehran he got a special permit to visit a synagogue.
In Rome he went to
the Arch of Titus. In Paris he went to a Jewish museum. On this trip he wanted
to see a pidyon haben ceremony, Kiddush and a circumcision ceremony, all events
that appear on coins. It’s unbelievable what he accomplished. A person who
doesn’t know anything about the history of the Jewish people can learn about it
just from reading his book.”
One of the mandatory stops for Xu Long when
he is here is the Kadman Numismatic Pavilion of the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel
Aviv, where he meets with curator Cecilia Meir.
“The people who come to
see us are all crazy about some special field in numismatics, but to see his
face light up when I showed him the coins was amazing,” says Meir. “He was so
excited to touch the ancient coins, not because they are ancient, but because
they are Jewish. All the collectors I know have some connection to Israel or to
Judaism, but to think that somebody who lives so far away and doesn’t have any
connection has written such a book is really amazing. He’s promoting Jewish
culture in China through the coins.”
It turns out that Xu Long’s hobby is
an expensive one. He took some time during this trip to do some shopping –
Israeli coins, about 50 kilos worth, says Kalifa. And since he couldn’t find a
publisher for such an esoteric subject, Xu Long financed some of the book’s
publication costs himself.
“The knowledge I have gained and the Jewish
friends I have made, both in Beijing and in Israel, are priceless,” says Xu
Long, who is married and has two children. “My wife thinks I’m
The chef is already planning his next project, A Jewish cookbook
in Chinese, and he took some time from his numismatic pursuits to meet with
How do you say chicken matza ball soup in Chinese?