No Chinese-born scientist has ever won a Nobel: “We want to learn from Israel” (& first Chinese rabbi in 200 years)

April 02, 2014

Writer Michael Freund (his article is below) stands next to China’s new rabbi, Yaakov Wang


Tom Gross writes:

This is one in an occasional series of dispatches on China. I attach four articles, with some notes first for this who don’t have time to read them in full.

Among related dispatches: How China is quietly building links with Israel (April 9, 2012)


* Chinese myths about Jews – news headlines like “Do the Jews Really Control America?” and books with titles like “101 Money Earning Secrets From Jews” – are often meant in a positive way by their authors, but are still deeply disturbing, and of course totally inaccurate.

* Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao who bid to buy the Wall Street Journal, explained that he would be an ideal newspaper magnate because “I am very good at working with Jews” – who, he added, controlled the media. (Tom Gross adds: The WSJ is, of course, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is not Jewish, and nor is the paper’s editor. Very few papers in the U.S. or U.K. are owned or edited by Jews.)

* The vast majority of Chinese have few, if any, concrete ideas about the reality of Jewish history or practices.

* New university courses are being launched in China to teach Jewish history and culture – as well as courses in Ancient Jewish History, Rabbinic Literature and Holocaust Studies.

* “Xu delved into Freud; he said he also held immense respect for Henry Kissinger, who orchestrated the start of American relations with China. Like Salinger, Bellow, Freud, and the godfather of Communism Karl Marx, Kissinger was a Jew. ‘He was a refugee and an immigrant to the U.S., but within 20 years he had made his way to become secretary of State. How come?’ Xu wondered.” ... “We started to feel from the bottom heart there is something wrong with Chinese society. China needs new ideas.” [Tom Gross adds: And hopefully new ideas will also bring respect for human rights.]

* Today, there is growing Chinese interest in Israeli technology and science. The Chinese have noted that no Chinese-born scientist has ever been awarded a Nobel Prize for work in the mainland, whereas Israelis win year after year. “We want to learn from Israel,” said one Chinese scholar. “Had the Jews achieved nothing, no Chinese would be interested in them.”


* In fact Jews have lived in China for almost 1,000 years. And in modern times, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were given shelter in Shanghai (including, for example, the family of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert).

* In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue. By the 17th century, Chinese Jews had attained high ranks in the Chinese civil service. Then they started to become increasingly assimilated.

* This month, Yaakov Wang, a descendant of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, became the first Chinese rabbi in 200 years.


You can comment on this dispatch here: Please also press “Like” on that page.


1. “The Chinese believe that the Jews control America. Is That a Good Thing?” (By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Tablet, March 27, 2014)
2. “‘I am very good at working with Jews,’ says Chinese tycoon trying to buy WSJ” (South China Morning Post, Jan. 9, 2014 )
3. “The first Chinese rabbi in 200 years” (By Michael Freund, The Jerusalem Post, March 27, 2014)
4. “China’s ancient Jewish enclave” (By Matthew Fishbane, New York Times travel section, April 4, 2010)




The Chinese Believe That the Jews Control America. Is That a Good Thing?
By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
Tablet (online magazine)
March 27, 2014

“Do the Jews Really Control America?” asked one Chinese newsweekly headline in 2009. The factoids doled out in such articles and in books about Jews in China – for example: “The world’s wealth is in Americans’ pockets; Americans are in Jews’ pockets” – would rightly be seen to be alarming in other contexts. But in China, where Jews are widely perceived as clever and accomplished, they are meant as compliments. Scan the shelves in any bookstore in China and you are likely to find best-selling self-help books based on Jewish knowledge. Most focus on how to make cash. Titles range from 101 Money Earning Secrets From Jews’ Notebooks to Learn To Make Money With the Jews.

The Chinese recognize, and embrace, common characteristics between their culture and Jewish culture. Both races have a large diaspora spread across the globe. Both place emphasis on family, tradition, and education. Both boast civilizations that date back thousands of years. In Shanghai, I am often told with nods of approval that I must be intelligent, savvy, and quick-witted, simply because of my ethnicity. While it is true that the Chinese I’ve met are fascinated by – rather than fear – the Jews, these assertions make me deeply uncomfortable.

