What We Least Expected: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng

By Evan

In my last post I was unduly harsh on Kaifeng, mostly because we had just passed through its several rings of slums and horrid hyper development that surround cities of its size like asteroid belts and entered into a litter-strewn, gaudy downtown area. However, as is proven to me time and time again, first impressions really don’t mean that much if you take the time to do some digging.

Now I should back up a second. We had been discussing stopping in Kaifeng since day one when we rode a stretch on the Beijing-Kaifeng highway to leave the capital. We had all heard about the possible presence of Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, and Alexis, himself sharing ancestry with Sandy Koufax, wanted to go seek them out. Once we realized Kaifeng was a perfect rest mini-destination out of our trajectory through Shandong, it was decided we should go on a good old-fashioned Jew quest.

Having already spent one day in Kaifeng repairing the bikes and updating pictures and blogs in a cafe, we decided to spend a day haphazardly looking for Jews, who we were pretty sure would be a) impossible to find or if found, b) pretty apathetic about the whole affair. As we were eating breakfast in the old part of town next to our hotel, I asked the same question we had asked a few times already with blank faced responses: “Do you know where to find Kaifeng Jews?” An old woman heard me and after racking her brain for a second said, “Yes, there’s a Jew living in huijia hutong near here.” That afternoon we began our quest by walking over to the alley of the suspected Jew. The alleys we wound through on the walk over were old and tight, and just seeped history from their dirty, stone walls. We began asking every old person we could find, and finally one old woman huddled around a Mahjong game exclaimed, “I know who you’re looking for. Follow me!” We hurriedly clipped along behind her to a game of Chinese chess, where the woman pulled aside a man in his 50’s, to whom we asked, “Do you know where we can find Jews in Kaifeng?” “I am a Jew,” replied the man, who identified himself as Mr. Li. After Alexis began barraging him with questions, Mr. Li told us he had been in a car accident and didn’t remember much – his immobile right hand at this point became apparent – but he put Alexis in touch with his nephew, and a meeting was arranged for 5pm.

Before I proceed to the meeting, I should describe more in depth the surroundings in which we found ourselves. Recently I explained to a Chinese friend that the purpose of our trip is to better understand China, and to do so we are going to spend as much time as possible cruising through farm villages. “Laobaixing aren’t only on farms, you know!” she responded, and all of a sudden I realized that we can’t just leave 30% of the country’s population – the city dwellers – without mention. Here in Kaifeng and especially in the old alleys we were probing existed a dense, palpable cultural vibe. There were hawkers and food stands – mostly Hui Muslim – and old stores and even older courtyard dwellings. In every nook a table could be fit were elderly playing chess or Mahjong or cards, and everywhere people bustled. Just down the road on our way out of the alley we stumbled upon a group of old musicians performing the most beautiful old Chinese opera from their house. An old blind man deftly pulled at his erhu while a female accompaniment knocked out the beat on two pieces of wood, and a graceful old woman stood stiff as a board belting out the tune. If we hadn’t had to keep moving to our appointment, I could have stayed and listened for hours. (video to come) There was charm in this part of the town.

Having crossed out of the old alleys, the huge Xiangguo Buddhist temple, and the shockingly tacky downtown area, and after some lamb wraps nabbed from a Hui stand, we arrived at the Henan Hotel at 5pm for our meeting. They were a man and a woman, both late 30′s, and they rode slightly worn electric bicycles, common all over China. At first glance, they seemed just like any other laobaixing. Having introduced ourselves, we began walking with them toward the site of their Hebrew classes. Alexis began talking with the man, Li Bo, and I talked to the woman. Mrs. Li, I presume, I asked of her. “No, we’re not married. My surname is Liu, but you should think of us as brother and sister.” So are you Jewish, I asked. “Yes, I am a Jew. My Hebrew name is Sarah,” (我的希伯来语名字叫萨拉) she answered as I finally noticed the Star of David around her neck. Eventually she asked if I was Jewish too, to which I responded that I was raised Catholic. She made a slight disappointed face before reapplying her smile and quickly responding, “We all believe in one God!”

