Identity

 
Israeli flag in a Kaifeng Jew’s household.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Israeli flag in a Kaifeng Jew’s household. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

The completeness of the Jewish identity of the Jews of Kaifeng may be subject to debate. They no longer practice most Jewish traditions nor do they observe most Jewish holidays, including the all-important Hanukah; they have had no rabbis for over two centuries; they have not had a synagogue or seen the congregation of Jewish communities for generations; their ancestors intermarried and followed patrilineal descent (being Jewish is matrilineal); and their features are no longer distinguishingly Jewish. And, whilst some Jewish communities consider them not Jewish – only of Jewish descent – the Jews of Kaifeng consider themselves wholeheartedly as Jews, regardless of what their critics think. It should be pointed out that the fact the Jews of Kaifeng have any idea about their Jewish heritage is quite impressive, given the many centuries that could have changed this.  

The Jews of Kaifeng acknowledge an underlying affinity between Chinese and Jewish thinking, and believe it has helped with their integration into society. Even if the Chinese lack a firm concept of a monotheistic supreme deity, the two shares strikingly many similar values: to name a few - both are incredibly competitive, have a strong entrepreneurial mindset, place a relatively large importance on education, and emphasis respect of the elderly. Indeed, the stone inscription tablets, which used to be kept in the courtyard of the Kaifeng Synagogue, consistently referred to the similar principles that often brought together Confucianism and Judaism.

Kaifeng Jews from the early 20th century.  [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

Kaifeng Jews from the early 20th century. [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

Most important perhaps on the list of the few Jewish values that survived was the emphasis of respecting the elderly (filial piety and ‘honour thy father and thy mother’). The Kaifeng Jews, as a means to honour the elderly (even if they have past away), held tight to any cultural heritages that were passed down to them. They, moreover, stayed true to their ancestors by never converting the Taoism and Buddhism (however compelling it may be in dynastical China); and, by living in close proximity to their synagogue. The Jews of Kaifeng think of themselves are proudly Chinese, and, at the same time, authentically Jewish.

The fact that Jews in Kaifeng do not practice some elements of Judaism is due to the practical component. For instance, working on the Shabbat is necessary and kosher salt is virtually unobtainable in China.  

Michael Freund of Shavei Israel observed, “Even though their knowledge of Judaism was very low, they still retained great pride that their ancestors were Jews; it was something they nourished and passed down to later generations.” [2016]