Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chinese in the Valley: From Kaifeng to Sde Eliyahu

Moments before Shabbat I call my parents to wish them Shabbat Shalom. "Have you heard?" my mother asked. "A group of Jewish Chinese made aliyah to Israel this Tuesday. The newspaper article says they will be living on a religious kibbutz in the north for several months. Maybe they are in your area?"

Fast-forward to shabbat afternoon and I am chatting with the first group of Chinese Jews to move to the land of Israel. The new olim are living and studying Hebrew in Sde Eliyahu, the kibbutz just down road from my own home of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. I spoke Chinese, they tried Hebrew and some English, and together we agreed to keep in touch and help each other out in the weeks and months to come.

Wait...there are Jews in China? Putting aside the expat crowd that has arrived in recent years, the only Jews in China are the assimilated remnant of a community based in the city of Kaifeng. They arrived to the one-time capital of imperial China as traders along the Silk Road a thousand years ago. Intermarriage and Chinese culture eventually proved too daunting and the community largely disappeared. A fortuitous meeting with a Jesuit priest in Beijing in 1605 brought some limelight and a generation of Jewish Sinologists have turned up the heat. Today the community is limping back into the Jewish world, though until now I had no first hand experience of what it is like to spend shabbat with the Jews of Kaifeng.

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