On the Jewish silk trail

A tour of modern China was seasoned with its Jewish past.

hebrew street china 88 2 (photo credit: )
hebrew street china 88 2
(photo credit: )
All of a sudden, everyone you know has either been or is going to China, and it has become a popular destination for wandering Jews. Although climbing the Great Wall and visiting the Forbidden City have become the in thing to do, my recent two-week visit with a group of Jews from England had an extra dimension, and the tour, organized by the quarterly publication Jewish Renaissance, took us to places of particular Jewish interest. The centuries-old connection between the Jews and China is well documented, so I'd like to concentrate on the personal contact we made, a group of 30 Anglos, mainly Jews of every conceivable stripe from Orthodox to Liberal, and our confrontation with the ancient and modern manifestations of Jewish life in China. The main centers we visited were Harbin in the northeast, where a Russian Jewish community thrived from the end of the 19th century until the 1950s; Kaifeng, where Jews lived from the 10th century and where only tantalizing vestiges of Jewish life remain (and where the "Jews" of the place today are more correctly considered descendants of Jews); and Shanghai, where two distinct groups settled: the rich Iraqi Jews in the middle of the 19th century and the German and Viennese Jews fleeing Hitler who found refuge there. All different faces of Jewish life in China, but all with fascinating histories it was enthralling to encounter. Our first stop was Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province and about 500 kilometers from the Russian border. One of our group, Mimi Rolbant, was looking forward to seeing the town where her father had been born and educated before leaving for Israel in the early '50s. The town welcomed Jews with open arms at the beginning of the 20th century when the Chinese Far East railroad, part of Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway, was being built. The community thrived, with schools, synagogues, community buildings, a hospital, a retirement home and many newspapers, in both Russian and Yiddish. Today all the Jewish areas have been carefully restored. The cemetery, with 800 graves, was our first stop. It was moving to see all the men get out their yarmulkes to visit this place where Ehud Olmert's grandfather is buried and which the prime minister himself visited a few years ago. We picked our way among the gravestones, trying to decipher the faded Hebrew letters and get an overall picture of the families who had lived and died in this place. A photographer followed us around, and we thought he was going to try to sell us our pictures, but he was taking photos to add to the already well-stocked Jewish museum, which we visited later. When we first saw that the portraits, small photographs behind glass at the top of the tombstones, had been smashed, we assumed it was done out of anti-Semitism. However, our guide assured us that it had been done by the Red Guards on one of their rampages during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, anti-Semitism is practically unknown in China, and we bumped into several kippa-wearing groups whose members assured us that the Chinese have no idea of the significance of their head coverings. Leaving the cemetery, we were then driven to the center of town to visit the Harbin Museum for Jewish History and Culture. Constructed in 1921, it was originally a synagogue and was recently restored by the Harbin Municipality and presents a mainly photographic record of the city's rich Jewish life before the last Jew left in 1985. The weddings, parties, Zionist (Betar) meetings, concerts and plays are all documented. The many Jewish-owned banks and shops housed in European-style buildings are pictured, and one can look out the window and see the same buildings, now advertising their wares in Chinese characters. We visited another old synagogue, now used as offices, and the Jewish day school next door, still a school. Magen David motifs are prominently seen on wrought-iron railings and window frames. A quick visit to Mimi's paternal home on a nearby side street ended this part of our tour. THE STORY of Kaifeng and its Jews could not be more different. Today the 500 to 800 people identifying with a Jewish heritage are not halachically Jewish but consider themselves descendants of a once flourishing community. A few have found their way to Israel and officially converted, while some, like our very articulate guide Shi Lei, who took the name Tsur while studying in Israel for two years, is making efforts to revive Jewish consciousness in the city. Jews arrived in Kaifeng in the 10th century when it was a thriving stop on the silk route and the capital of the Song dynasty. The first Jews were probably Persian merchants, and a synagogue was built in 1163 and rebuilt in 1663 after the flooding of the Yellow River destroyed the city. The decline of the Jews of Kaifeng began in the 18th century. Travelers and missionaries describe their poverty which, among other things, forced them over the years to sell their 12 Torah scrolls, one of which is in the British Museum and the rest in Canada and the US. The tour bus drove us to a rundown part of the town, and Tsur led us along narrow streets until we arrived at a small cobbled alley which he proudly pointed out was called "Teaching the Torah Lane." It was the site of the synagogue, of which nothing remains and which now has a rather grungy hospital built over it. However he did take us to what the Kaifeng Jews claim was once a mikve, a hole in the ground of one of the hospital outbuildings which we duly