Li Bo in Kaifeng Jewish Community Center

An impassioned Li Bo before the Israeli flag in the Kaifeng Jewish community center. Photo by Andy.

They led us five minutes through a commercial park full of one-room companies and little restaurants before paying an attendant to watch their electric bikes. We walked to the second floor where Li Bo unlocked and reeled up a rolling metal door, behind which was a treasure trove of surprises. Maybe 50 square meters in total, the little room contained some long tables, chairs, a menorah, a whiteboard full of Hebrew, several photos of old Kaifeng Jews, a bookshelf full of Hebrew books, and a big Israeli flag. It was in this, their community center, that Hebrew class was given on Fridays by an American Jewish study abroad student, Eric, and where holidays were collectively passed. The Hebrew on the board was lyrics to a song which Eric had recently taught his class. Li Bo informed us that between 10 to 20 Kaifeng Jewish students showed up for the weekly Hebrew classes, and around 30 show up for holidays. The price for the center? 3000 yuan annually, split among the community.

Once we were settled into conversation, we began trying to get into the history of the community, and how it had survived to present day. Apparently 800 or so years earlier, eight families had migrated from Israel to Kaifeng, then the world’s most prosperous city, to make a living. They called their religion yiceleye (一赐乐业教), which then as now sounds like Israel. Over time the families adopted Chinese surnames, as do any people who become sinified. Among the eight families were chosen seven surnames, of which 5 remain, Li, Zhao, Gao, Shi, and Ai (李,赵,高,石,艾). The two remaining families, Jin and Zhang (金,张), have passed into history. Through the years, they intermarried with local Chinese, the result being that nowadays they all look like and are ethnically majority Chinese. There had been several synagogues constructed in Kaifeng over the years, new ones being erected whenever floods destroyed one. A major flood in 1851 had taken out the final incarnation, which was never replaced. The Kaifeng Jews were traditionally called “blue hat Hui” (蓝帽回回) due to Chinese inability to distinguish the Jews from Hui Muslims or “remove the sinew religion” (挑筋教) as a result of their Kosher meat preparation.

Li Bo and Sarah spoke nearly flawless Mandarin, a sign of good education, and informed us that most of the Kaifeng Jews in the area worked for themselves. I suppose some things are just universal. Li, an electronics repairman, was married to a Han woman very supportive of his religion, and hoped that his son would eventually make it to Israel. Sarah, in the clothing distribution business, had born a son from a marriage to a Han man, but had since been divorced. She too hoped more than anything that her son would “return to Israel.”

Now keep in mind that we had expected to find some historically apathetic Jews if we found any at all; so we were all very moved by the impassioned reactions of our hosts to our queries. When asked about how the religion had stayed intact throughout the Cultural Revolution, Li Bo responded that during that time no Jews were forthright about their identity. His own father had known his identity, but had succumbed to the effects of the times and let all the practices drop. Li Bo himself had learned the most about his religion and identity from his grandfather, but still much of the culture and knowledge was lost from the family. It was not until several years prior that an American Jew referred to in Chinese as dimou had come to Kaifeng and organized the remnants of the community, reawakening their identities as the chosen people. On the wall Li Bo pointed to a picture of three young Chinese girls, all from the Jewish community, who had recently moved to Israel to study and – hopefully – become Israeli citizens. There have been 14 such young Kaifeng Jews granted financial assistance to move to Israel since a Chinese-speaking Israeli had become aware of the community and championed their cause. To date four Kaifeng students have become Israeli citizens. Not being Jewish myself, I have always had trouble understanding how anybody can associate a land they, nor several generations of their families, have never personally visited with “home,” but our two hosts spoke of it naturally. “We hope that all our children can return to Israel,” said Li Bo. Sarah added, “It’s very hard for us adults to return. We don’t have enough money to make the trip, and Israel right now isn’t granting assistance to the older generation.” Then she suddenly began to cry, “We all want to return. My mother, my brother, all of us want to return!” (我们都要回去!) I was most moved by their use of the word “return.”

