In 2019, a trip to the city of Kaifeng will bring you minimal joy, at best, compared with many other destinations in the once-Kingdom in the middle of the world. However, behind the lack of commotion lives quietly a remarkable community of Jews: the Jews of Kaifeng. For tens of centuries, the Jews of Kaifeng have been a part-Jewish, part-Chinese needle in a haystack of mostly pure Han Chinese citizens. This community, boasting an incredibly lineage and history, embody the merging of two ancient cultures – Chinese and Jewish – which are often thought of in isolation to one another.
The Kaifeng Jews are the descendants of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to China millenniums ago and the Han Chinese, indigenous to the Middle Kingdom. The Jews of Kaifeng, according to stone inscriptions, were made up of 70 clans (or families) when they first set foot in China; unfortunately, after nearly a hundred generations, due to numerous instances of social, political, and natural upheavals, their population has declined significantly, leaving a headcount of barely 1,000.
During later stages of the Qing Dynasty (when the west was going through its industrial revolution) doubts rose amongst scholars over the authenticity of Kaifeng Jews’ purported Jewish heritage. Indeed, since only a fraction of the Jews in Kaifeng still adhered to Judaic principles – such as observing the Sabbath – a hint of doubt is at the very least warranted. Moreover, because generations of intermarriage and interbreeding with the indigenous Han Chinese has left the Kaifeng Jewish population virtually indistinguishable from any pure Han Chinese neighbors, disputes regarding their lineage is understandable.
In the 1980s, China under President Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) opened its doors to the west, following a 30-year period of isolation, extending from the founding of the People’s Republic of China to the Cultural Revolution. Many Jews from different parts of the world began to pour into China to visit this very special community in Kaifeng. The Kaifeng Jews at this point knew very little about their purported Jewish heritage, but were eager to reconnect with the roots of their forefathers. As such, following DNA tests conducted in the 1980s which came back positive and confirmed their Jewish claim, the visitors brought to the Jews of Kaifeng books on Jewish history, culture, language, and religion; they showed the Jews of Kaifeng what it ‘actually’ meant to be Jewish, and the more Orthodox conventions of Judaism.
The affirmative DNA tests also helped gain the Jews of Kaifeng the recognition of many Jewish institutions around the world, not least Shavei Israel. Shavei Israel was founded by Michael Freund who in the 1990s served a term as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s director of communications. The organisations was established to locate ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’ and help them reconnect with their motherland – Israel. Shavei Israel, over the past decade, has helped bring 20 Jews of Kaifeng return to Israel, or in more extravagant terms ‘make Aliyah.’
As the Jews of Kaifeng, however, do not strictly adhere to certain Jewish traditions – because, for instance, maintain a purely kosher diet in China is practically impossible – they are required to undergo full conversion in order to become Jews recognised by the state and in order to receive Israeli citizenship.
It should be clarified that Jews located in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are western Jews: they are Jews who live in China. Whereas the Jews of Kaifeng are ethnic-Chinese of Jewish descent: they are Chinese-Jews, and consider themselves to be the only proper community of Chinese-Jews in the world.
In a country of 1.4 billion people, it is astonishing to see this community of less than 1,000 people, living in a smog-covered city far away in central China, continuing to – at least to some degree – embrace their Jewish identity. It may be considered unfathomable that their Jewish culture and Jewish identity – amid heavy assimilation, especially in the Ming Dynasty – survived almost 2,000 years of China’s turbulent history. This is indeed a story which deserves to be told and retold. Guo Yam, curator of the Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Centre, puts it perfectly: “just like Russian Jews and American Jews, Chinese Jews have their own history and it’s important to remember it.”