So, it was with a degree of apprehension that I recently traveled to the former imperial capital of Nanjing to spend the day with Prof. Xu Xin, director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University. The first thing Xu did was suggest lunch. As we sat down to a steaming tofu hot pot, he woefully conceded that many Chinese believe the Jews to be “smart, rich, and very cunning.” Just before my visit to Nanjing, the Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao made international headlines by publicly announcing his ambitions to buy the New York Times and later the Wall Street Journal. In a TV interview he explained that he would be an ideal newspaper magnate because “I am very good at working with Jews” – who, he said, controlled the media.

Yet Chen presumably, like the majority of Chinese, has few concrete ideas about the reality of Jewish history or practices. Xu, the 65-year-old pioneer of Jewish studies in China, is campaigning to change that – and, by doing so, challenging entrenched stereotypes. The diminutive professor has made it his life’s pursuit to present a more nuanced view of the Jewish race and religion to his countrymen: one based on scholarship rather than rumor. To this end he launched the Institute of Jewish Studies in 1992, the first of its kind in Chinese higher education.

Today there are more than half a dozen similar programs across the country, many started by Xu’s former students. In Nanjing, Judaica courses – from Ancient Jewish History to Rabbinic Literature to Holocaust Studies – have proved popular. According to Xu one of the best-attended courses in the institute is Jewish Culture and World Civilization, in which 18 topics are covered in a 20-week semester. It attracts roughly 200 undergraduate students per term. Survey of Judaism and Study of Monotheism, both graduate courses, have enrollments of around 30 to 40.

Strung up around the unheated classrooms of the institute are dated photographs of Jerusalem and fuzzy black-and-white images of the death camps. Bookshelves boast Chinese translations of the Haggadah and Xu’s own books, including his best-selling A History of Jewish Culture. In a glass cabinet sit various teaching tools: embroidered kippas, bronze menorahs, and polished shofars. Thankfully, there is not a “get rich quick” manual in sight.


The institute is funded largely by foreign Jewish donors, who have their own interest in seeing portrayals of Judaism propagated in a more balanced way. “Hatred and intolerance are bred in ignorance,” the executive director of the China Judaic Studies Association, Beverly Friend, a patron of the institute, wrote to me in an email. “The institute provides knowledge.”

Xu was first introduced to Beverly Friend and her husband Jim in the mid-1980s, when the latter was teaching English at Nanjing University; Jim was the first Jew Xu had ever met. In 1986 Xu traveled to America for the first time, where he stayed with the Friends in Chicago. The trip was revelatory: Not only did he learn how to use a fork but he started attending Shabbat dinners and other Jewish celebrations. It convinced him that China might be able to learn something from the West – and in particular, from Jews.

This conviction was rooted in his own country’s recent resurfacing from a traumatic past. Like many teenagers at the time, Xu was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, one of the zealous youths who helped destroy much of China’s own heritage. “I participated in the Cultural Revolution. We all went through the Great Leap Forward,” Xu said, referring to Mao’s push for industrialization that helped lead to a famine in which more than 30 million perished. “We started to feel from the bottom heart there is something wrong with society. China needed new ideas.”

As China began to open up again to the West, Xu read Western literature, which had been banned under Mao. He’d soon realized that his favorite writers – J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth – were Jewish (today, many of their works are translated into Chinese and studied by college and graduate students in China). As psychology became popular, Xu delved into Freud; he also held immense respect for Henry Kissinger, who orchestrated the start of American relations with China. Like Salinger, Bellow, Freud, and the godfather of Communism Karl Marx, Kissinger was a Jew. “He was a refugee and an immigrant to the U.S., but within 20 years he had made his way to become secretary of State. How come?” Xu wondered.

The search for an answer to that question became Xu’s mission. He returned from two years in the United States, and a formative official trip to Israel in 1988, convinced that Judaism could provide lessons for a young and hungry new China. “Once we learned, we wanted to teach,” he said. Xu set up university classes, attended international seminars, and translated the Encyclopedia Judaica into Chinese. Eventually, once diplomatic relations between Israel and China were established in 1992, he founded the Institute of Jewish Studies.