Before our departure, they informed us that the majority of the Jewish community had gone to Beijing two days prior to see two young Kaifeng boys off to Israel. They were some of the only Jews left in town, and the fact that we had so luckily stumbled onto them through the sequence of water-seller to brain-damaged uncle to calling them was nothing short of miraculous. “It was arranged by God!” (是上帝安排的) exclaimed Sarah.

After they had politely turned down our request to treat them to dinner, we took our leave and began walking toward the street. Two minutes later Sarah pulled behind us on her bike and told us, “If you really want to know about the Kaifeng Jews, you should come to my family’s house and meet my mother.” As it was already past 6, we insisted it would impinge on her maternal duties. “Don’t worry. My son doesn’t get out of school until 9pm, and I’m sure my mother would like to meet you.” [Incidentally, all children in this area of Henan go to school from 5:30am to 9pm 5 days a week and half a day on Saturday. Sarah’s son, a high school student, supplemented those hours by learning Hebrew and English from Eric the exchange student on Sundays. What a way to spend a childhood!] We agreed and set off in a cab to the northern suburbs of the city.

We met Sarah at the north gate of the Northern Suburbs Retiree’s Home and led us toward her family’s home. “Shalom,” called out her elderly father in tow. After being led through some winding dark alleys by the father with his flashlight, we arrived at a very nice, large courtyard dwelling, above the inner door of which was written in Chinese “Jewish Villa” (犹太精舍). Inside we were greeted by the rest of the family, Sarah’s middle aged older brother Little Yong, his wife, and the 70 year old, curly haired matriarch of the family, Mrs. Li. The second we were in the house, my eyes instantly gravitated to the mantle full of Jewish paraphernalia, a menorah, Israeli flag, Hebrew books, a hand drawn picture of the family wearing yarmulkes suspended between two scrolls among others. After serving sliced pears and tea, the family sat us around the table, and we started conversing.

Mrs. Li, spoke to us in slow, rhythmic, nearly flawless Mandarin. When Alexis revealed that he was Jewish, she hugged him and asked him all about how Jews in France get along. “Are there anti-Jewish sentiments?” “Can you read Hebrew? I can’t read it, but I hope my grandchildren will all be able to.” “Have you been to Israel?” Again, all this caught us aback since we were talking to somebody who looked, sounded like, and lived like an elderly Chinese woman. We asked her about how she had kept her traditions intact over the last century with the Ten Years of Turmoil and what-not. She had throughout the Cultural Revolution kept her Jewish identity a secret from everybody except a Catholic priest named Father Zeng. She told Zeng that she had in her possession two stone steles that were relics of the Jewish community in Kaifeng, but she was afraid that the red guards would destroy them. The Father, moved by her avowal of faith in him, helped her bury them in a secret location until after the insanity died down. Now they are in the Kaifeng museum. [Another interesting article about the steles and community here]. Despite that experience, when we asked her what she thought of treatment by other Chinese, she said, “The other Chinese didn’t bother the minorities too much.” That statement didn’t sit with me too well considering her need to hide the steles until later when we found out she had done pretty well by herself considering the circumstances. She had been the manager of a factory producing medical gauges throughout the period. I guess the paradigm about Jews being smart is pretty universal too.

Nevertheless, the old traditions were mostly lost during that period, and despite the cognizance of the members of the community of their Jewish identity thereafter, most knew little of how to properly comport themselves as Jews. All that changed when the semi-legendary dimou, American Jew of whom we had heard previously, swept through and reawakened the community. Since then several Jewish visitors from abroad have come through and stayed in the family house, several of whom have taught Hebrew or other valuable traditions back into the family. She told us her humble house was the “Chinese home” for many Jewish visitors to the area. At one point Mrs. Li handed me a book about the Sabbath in Chinese and Hebrew, published by dimou in Hong Kong under the moniker “Jews of Kaifeng Association.”

Through our time in the house, the entire family became warmer and warmer toward us. Where it had at first been all formality, at the end the whole family was showing us around to the various pictures, keepsakes, and trinkets around the house.

