Sunday, January 10, 2010

China's Jewish Remnant

China's recent Jewish history is remembered with fond gratitude by the Jews of Europe. During World War Two, Shanghai was an open port city. Anyone who could make it there was taken in. This meant that Jews who had lost their citizenship and had no legal documents could get into Shanghai, where they suffered the privations of foreigners in the city, without necessarily being singled out as Jews. A rabbi was asked by a Japanese officer why Hitler hated the Jews, according to one story. The rabbi wisely and correctly reported that the Nazis considered us to be an alien Asian race who wanted to take over the world.

"What is wrong with being Asian?" asked the officer, "And what's wrong with wanting to rule the world?"

Although there were Japanese who parroted the Nazi line on Jews, for the most part Jews were not subject to persecution in areas under Japanese occupation.

Not all European Jews came during World War Two. Some settled in other Chinese cities such as Harbin and Beijing.

In the 19th century, some Iraqi Jews came in as traders to China and to Hong Kong, as well as Burma and British India. In Hong Kong and Singapore, this Iraqi Jewish presence is still notable.

There is one more group of Jews in China that goes back no less than a thousand years ago. Some reports place them in China as early as the third century of the common era. It enjoyed very cordial relations with the surrounding population, centering around the northern city of Kaifeng. Over the centuries, floods twice swept away the Kaifeng synagogue. With time, Hebrew faded out from tombstones and community records. Conversions to Christianity also took their toll as Jewish education became more and more diluted. The last rabbi of the Kaifeng Jews died in the 1860s.

It has long been supposed that Kaifeng Jewry is nothing more than a memory. It now turns out that that is not the case. There are many people in Kaifeng who preserve a tradition that they are descended from the ancient Chinese community. Most, if not all of these people would probably need to convert in order to remove all doubt of their Jewish legal status. In Israel and in the rest of the Jewish world are those ready to assist them in returning to the faith of their ancestors. Most notable is the organisation Shavei. (Hebrew for " those returning")

Unfortunately, China has a short list of permitted religions to which Chinese citizens may belong. Judaism is not on that list. Any Chinese citizen who wants to return to his or her Jewish roots faces formidable obstacles. Some have, thank G-d returned to the Jewish faith, land and people. It can be stated with certainty that those who remain in China simply want to quietly practice their faith within China or to quietly join compatriots abroad and in the Holy land. hopefully, more of these long lost brothers and sisters will rejoin the Jewish people. The news of their continued remembrance and yearning is an inspiration to Jews the world over. May their exile and ours soon come to an end.

Kaifeng Jews

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