If Xu had the sense of discovering something new, the Jews were not exactly strangers to China. Jews likely first arrived in China via the Silk Road almost 1,000 years ago. In the mid-19th century, following the Opium Wars, Iraqi Jews settled alongside British traders in Shanghai, where many made their fortunes. China later accepted Jews taking flight from Russia, who made their homes in the bleak snowy landscapes of northern Harbin. In World War II, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany flooded Shanghai: Most left for Australia, America, or Israel when the Communists gained power in 1949.

Chinese state media has long championed positive portrayals of the Jews, in part because Judaism, with its ethnically based and non-evangelical nature, has proved less of a threat to the Communist Party than other foreign monotheistic religions, like Christianity or Islam. (China’s own Jewish population, the Kaifeng Jews , have being almost completely assimilated.) High-profile Jewish figures in the Chinese Communist Party’s own history include Sidney Rittenberg (, the first American citizen to join the party, and the journalist Israel Epstein, whose funeral was attended by former Chinese President Hu Jintao and former Premier Wen Jiabao.

China’s relationship to the Jewish state is more complicated. In 1990, Xu was invited to participate in a closed meeting of Chinese intellectuals, military personnel, and party officials, which posed the question: Should China initiate formal diplomatic relations with Israel? The answer was no – but times have changed. Today China’s authoritarian government is invested heavily in the oil states, including Iran and Iraq. But it is also increasingly forming ties with Israel . In 2013, Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to China, the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister in six years. Many believe the trip signals growing Chinese interest in Israeli technologies, as China attempts to transform itself from a manufacturing to an innovation-and-knowledge-based economy.

“China is learning more technology from Israel, trading more,” said Xu, who was in the process of creating a specific course on Israel to reflect this change. “China finally decided to establish former diplomatic relations with Israel [in 1992] because they believed that being friendly with Jews is good for China’s development and to change China’s image internationally.” If China’s global clout does not yet match its status as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, developing closer ties with Israel and the Jewish Diaspora may be a relatively easy way to widen China’s influence, or so some Chinese leaders seem to believe.

Support of Israel also underpins American patronage of the institute. “Bringing China and the Jewish people and specifically the Jewish state, Israel, closer together has merit,” said John Fishel, a consultant for the Glazer Foundation. “There are increasing exchanges between Israel and China on a number of levels including academic, cultural, and economic. The growth of both Jewish Studies and Israel Studies in Chinese universities seems to be creating opportunities for the knowledge base to grow.”


Yet on a human level, at least, the geopolitical rationale for greater Chinese-Jewish understanding may pale next to the role that the Jews play in China’s own search to rediscover itself. When Liu Nanyang first studied history of the Middle East at Nanjing University he became interested in how Israel had managed to survive. “There were many Middle East wars, but Israel was still there,” he said. “So, I wanted to know why.”

Now Liu, 28, is a doctoral student conducting research into the Jewish roots of Christianity (he spent one year in Jerusalem as part of his studies). As we sat in the university, clutching paper cups of hot green tea to keep us warm, Liu earnestly rattled off similarities between Jewish and Chinese culture. “Even if some people believe in Buddhism or Daoism or Christianity, they live their everyday life according to Confucianism,” he expounded. “The Jewish people believe in [different] denominations like reform or liberal or even nonreligious. But usually their lives follow traditional ideas.”

Then he paused. “Maybe I should add a difference,” he said cautiously. “Chinese culture is not so tolerant.”

Liu comes from a family of farmers. They are also Christians. In China, where religion is perceived as a threat to the ruling Communist Party, Christians are routinely persecuted and worship is allowed only in officially sanctioned churches. “Any ideas or philosophy or cultures are controlled. In the past it was controlled by the imperial emperors and now by the party,” said Liu. “But Jewish people don’t have such a strong political power. So, [Judaism] has more pluralism.”

It is this space and allowance – even encouragement – for debate that has helped Jews make cultural and scientific strides in the world, Liu said he believed: “In the Talmud, for one question they have different answers. But in China we have [either] correct or incorrect. If someone has different opinions, it is difficult to live.”

