How Qiao Wenlan brought her Chinese family 'home'

Three generations settle in after move from Qingdau to Beersheba.

chinese olim (photo credit: hilary leila krieger)
chinese olim
(photo credit: hilary leila krieger)
Qiao Wenlan spent most of her life not knowing that her grandfather was Jewish, but she always knew that he had a special way of cooking - and that it tasted really good. Even though the ingredients and tastes were very different than the traditional Chinese food she was used to eating, Qiao, 21, said with a smile: "I love my grandfather's cooking." The cuisine, it turned out, was traditional Russian Jewish fare, which her grandfather learned from his mother, a Russian Jew. Aside from the strange scents that would occasionally seep out from her grandfather's kitchen, that heritage remained very distant until a chance acquaintance with a visiting Israeli professor at a Chinese university began a process that culminated in Qiao's family making aliya this month. Six people, including Qiao and her grandfather, whose immigration to israel was facilitated by the Jewish Agency, are now staying in a Jewish Agency absorption center in Beersheba, with five more members coming this winter. Qiao's grandfather, Zhu Qingjian, was born in 1935 in Russia to a Russian Jew and Chinese man who had crossed the border into eastern Russia to work in photography there. When Zhu was still a small child, they moved to Qingdau in southeastern China, which at that time had a Jewish community of a few hundred members. Some were Russians, but many were Germans and other Europeans who had come to the seaside city because of its trading opportunities. When Japan, an ally of the Nazis, occupied China during World War II, they separated the Jews from the rest of the population. Zhu was only occasionally able to visit his mother. "He didn't understand what was happening," Qiao noted. "It was only when he read the history books that he understood." Zhu's mother survived the war and was released, but the Jewish community, along with its synagogue, had been destroyed. Soon after, political tensions between Russia and China grew, and his mother had to return to Russia. She took Zhu's sister with her. Zhu remained in China. Despite having lived there since the age of three or four, his half-Caucasian face marked him as an outsider. "I was not recognized as Chinese, I was always treated like a foreigner," said Zhu through his granddaughter, who speaks English. Though Chinese nationalists could make life difficult for anyone who was foreign, Zhu managed without problems, thanks in part to his tremendous musical talent. In the 1960s, Zhu was able to make a couple of brief visits to his mother and sister, brushing up on his cooking and Russian (the latter of which now comes in handy in ulpan). They talked about coming to Israel but didn't know how it could be done. Once he came back from Russia, he dropped the idea - so much so that his family in China knew little about his heritage. But a friend, who works at a university near the family's home in Qingdau, knew enough that she mentioned Zhu's origins to an Israeli professor working with her. "He said if you want [to go to Israel], I will help you, because the Jews have a duty to help other Jews," Qiao related. He also told them that every Jew had the right to become an Israeli citizen. Qiao was "excited" to find out about her connection to Judaism. "Jewish people are very famous [and] wise. I always see them on TV and in books. I couldn't believe that my grandfather was Jewish," she said. Though it was hard to leave her friends and culture behind, Qiao wanted to come to Israel to study, and because she could use her English to help her parents and grandparents cope with life in a new country. She noted the importance Chinese tradition places on helping one's elders. Zhu also acknowledged it had been difficult making such a move, especially trying to learn a new language. But he said he didn't want his descendants to remain ignorant as he had been, and that that had been his motivation for making aliya, rather than a desire for their material betterment. He also has family here, as the son of his sister who had grown up in Russia made aliya five years ago. "I want to find my roots. Also, my children have grown up and I want them to study Hebrew," he said. Now what's foreign isn't Jewish food, but the Chinese tea leaves and porcelain tea set which they brought with them from Qingdau, and with which they welcome guests in their modest absorption center apartments. Chinese writing covers the map of the Middle East, and pictures are hung from their community back home. Qiao said that despite the changes and distance from China, she is glad to have come to Israel. She is also glad to be with the Jewish people, even if their history, which she has been learning, has often been touched by tragedy. "If you only eat and sleep, life loses its meaning. If I only wanted to live a very easy life, I think my life would be empty. I want to do something," she said.