photographed. We were also taken to a poor dwelling nearby where the non-Jewish widow of one of the last acknowledged Jews lives and sells paper cuts of what was the synagogue. We know what the synagogue looked like, as it had been painted in 1792 by a French priest, Jean Domenge, and a large-scale model of this pagoda-like building can be seen in the Disney-like Millennium City Park where, among the recreated pageants of Chinese history and the endless stalls selling souvenirs, two rooms have been set aside exhibiting drawings of the Jewish history of Kaifeng. There is also a model in Beth Hatfutsoth in Tel Aviv. Part of the Kaifeng museum contains several steles from the 16th century which are engraved in a now very faded Chinese script with historical accounts of the Jewish community. The museum, which also contains a model of the synagogue and pictures of past Kaifeng Jews, was closed, but we did have a very inspiring visit to the University of Henan where the Institute of Jewish Studies was founded in 2000. For me this was an astonishing aspect of our visit to China. Here were Chinese students majoring in Jewish studies with a special interest in the Holocaust. Another group was doing post-graduate studies. We asked Dr. Zhang Qianhong, dean of the college, who had studied in Israel, what motivated these youngsters to delve into Jewish history, and we asked the students themselves. Some answered that they admired the Jews and their contribution to mankind. One had read the diary of Anne Frank and wondered how one nation could plot the genocide of another. (Although one of our group cynically pointed out that Mao Zedong had murdered 70 million Chinese.) This was her starting point for her interest in the Jews. We met another staff member, Deqing Zang, who called himself Duncan for our benefit, and had been bowled over by his visit to Yad Vashem and Haifa, among other places. The meeting took place in the faculty library and we were amused to see Jewish cookbooks rubbing shoulders with Jewish philosophy, volumes of Rashi next to Herman Wouk. Several members of the group had brought some Jewish publications to swell the library's holdings. That evening at dinner in our hotel (another mountain of steamed kale for the kashrut observers), Tsur brought his father and several other descendants of Kaifeng Jews to dine with us. He translated their answers to our questions. In terms of observance almost nothing remains. They do not have circumcision or shehita, but do not eat pork. In recent years Tsur has organized some lessons in Judaism and uses his late grandmother's apartment as a kind of community center. He also leads a Pessah Seder with home-baked matzot. IN SHANGHAI we found evidence of a glorious Jewish past, with the story of the rich Sephardim who settled there at the beginning of the 20th century, but were also given a graphic description of the hardships endured by the German refugees who fled Hitler in 1938 and found refuge here. Our guide was Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli who has lived in China for the last six years and has set himself the task of finding and retrieving the tombstones of Jews vandalized during the Cultural Revolution. So far he has tracked down dozens and plans to create a memorial in the park which stands next to what was the Jewish quarter of Shanghai. For now the city of Shanghai has put up a stone memorial in the park where the ubiquitous old folks of China do their morning tai chi exercises. We stood there while Bar-Gal narrated his gripping story of how the rich Baghdadi Jews, like the Kadourie and Sassoon families, made their mark, building synagogues and contributing their wealth to help the government. One of them, the Ohel Moshe Synagogue has recently been restored after being used for years as a warehouse, and we sat in it and listened to the story of the refugees who arrived in Shanghai in the '30s, largely due to the heroism of the Chinese consul in Vienna, Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, who issued more than 20,000 visas. In 1942, under Japanese occupation, the Gestapo sent people to oversee the Final Solution but the Japanese refused. Some speculate that it was out of gratitude for Jewish financial help 30 years before to help Japan modernize; some say they simply didn't know what anti-Semitism was. However they did establish an area designated for stateless refugees, and 25,000 Jews were crowded into an area of less than a square mile already occupied by 100,000 Chinese. "Sometimes there were up to 33 people living in one room," Bar-Gal told us. From what one can see, little has changed in the last 60 years in what was called the Hongkou ghetto. From these impossible conditions came people like Michael Blumenthal, US secretary of the treasury under Jimmy Carter and today director of the Berlin Jewish Museum, and my Israeli silk artist friend Ruth Shany. Chabad now has seven houses across China and we visited the one in Shanghai, and had a Friday night dinner there. Our group, which had spent the previous two weeks following up long-dead communities and dubious Jews, found themselves in culture shock at the sight of these very-much-alive Orthodox Jews. Finally, one cannot write about the Jews of China without mentioning Prof. Xu Xin of Nanjing University, who was to have been our guide but sadly fell ill before the tour. Today acknowledged as China's top expert on his country's Jews, he is president of the China Judaic Studies Association, editor of the Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica and author of several books on the Jews of China. In May 2003 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bar-Ilan University.