A millennium of prosperity on banks of Yellow River

A millennium of prosperi

It is twilight in the Chinese city of Kaifeng, and as darkness descends upon the streets, a bustling night market comes to life. Locals gather, sampling an array of food items from dozens of carts and stands that line the boulevard, while others examine various forms of clothing and knickknacks being offered for sale. Pork, it seems, is everywhere, as this staple of the Chinese diet is snapped up by hungry shoppers despite the pungency of its odor and the questionable standards of culinary hygiene that prevail. Vendors hawk it in a surprising number of shapes, sizes and even colors, and however off-putting it might be to a visitor from Israel, the dish's popularity among the Chinese appears at first glance to be universal. Well, almost, that is. For Shi Lei, 31, who was born and raised in Kaifeng, his family's tradition of refraining from eating pork stretches back generations. As a proud descendant of the Jewish community that once thrived here along the banks of the Yellow River, he is keenly aware of the customs and heritage that his forebears cherished. "They kept certain kashrut practices," he says in fluent English, adding, "My great-grandparents' family, for example, didn't eat pork out of respect for our ancestors, and they would also pluck out the sinews or tendons from the animals' meat before eating it." Shi Lei is no longer taken aback by the surprise expressed by many Western Jews when they learn that their brethren lived and prospered in China, or even that their presence there stretches back a millennium, if not more. "As a little boy, my parents and my grandparents informed me that I am of Jewish descent," he recalls. "But because I was so young, I didn't know what it really meant to me. As I grew up, I began to learn more about my background and the Jewish people, mostly through reading," he says. This is how he became intimately acquainted with the precious legacy that was carefully passed down from father to son over the generations in this faraway corner of Asia. The first Jews are believed to have settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China's imperial capitals, during the Song Dynasty or perhaps even earlier. Scholars believe they may have been merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route. With the blessing of the Chinese emperor, the Jews 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 people. Concerned, perhaps, about their community's sense of collective memory, the Jews of Kaifeng decided to erect steles (stone monuments), on which they inscribed the history of their sojourn. Two of the steles, which altogether were erected in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1669, now sit in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, a lasting testimony to the Jewish life that once thrived there. As Chinese scholar Xu Xin notes in his book The Jews of Kaifeng, China, the steles provide an interesting glimpse at medieval Jewish life in China, including the observance of important holidays such as Yom Kippur. The 1489 stele, for example, says that on the Day of Atonement, Jews would "close their doors for a whole day, and give themselves up to the cultivation of purity, and cut themselves off entirely from food and drink, in order to nourish the higher nature. "On that day," the inscription continues, "the scholar interrupts his reading and study, the farmer suspends his work of plowing or reaping, the tradesman ceases to do business in the market and the traveler stops on his way. "Desires are forgotten, attainments are put aside and all apply themselves to preserving the heart and nourishment of the mind, so that through direction there may be a restoration of goodness." The second stele, from 1512, records that on Yom Kippur Kaifeng's Jews "close their doors and meditate all day." 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 cohesion. By the mid-1800s, the Chinese Jews' knowledge and practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half 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. 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 month." Nowadays, there are still several hundred people - perhaps a thousand at most - in this city of over 4.5 million who are descendants of the Jewish community. All of these Jewish descendants belong to one of seven clans, each identifiable by its surname and family trees that stretch back for centuries. Legend has it that when the Jews first arrived in Kaifeng, the Chinese emperor, unable to pronounce the Jews' Hebrew-sounding names, bestowed his surname and the surnames of six of his ministers on them. These seven names - Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin and Shi - were used by Kaifeng's Jews throughout the centuries, and it is to the Shi clan that Shi Lei traces his own family roots. Several years ago, Shi Lei traveled to Israel, where he spent time studying at Bar-Ilan University and the Machon Meir Yeshiva to further expand his Jewish horizons. After returning to Kaifeng, he went to work as a national tour guide, putting to good use his mastery of the English language and his knowledge of local lore. In the home of his beloved late grandfather, Shi Lei opened a mini-museum dedicated to telling the story of Kaifeng Jewry, and in his spare time he now teaches Hebrew, Jewish history and culture to other members of the Kaifeng community. In recent years, a handful of other Kaifeng Jewish descendants have come to Israel, thanks to Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based organization that works to strengthen the connection of Diaspora Jews to Israel. All have undergone a formal return to Judaism under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and some have settled in Jerusalem. "Although we have been living in Kaifeng for a thousand years, the Jewish community here hasn't forgotten its Jewish identity," Shi Lei said. "In a word, the Kaifeng Jewish community is today in the process of re-learning the Jewish customs and traditions that were once forgotten. "There is a growing interest, especially among young Kaifeng Jews, to learn more about their Jewish heritage," he said, attributing this development to the community's increasing contact with the rest of the Jewish world. Asked about the upcoming observance of Yom Kippur, Shi Lei grew solemn at the mention of the sacred day. "Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year and it is a day of atonement," he said. "On this day, God will forgive us and purify us, and we will be cleansed from all our sins before Him. "In Kaifeng on that day, we'll stay together and discuss its meaning and significance," he said, while noting that perhaps one day, "if the Kaifeng Synagogue will be rebuilt, then every Jew in Kaifeng will be able to become more aware of our people's traditions." The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which works to strengthen the connection between Israel and the Jewish people and descendants of Jews around the world.