Chinese chef’s main course: Ancient Jewish coins

Xu Long, head chef at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, has literally written the book on Israeli coins.

Xu Long 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Xu Long 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
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 Jewish coins.
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 coin.”
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 in China.
“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.”
THE INTERVIEW 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 ambassador.
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 photos.
“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 crazy.”
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 Israeli chefs.
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