The Li family of Kaifeng in front of their home. In front, from left to right: Little Yong's wife, Little Yong, Mr. Liu, Mrs. Li, and Sarah

The Li family of Kaifeng in front of their home. In front, from left to right: Little Yong's wife, Little Yong, Mr. Liu, Mrs. Li, and Sarah. Photo by Andy.

Mrs. Li pored over old photos with Alexis, and Little Yong and his wife showed us a picture of their lovely 20-year-old daughter, attending University in Zhengzhou but hoping to get to Israel soon. Even the father, Mr. Liu, the only non-Jew in the bunch, picked up a calendar featuring some of the Kaifeng girls studying in Israel to show to us, remarking on how wonderful the opportunity was for them. At one point, probably forgetting that Andy and I don’t claim lineage from Abraham, Little Yong exclaimed “All Jews in the world are one family!” Soon afterward the ice had been sufficiently broken for Alexis to pop the all important question: so what about circumcision? “None of us is circumcised. We don’t have a rabbi,” said Little Yong, “but all our boys who’ve gone to Israel have been circumcised upon arrival.” Ouch. Will any of you be going to Israel soon? “We don’t have enough money to go to Israel. We get a 1,000 yuan monthly pension, which is plenty for China but nowhere near enough to get to Israel,” Mrs. Li told us a little sadly.

Nearly an hour and a half later and after we had taken several photos with the family, Mrs. Li gave all three of us hand embroidered ornaments stamped “Jews of Kaifeng.” She then invited us to return to Kaifeng to spend Spring Festival with the family to dumplings (a very Chinese tradition). Jewish dumplings, I asked? “No, Chinese dumplings!”

After rounds of hugs all around, Sarah escorted us away from the waving family, through the dark alleys and past some dirty rubble piles to the main drag, where she hailed a cab for us and told the driver to take us to the Chinese hospital built on the site of the old synagogue. “You’re always welcome here. Come back anytime!” she yelled as the cab raced away from her. Moments later we were in the pulsing, dirty city, and a fiercely drunk man staggered back and forth behind us between lanes of traffic. We had returned to laobaixing land.

Unable to find the memorial to the old synagogue that night, we biked back to the hospital the next morning after yet another Hui breakfast next to an old mosque. Not finding the memorial immediately, we stumbled into an old alley next to the hospital, beijiaojing hutong (北教经胡同), at the entrance of which were signs in English and Hebrew marked “Teaching the Torah Lane” and “Here live Kaifeng Jews (Zhao residence).” Heading inside the house under the “by Kaifeng Jews” sign, we found a very elderly woman, Mrs. Zhao, and a house full of pictures and memoirs of the old synagogue and the community in days of yore. Are you too of the Jewish faith, I asked? “I am a Jew!” she answered proudly. Alexis responded that he was likewise, which warranted hugs for both of us — she probably assumed my silence was an affirmation. Somewhat chillingly, and probably the first sign of cultural commercialization, there were on sale for 50 yuan apiece decorative red wall hangings combining Chinese and Jewish motifs, which Alexis and I were not too proud to buy (me for a Jewish friend in Shanghai).

My take from all this was somewhat bizarre, and for several reasons. First, though I realize religion is more than skin deep, Judaism to me has always been associated with a race as well as a belief. The Kaifeng Jews we met, however, were other than their espoused faith, as Chinese as they come. Moreover, it was very difficult for me, a very secular individual, to understand the passionate devotion on the part of this community to a religion that had all but died in recent years. Even though the practices and rites had been almost completely lost, the remaining community members were electrically fervent about their identity and the idea of returning to the motherland. I personally believe it’s a both a testament to the power of the Jewish religion to convince its members of their status as chosen people, and a means of finding value in a society bleakly void of values and rife with contradiction. In any event, I wish the best for our new found Jewish-Chinese friends, and I hope we can show up some Spring Festival for dumplings.

Post to Twitter . Post to Delicious . Post to Digg . Post to Facebook . Post to Reddit . Post to StumbleUpon .

