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Kaifeng by Shi Lei

Kaifeng by Shi Lei

Shi Lei was born and lived in Kaifeng. This is his contribution to the Jews of China website:

"There are Chinese Jews in the world. I am one of the Chinese Jews. We live in Kaifeng, China.

Today, Kaifeng is a key tourist town on the banks of the Yellow River, some 600 kilometers southwest of Beijing in East Central China, administrating five counties and five regions; Kaifeng covers an area of 6,444 square kilometers in total. The population is 4.3 million, among whom 700,000 live in urban areas. In Chinese history, seven dynasties established their capitals in Kaifeng. Among the seven dynasties is the Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1127) that Kaifeng was one of the largest cities in the world. Its magnificence, grandness and splendor made it the center of political, economic and cultural activity in China, as well as a flourishing metropolis.

It was during the Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1127) when the Jews of Persia and India came along the Silk Road to Kaifeng. They were cotton cloth merchants and traders. Upon arrival in Kaifeng they were granted an audience at the imperial palace of the Northern Sung Capital. The emperor warmly welcomed them and allowed them to settle in Kaifeng saying "you have come to our China. Respect and preserve the customs of your ancestors, and hand them down here in Kaifeng"

In 1163, the Kaifeng Jews bought a piece of land in the downtown area and built a synagogue. They lived in two lanes close by the synagogue called the North and the South teaching ''Torah'' lanes in order to be able to walk to services on the Shabbat and other holidays.

Religious life started to develop and the Jewish community prospered. However disasters such as fires or the flooding of the Yellow river frequently destroyed the synagogue. Whenever disaster struck the Jews worked together to rebuild their synagogue. A stele was erected each time to commemorate the rebuilding of the synagogue. The Kaifeng Jews erected four steles in total, one each in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1679. These stele except that of 1663 (which was lost) are currently kept in the Kaifeng Municipal museum. The 4 stele tell us how the Jews entered China, their history in Kaifeng, the origins of their religion and their religious beliefs and practices.

Marco Polo in his diary describes meeting with Jews in China in 1286. He reported that Kublai Khan celebrated Jewish, Christian and Muslim festivals. The only information written by the Chinese about the Jews appeared during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century when the Chinese government  prohibited the Muslims and Jews from observing  the ritual slaughter of animals, ritual circumcision and the practice of marrying the brother of one's husband who died, since these customs were common to both Muslims and Jews.

Until the year 1605 most Westerners didn't realize that there were Jews in China. That year one of the Kaifeng Jews named Ai Tian, went to Beijing to take a civil service examination in order advance professionally. Somewhere he heard that there was a European living in Beijing who insisted that he was not a Muslim, and believed in the one true God. Since Ai Tian did not know anything about Christianity, he assumed this man was also Jewish like himself. Ai Tian arrived in Beijing and found out where this man lived, and when he got to the front door and introduced himself, it turned out that this man was  Fr. Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit priest to visit China. There were many humerous misunderstandings in their first conversation, such as the fact that Ai Tian thought the picture of Mary, Jesus and St. John the Baptist he saw in Ricci's house were actually images of Rebecca and her two sons, Jacob and Esau from the Hebrew Bible. In another room there were pictures of the four Christian Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. He thought they were pictures of the "four of twelve" meaning the twelve sons of Jacob instead of the four of twelve disciples of Jesus. Finally Matteo Ricci realized he was actually facing a Chinese Jew. Ai Tian was so impressed with Ricci's knowledge of Jewish customs that he immediately invited him to return to Kaifeng with him and become the community's next rabbi since their own rabbi was getting old and many in the community were more interested in studying classical Chinese than studying Hebrew. The only thing that Ricci would have to promise was to stop eating pork.

After the meeting, other Jesuits were sent by the Vatican to Kaifeng. The missionaries left excellent sketches and notes about what they saw and confirmed that the Jews of Kaifeng had exactly the same Torah and observed exactly the same religious observances as the Jews of Europe.

The Jesuits noted that the synagogue faced west towards Jerusalem, as did the Jewish cemetery . There was ritual circumcision, the laws of kashruth were observed and there were three traditional were recited daily.

In 1854 the Kaifeng Synagogue fell to ruin, our last rabbi passed away in 1810 and little knowledge was left in the community.

The Jewish community as a community can be said to have died out by 1860, when the synagogue itself was no longer standing. Since we had no communal place to worship anymore, we only retained some Jewish customs within the family and on an individual basis.

For example, according to my grandfather Shi Zhong Yu's recollection, when he was a seven year old boy, he saw his father Shi Qingchang, during the Chinese new year, using a new Chinese writing brush dabbed cinnabar over the doorpost of his home. After that his father said to the family, "to draw the red line, originally lambs blood was used, later changing to rooster's blood, now cinnabar is used as a substitution". Apparently this is the hint of Passover. When the wheat ripens, my grandfather's father asked his family to make some pancakes without yeast and to cook mutton soup without salt. The whole family ate the pancakes and drank the soup. When my grandfathers sister got married, before she got into the sedan chair, my grandfather's father asked her to eat mutton and to drink mutton soup, instead of eating a cooked egg according to the Chinese tradition. In is my grandfather's generation, all practices completely stopped. Today, when we revere our ancestors on special Chinese holidays, we still do not give food offerings that include pork out of respect to our ancestors  who did not eat pork. However, most of us today eat pork and are completely assimilated.

As one of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, I always had the strong desire to study Judaism. My dream was realized with the great help of Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of New York. In 2000 when Rabbi Tokayer and I met each other at Kaifeng, I expressed my hope to study Judaism. In 2001, Rabbi Tokayer arranged for me to study at Bar Ilan University, Israel. I was on a one year Jewish Studies Program. After completing my studies at Bar Ilan, Mr. Michael Freund, head of the Amishav organization, arranged my acceptance at the Machon Meir (Yeshiva) in Jerusalem