Perseverance

 

The Jews of Kaifeng never faced the issue of anti-Semitism as did their western counterparts, nor was the issue of malicious pressure from above an issue; however, the Jews of Kaifeng had to persevere a great deal, as implicit forces waged battle against the community.

Booklet about people and history of Judaism in Chinese, treasured by modern day Kaifeng Jews.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Booklet about people and history of Judaism in Chinese, treasured by modern day Kaifeng Jews. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Considering their low head count, the extended period of isolation from the outside world, and the countless upheavals over two thousand years of Chinese history, it is indeed remarkable that this tiny outpost of Judaism, amidst the vast Middle Kingdom, still exists. Their seamless integration into the Chinese society, together with the inclusiveness of China’s own religions, allowed them to develop a unique theology that differentiated themselves from China and the west. The stone tablets their ancestors left behind illustrated the great emphasis placed on drawing a parallelism between Judaism and Confucianism.

 For centuries, in a location far away from their homeland, they followed a lifestyle that was quite similar to that of their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They had their own synagogue, observed Sabbath, took ritual baths, and maintained cemeteries. They kept a slaughterhouse and followed a kosher diet. They circumcised their sons, taught their young the Hebrew language and scripture, and gave their new-borns Hebrew names as well as local names. They ensured the moral parameters by which they conducted their lives fell within the guideline of the Torah. In an environment of multiple religious believes, they stayed faithful to their one and only God. They never forgot to pray westwards, in the direction of Jerusalem.

In 1801, their last rabbi passed away. In 1854, their synagogue disappeared under the Yellow River flood. They lost both a spiritual leader and a physical space of worship. They had no Chinese translation of the scripture and no one in the community could read Hebrew. With no more tangible attachment to their heritage, many scholars predicted the eventual extinction of this Sino-Judaic civilisation. 

The community’s unwavering loyalty to their Jewish origin, family lineage, ancestral worship and oral history ensured they held on tight and passed down all Judaic beliefs and practices they knew. Over time, however, stories fragmented and many customs were lost. Perhaps even without knowing the reason, they stuck to the custom of avoiding pork and retained their own version of “Jewish” identity.

Blue kippahs that distinguish Kaifeng Jews from the Muslims in China.  [taobao.com]

Blue kippahs that distinguish Kaifeng Jews from the Muslims in China. [taobao.com]

 In terms of clothing, Kaifeng Jews continued to wear blue kippahs to distinguish themselves from the Muslims in China who wore white headgears. Although Han Chinese were often confused, mistook them to be a sub-sect of Islam and called them “the Muslims with Blue Caps (蓝帽回)”, the Kaifeng Jews continued this tradition and preserved their unique identity. 

Rabbi Anson Laytner, former president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and retired Judaic studies professor at Seattle University, notably stated, “like other people, I was fascinated by their story of survival and impressed by their commitment to their Jewish identity even when they only had memories to keep that identity alive.” [2018]