“Do you know how many Chinese Nobel Prize winners there are?” asked Liu, not waiting for an answer. He didn’t have to. The Chinese have long articulated ambitions to win more Nobel prizes. (No Chinese-born scientist, for example, has ever been awarded a Nobel Prize for work in the mainland.) “The Jewish population is very small but the Chinese is big,” Liu said. “Compare that, if you will. When we know that the Jewish people are so successful in both science and human studies, we feel that maybe we can learn from them.”

As the afternoon drew to a close, I mentioned Chen Guangbiao, the billionaire who declared he is good at working with Jews. Liu was exasperated by such reductions.

“In their minds, Jewish people control the banks in America. It means for them that Jewish people control the world, controls the governments,” he railed, shaking his hands in disbelief. “I feel it’s a joke.”

Prof. Xu was more understanding. “Stereotypes are overemphasized. But in China this is positive,” he said calmly. After all, he added: “Had the Jews achieved nothing, no Chinese would be interested in them.”



“I am very good at working with Jews” Says Chinese tycoon trying to buy the New York Times/Wall Street Journal
By Stephanie Butnick
South China Morning Post
January 9, 2014

Chen Guangbiao, a recycling magnate and one of China’s 400 richest people – and a high-profile philanthropist; he’s known for what he calls flashy philanthropy – recently announced his intention to buy the New York Times.

But when Guangbiao, whose fortune was estimated at $740 million in 2012, was rebuffed by the Internet, he changed his tack: he checked to see if the Wall Street Journal was for sale.

And why shouldn’t he own an American newspaper? After all, he boasts what is apparently the most important skill required to do so: he’s good at working with Jews.

Chen had said earlier that he was “serious” about purchasing the Times, so he could work on “rebuilding its credibility and influence” by reforming its award-winning coverage of China.

Chen said he was aware that many American papers were Jewish-owned. He said he was up for the job since he had “equally competent IQ and EQ” compared with Jews.

“I am very good at working with Jews,” he said.

It’s sort of like that Chinese firm who was looking to hire a Jew a few years back, but opposite. Or something.

Guangbiao also got attention this week when his English-language business card, which says things like ‘Most Charismatic Philanthropist’ and ‘Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model,’ was published online. Want one for yourself? Try Slate’s superlative-laden business card generator. I’ve already added ‘good at working with Jews’ to mine.



The first Chinese rabbi in 200 years
By Michael Freund
The Jerusalem Post
March 27, 2014

Standing silently in the middle of an open field at his family’s burial plot, Yaakov Wang gazes at his late grandfather’s tombstone, seemingly lost in thought. Just over a year has passed since Yaakov, a descendant of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, completed his conversion before a rabbinical court in Jerusalem. And now he has come back to pay his respects at the grave of the man who first taught him about the family’s unique Chinese Jewish heritage.

The symbolism of the moment is powerful and highly emotive, embodying in a microcosm the tentative rebirth that is taking place among the remnants of Chinese Jewry. Growing up in Kaifeng in the 1990s, Yaakov’s grandfather revealed to him that their family was descended from Jews. And while he knew little about Jewish life or lore, he succeeded in imparting to Yaakov a strong sense of Jewish pride. He also told his young grandson that the Jews had a land of their own, very far away, and that all of them, one day, would return there.

The disclosure had a profound impact on Yaakov. Whenever he went out for dinner with his friends, he refrained from eating pork, despite the central role it plays in Chinese cuisine. And when Yaakov told his fellow students in school that he was Jewish, many responded by saying, “now I know why you are cleverer than me.”

As Yaakov grew older, and began to delve more deeply into Kaifeng’s Jewish past, he learned that it was a community with a rich and ancient heritage, much of it unfamiliar to most of world Jewry.

Jews are believed to have first settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th century during the Song Dynasty, or perhaps even earlier. Scholars say that they were Sephardi 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 Yaakov 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 Kaifeng Jews to Israel in 2006, all of whom successfully completed the conversion process as well.

And with God’s help, we plan to bring more in the coming years.

It is hard to overstate what a miracle this is. By any measure, Chinese Jewry should have disappeared long ago. Between assimilation and Communism, the Jewish flame in Kaifeng should have been snuffed out. And yet, even here, in this far-flung corner of China, the pintele Yid – the Jewish spark in each and every one of us – refuses to be extinguished.

