Mandarian in the mikve: return of Chinese Jews

One of the oldest Jewish communities, Chinese Jews are looking to rediscover their heritage in the holy land.

Chinese new year 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
Chinese new year 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
Last week, the small and unassuming mikve (ritual bath) in Hod HaSharon witnessed the unfolding of a remarkable scene in the annals of Jewish history.
One by one, six young Chinese men, all descendants of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, immersed themselves in the warm and purifying waters before a three-man rabbinical court, thereby completing their long journey home to the Jewish people.
It marked the first time that a group of Chinese-Jewish men had undergone a formal return to Judaism in the Jewish state.
And for Yaakov Wang, as well as the others, it was the fulfillment of a life-long dream, one that had been passed down to them by their ancestors throughout the generations.
As a young man in China, Wang first learned of his family’s Jewish heritage from his grandfather. And while he knew little about the details of Jewish practice, he instilled within Wang a strong sense of Jewish pride.
Hence, whenever Wang went out for dinner with his friends, he refrained from eating pork, despite the central role it plays in Chinese cuisine.
And when he told his fellow students in school that he was Jewish, many responded by saying to him, “now I know why you are cleverer than me.” As Wang grew older, and began to delve more deeply into Kaifeng’s Jewish past, he learned that it was a community with a long and rich heritage, much of it unfamiliar to most of world Jewry.
SCHOLARS BELIEVE that Jews first settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th century during the Song Dynasty, or perhaps even earlier.
They were Sephardic-Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route and settled in Kaifeng with the blessing of the Chinese emperor.
The Jews quickly 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.
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.
As a result, by the mid-1800s, the Chinese Jews’ knowledge and practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community is believed to have died in the early part 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.
Nevertheless, 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, IN this city of over 4.5 million, there are still several hundred people – perhaps a thousand at most – who are descendants of the Jewish community.
Because of intermarriage in preceding generations, most if not all are no longer considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law.
But in recent years, an awakening of sorts has taken place, especially among the younger generation of Kaifeng Jewish descendants, many of whom wish to learn more about their heritage and reclaim their roots.
It was this stirring which prompted Wang and six other Jewish descendants from Kaifeng to make aliya in October 2009. They were brought to Israel by Shavei Israel, the organization which I founded and chair.
Previously, we had brought a group of four young women from Kaifeng to Israel in 2006, all of whom successfully completed the conversion process within 12 months after their arrival.
But in recent years, Israel’s bureaucracy grew more taxing, necessitating that we wage a prolonged battle of more than three years on behalf of Wang and the others.
I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that on more than one occasion, the young men from Kaifeng were pushed to the breaking point, wondering whether the Jewish people truly wanted them back.
Fortunately, they did not give up, and that persistence was rewarded at the Hod HaSharon mikve last week, where Wang and the other five young Chinese Jews completed their conversion (the seventh member of the group, Hoshea Tony Liang, did so previously).
IT SH OULD not be this way. It should not be so difficult and draining for descendants of the Jewish people to return to their roots.
Wang and the other young men are serious about their Judaism. They spent two years studying in yeshiva, pray three times a day, observe the Sabbath and the dictates of halacha.
Wang now wants to study to become a rabbi – the first Chinese rabbi in two centuries! – to help other Kaifeng Jewish descendants to learn more about their heritage.
“They deserve a chance to become more knowledgeable Jews,” Wang said, adding, “That is what our ancestors would have wanted.”
Another member of the group plans to learn how to be a Shochet (ritual slaughterer) and open an authentic kosher Chinese restaurant in Israel, while a third, who trained as a dentist in China, hopes to qualify to work in his profession here in the Jewish state.
After nearly disappearing more than a century ago, China’s Jewish descendants are reaching out to us, looking to re-embrace their Jewishness. A way must now be found to enable them to do so.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel ( which reaches out and assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.