Chinas Jewish heritage gets a boost from tour guides tales

For a city with six times the population of San Francisco’s, 500 Jews doesn’t sound like much.

But when that city is Kaifeng, China, it’s something to celebrate.

“Not all Jewish people know about the Kaifeng Jews,” said Kaifeng native Shi Lei. “I want to spread the word, because I am one of them.”

Shi, 33, will travel to the Bay Area next month to talk about the Jews of his hometown, a city of 4.8 million people about 370 miles southwest of Beijing. Kaifeng’s 500 Chinese Jews are the descendants of Jewish merchants who traveled to China on the Silk Road.

Shi will speak at 5 p.m. March 6 at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

A graduate of Henan University in China, Shi is a licensed national tour guide who also leads groups to Chinese cities to see Jewish sites. Shi currently is on a three-week lecture tour sponsored by Kulanu, a nonprofit organization based in New York that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities worldwide. This is his third trip to the U.S.

Speaking by phone last week from Harrisonburg, Va., Shi provides a quick history lesson. Historical records show that more than 1,000 Jewish businessmen traveled the Silk Road from Persia to Kaifeng at the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1127 CE). At the time, Kaifeng was China’s imperial capital. The Chinese emperor warmly welcomed the merchants — many of them cotton producers — and permitted them to settle in the town.

In 1163, the immigrants built a synagogue, which over the centuries gradually deteriorated. The last rabbi in the town died in 1810. In 1849, a flood along the Yellow River destroyed the ruins of the synagogue. Three surviving stone steles from the Kaifeng synagogue are on display in a municipal museum in Kaifeng, and photos of the synagogue are on exhibit at the Mini–Jewish Museum that Shi maintains.

“Over time, these immigrants adapted to become Chinese. They became involved in Chinese classic studies at the expense of Judaic studies, and eventually they abandoned their Jewish practices,” Shi said. “Assimilation took a toll, and yet Jewish identity remains strong in Kaifeng.”

He continued: “Whether or not they practiced their faith, many families in Kaifeng always raised their children with the words: ‘We are Jewish.’ My family always encouraged me to be more informed about my Jewish identity.”

In 2001, with assistance from Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of New York, Shi was chosen to spend a year studying Jewish history and religion at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He then spent two years at Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

In Israel, Kaifeng Jews are not accepted as Jewish. “We pass on our tradition patrilineally, and Jewish law mandates that Jewish identity come from the mother,” Shi said. “When I was in Israel, my focus was not to discuss this, but to sit and study. Knowledge of Jewish history and tradition has been lost in Kaifeng, and my purpose was to relearn it and then go back to Kaifeng to share that knowledge.”

Since his return to Kaifeng, Shi has volunteered to teach Jewish traditions to interested individuals. Though 500 people in the city consider themselves Chinese Jews, not many attend his classes. Around 20 Kaifeng Jews now celebrate major Jewish festivals, Shi says. Some Fridays, they meet to share Shabbat meals.

Bryan Schwartz, a vice president and chair of the social action committee at Temple Beth Abraham, invited Shi to present his talk in Oakland. A civil rights lawyer, Schwartz also is the founder of Scattered Among the Nations, a nonprofit organization that documents far-flung Jewish communities.

“I’m interested in helping people take a more expansive view of who is in our greater Jewish community, and to appreciate this diversity,” Schwartz said. “I am also hopeful that Shi Lei’s talk will help us build bridges with the local Chinese community.”

Shi reports that wherever he speaks while on tour, he is greeted with standing-room-only crowds.

“There always are a lot of questions at the end of my talks,” he said. “I am so grateful to be able to re-forge the link between us in Kaifeng and Jews in the West.”

Shi Lei will speak at 5 p.m. March 6 at Temple Beth Abraham, 327 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. Admission is free. Information: www.tbaoakland.org.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.