After his solemn visit to his grandfather’s grave, Yaakov reiterates something that he has told me before: he wants to study to become a rabbi – the first Chinese rabbi in 200 years – so that he can help other Kaifeng Jewish descendants to draw closer to Judaism.

Given his intelligence and determination, along with his sense of purpose, Yaakov will undoubtedly succeed, and before long he will bear the title of rabbi and spiritual leader.

While his grandfather did not live to see his own dream of return fulfilled, his soul will undoubtedly derive great satisfaction in knowing that Chinese Jewry is once again coming to life.

And that after nearly disappearing, his own progeny is at last returning home, to rejoin our people in our own Land.



China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave
By Matthew Fishbane
New York Times travel section
April 4, 2010

THROUGH a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits.

The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.

Ms. Guo, who identifies herself as a Jew, says she hears it from scholars, visitors and Chinese people alike: “‘You Chinese Jews are very famous,’ they say. ‘But you are only in the history books.’”

That seemed a good enough reason to come looking, and I quickly found that I was hardly alone. Ms. Guo and I were soon joined by a 36-year-old French traveler, Guillaume Audan, who called himself a “nonpracticing Jew” on a six-month world tour of “things not specifically Jewish.” Like me, he’d found Ms. Guo by recommendation, and made the detour to see what the rumored Kaifeng Jews were all about.

Earlier, Ms. Guo had brought us into a narrow courtyard at 21 Teaching Torah Lane – an alley once central to the city’s Jewish community, and still home to her 85-year-old grandmother, Zhao Cui, widow of a descendant of Chinese Jews. Her one-room house has been turned into a sort of dusty display case, with Mrs. Zhao as centerpiece.

“Here are the Kaifeng Jews,” Ms. Guo said, a little defiantly. “We are they.”

We were surrounded by signs that supported Ms. Guo’s statement: A mezuza was attached to the door frame. A copy of the Sh’ma, widely considered the most important of Hebrew prayers, decorated with Chinese lettering, hung on the wall. A menorah sat by a Chinese-style altar displaying a black-and-white portrait of Mr. Zhao.

Indeed, some 50 descendants of Kaifeng’s Jews are embracing this legacy and relearning Jewish ways. And a few, like Ms. Guo, are tapping a quirky vein of religious tourism.

From the 10th to the 12th century, Kaifeng was the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty and a cosmopolitan center on a branch of the Silk Road, attracting Chinese imperial suitors and Persian merchants with camels. Amid this ferment was a small community of Sephardic Jews, who arrived most likely from Persia and India as traders, or perhaps fleeing the Crusades.

Scholars still debate the time of their first arrival, but for at least 700 years, Jews prospered free of persecution, largely out of mind of the various Chinese dynasties that dubbed them “blue-hatted Hui” – people from the West. They settled into trades and, around 1163, built a synagogue. In 1605, the peripatetic Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci met one of their emissaries in Beijing and reported their existence back to Europe.

But time, isolation and assimilation took their toll. When European missionaries in Kaifeng purchased a 17th-century Hebrew Torah in 1851 (it is now housed at the British Museum in London, one of 15 known Kaifeng scrolls), no locals could read it. The synagogue, which had fallen into neglect after repeated flooding, was never rebuilt.

Yet for 150 years following the death of the last rabbi, tiny embers of a heritage still glowed in Kaifeng. Grandparents told their grandchildren, as Mrs. Zhao told Ms. Guo: “You are a Jew.” Without knowing why, families avoided pork. And at Passover, the old men baked unleavened cakes and dabbed rooster’s blood on their doorstep.

Most Jewish-themed tours of China skip Kaifeng, focusing instead on the immigration of persecuted European Jewry, in cities like Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin and Beijing. Thanks to American, Israeli and European support of places significant to their own past, Harbin and Shanghai, for example, enjoy a regular flow of tourists to museums and sites of synagogues, restored though no longer used for prayer.