Written by Evan in: All,Evan | Tags: , , , , , , ,


  • Adam Minter says:

    What a well-written and thoughtful post. Thank you. Really. I couldn’t be more impressed.

  • Randy Goodman says:

    very interesting. I am always looking for signs of jewish life when traveling in Asia, so your article makes for a fantastic story.

  • ScottLoar says:

    This reminds me of evangelical Christians in Indonesia who are, of course, a distinct minority and invariably Chinese, a testament not “to the power of (their) religion” or “a means of finding value in a society” but, as in this instance, a means of differentiating themselves from others. As to other questionable “traditions”, there are Han Chinese in China who think themselves descended from Roman legions.

  • Zack says:

    Great story! I would have loved to visit Kaifeng and the Jews while living in China. There definitely seems to be an international assumption that all Jews are smart. Living in Shanghai, whenever I told anyone I was Jew (Youtairen), they would automatically tell me that I was smart and successful, to which I would reply that if I was smart and successful I wouldn’t be in Shanghai teaching English. Good stuff!

  • Kalee Gould says:

    My son, who currently lives in Guanzhou, forwarded this article to us. What an amazing story. I plan on sharing this with my friends and family. Thank you.

  • Martin Rosenfeld says:

    Extraordinary story. My Jewish brothers and sisters, and the roots that bind us together, go farther and deeper than I ever imagined. Reading your writing is like languidly floating down a river of words where images arise at every twist and eddy along the way. What I learned was inspiring. Thank you for sharing your rich and wonderful experience.

  • Ben Ross says:

    Great story. When I went and visited the Kaifeng Jews in 2005, they weren’t nearly as hospitable to me, giving me the old “yeah, we know why you’re here..it ain’t like you’re the first Jew to waltz in here and ‘discover’ us” vibe. This occurred in the neighborhood where the old synagogue (the one which is now a boiler room for a hospital) is located. The museum was a big wash as well. The ticket to get in was 10 RMB, but it cost an extra 40 RMB to see the special “Jewish floor.” The entire floor had a grand total of around 5 exhibits, several of which were simply old drawings of the old synagogue.

    This is probably the most detailed, meaty account I’ve come across of contact with the Kaifeng Jews outside of scholarly texts, so great job on digging up all this dirt. Glad you could have such an interesting experience and thanks for sharing.

  • Erika Kates says:

    Nice, job, this is a perceptive article…you make these people come alive. but be careful of the stereotypes please. Did you investigate the area in Shanghai where the Jewish refugees from Germany lived for 8 years of so after escaping the Nazis? There are alleys where people still remember the Jews who lived there; and, eerily, vestiges of the furniture they sold or gave away once they got their visas for other countries and left.

  • Nat Sadownik says:

    Evan; I was very moved by your article. It was extremely well written and heart felt. I hope someday to visit Kaifeng myself. As you and I have spent many hours discussing many esoteric subjects, maybe I can shed some light on this one. Judaism was and to a large extent still is a tribal religion. As you are aware, the religion predates the state or nation by many centuries. It was held together before the ancient state of Israel by its tribal roots and that is true today as well. In a tribe all members are brothers and share the same DNA. This bond is stronger than a national bond and transcends Diasporas.

  • Frances Q. says:

    A Jewish woman’s story in Shanghai:

  • Zac G says:

    Thanks for the post Evan. As always, well written and interesting.

    Did you ask them if they’ve ever heard of the “greatest jew in the world”?

  • David Levy says:

    This is a very good article, however I have a few corrections.
    1. The Jin (four of whom are in Israel) and Zhang clans are still around.
    2. There are 17 Kaifeng Jews in Israel of whom 7 are Israeli citizens, and ten are in the process.
    3. Li Bo has a daughter not a son.
    Once again a great article.

  • Evan says:

    David, thank you very much for your corrections. It seems that you have spent time with the families yourself. You wouldn’t happen to know or actually be dimou, would you?

  • David Levy says:

    I do know Dimu.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress | Theme: Aeros 2.0 by TheBuckmaker.com

Twitter links powered by Tweet This v1.8.1, a WordPress plugin for Twitter.