Kaifeng, by comparison, attracts word-of-mouth backpackers and three or four rabbi- or scholar-led Jewish heritage groups a year. Most visitors, according to Shi Lei, a 31-year-old descendant of Chinese Jews who has been leading tours here since he was sent to Israel to study Hebrew and Judaica, stay for a day, “have a look, and leave.”

Part of that has to do with the lack of actual sites to visit. Like an old battlefield, Jewish Kaifeng exists mostly in the imagination of the visitor. Here stood a synagogue. Here once lived the Chinese Jews, who made unleavened bread and ate no pork.

China does not recognize Judaism as one of its five approved religions. And unlike the Muslim Hui people, who populate much of Kaifeng, Jews are not considered one of the country’s 55 minorities. Though foreign Jews are allowed to practice their religion while on Chinese soil, there are currently no officially active synagogues in China. The state, in short, holds that no Chinese Jews exist.

“Teaching Torah Lane gets historical landmark status,” Mr. Shi said, walking me down the narrow alleys of the city’s Muslim quarter, “but no Jews exist in China. What is this history of, then?”

Local authorities seem to tolerate discreet activity from the Jewish community and the visitors it draws. In the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, it takes an extra 50 renminbi and a request to be led to the locked room with three barely legible 1489 and 1512 steles describing the Jewish presence in Kaifeng.

And to see the Jewish pavilion at Millennium City Park, a Song dynasty-period-costumed theme park modeled on a famous painted scroll, Mr. Shi had to ask an attendant to bring keys. The modest exhibition there was put together a decade ago by China’s foremost scholar on Chinese Jews, Xu Xin, who told me the limited access to his display was “a very complicated issue.” With this in mind, Ms. Guo and Mr. Shi both label their tours with a wink: they are taking you to meet “descendants of Jews,” not “Jews.”

On Friday evening, after buying some bread from a Muslim street stand, Ms. Guo took Mr. Audan and me into a half-completed shopping center. She marched purposefully around several corners, past closed shops, to a second-floor balcony of empty stores. Smoggy daylight was waning, but through a curtain in one of the shops came the distinct yellow glow of candles. An Israeli flag was just visible through the glass door. And inside, around a simple gray table, sat a dozen people bowed before ritual books in both Chinese and Hebrew, about to begin their Sabbath prayers. The men wore yarmulkes. The women were perched under a poster of the 10 Commandments, written in Chinese script, hung below photos of their ancestors.

Then the group, most of whom requested anonymity, took turns reading from Hebrew prayer books. Mr. Audan put on a cap and joined in the singing. When the Sabbath meal of spiced shredded potato, Chinese wine, peanuts and kumquats had been shared (with chopsticks), he passed on a gift from Parisian friends to Ms. Guo for the Zhao family: a ceremonial knife from the Sydney Jewish Museum gift shop.

The day before, Mr. Shi had led me down Yiyuanhou Lane, a hutong, or alley, where his Jewish grandfather used to live, past half-demolished houses and plots full of felled bricks. Last October, residents there, as in many places in China, were told to move out, as the old neighborhood had been scheduled for redevelopment.

Mr. Shi’s mini-museum to Kaifeng Jews on Yiyuanhou Lane is a one-room collection of photographs of visits by Westerners, reproductions of historical documents used as evidence of Kaifeng’s Jewish past, and a few donated objects, including a menorah, under glass. He wasn’t sure where to put the museum now that it had to move.

“Next year,” Shi Lei said with a disapproving click of the tongue, “this hutong will disappear from the map.”


The closest airport to Kaifeng is in Zhengzhou, reached from major Chinese cities. Shuttles from Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport to downtown Kaifeng take one and a half hours.

You can book a two-day detour to Kaifeng through Ctrip (866-992-8747;, which also suggests hotels.

Xu Xin’s authoritative book “The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion” (Ktav, 2003) is worth reading.

To explore Jewish Kaifeng, you will need a guide. Shi Lei ( is licensed, charming and experienced. Guo Yan (; 86-387-115-2704) has built a mini-museum of her own and is happy to take you to a Sabbath gathering. At Passover, you may find yourself sharing food with a group of 50 or more.

In 1985, Wendy Abraham, on the board of the Sino-Judaic Institute, recorded oral histories of the last generation to remember a Jewish past in Kaifeng. (

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.