The Great Wail of China

Featured Image

Each year, many Jewish families sit at the seder table, partake of the nostalgic, symbolic foods, enjoy the cups of sweet wine, recite the historic words of the Haggadah, listen to the familiar sound and rhythm of the youngest child reciting the Mah Nishtanah (Four Questions), and relish the delicious meal. Passover is indeed a family celebration, and no one should celebrate the holiday alone. The experience of Pesach is essentially family oriented.

During Pesach, there is no individual “I,” but rather the plural, “We.” Together, we experienced the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, we witnessed the miraculous deliverance from slavery, and we tasted the fruits of freedom. However, one of the hidden and ignored messages of Pesach is the importance of remembering that we are one family and one people. As we suffered and experienced together both the bitterness and the sweetness, we should always remember that as one family we should always care for each other, help each other, and certainly hear the cry of a fellow Jew in need. After all, we are family and all Jews are one family!

My family lived in Japan for many years, where I was asked by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to serve as the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan. When living in Tokyo, I researched the history of the Jewish experience in Asia, from India to Japan and was enthralled by the fascinating but little-known exotic experience of the Chinese Jews.

Jews came to China from Persia on the Silk Road, about 1000 years ago. They were very warmly received by the Emperor and were invited to live near the imperial palace, in the capital city of Kaifeng. The Emperor requested that the Jews keep their ancestral traditions and be an asset to China. They lived as faithful Jews and observed a Jewish way of life. They built a magnificent synagogue, the Temple of Purity and Truth, which was Chinese in style and Jewish in content. It had a prayer hall, mikveh, yahrzeit chapel, and many Torah scrolls. The street of the synagogue, to this very day, is still called Teaching Torah Lane South, and as a courtesy and gesture of respect, the Chinese did not carry pork on the street of the synagogue. Rabbis trained their sons to be rabbis, and they kept community records and produced prayer books and Hebrew school textbooks.

With the passing of time, the open and flourishing China closed its borders, and the local Jews lost all contact with the outside world. The synagogue was destroyed by floods and local wars, and had to be rebuilt several times. Sons of rabbis frequently took more lucrative and prestigious positions, and the Jewish community declined, intermarried, and assimilated.

In June of 1605, in Beijing (about 500 miles from Kaifeng), there was a humorous confrontation of major historic importance. A 60-year-old Chinese man, with a Chinese-Jewish family name of Ai, knocked on the door of a recently arrived Jesuit missionary, Fra Matteo Ricci. Ai heard that in Beijing, there was a man who believed in the one G-d, denied being a Muslim, believed in the holy way of life, and since Ai had never heard of Christians, he assumed that this European foreigner was a Jewish rabbi. When Ai was met at the door, he announced that he came to pay his respects, tell of his congregation, and meet his fellow co-religionists. Ai was anxious to contact his fellow Jews and create a new chapter in their history. He was surprised to see the images in the chapel and, quite confused by the four evangelists, inquired if they were four of the twelve sons of Jacob. On the opposite side, the Jesuit missionary believed that Ai was a devout Christian. Thus, the Chinese Jew saw the Jesuit as a rabbi and planned to invite the Jesuit to be the rabbi of the Jewish community, and the Jesuit saw the Chinese Jew as an authentic and knowledgeable Christian. When this classic comedy of errors and misunderstanding resolved itself, the existence of Chinese Jews became known in Europe and the outside world.

Over time, the Chinese Jews became very poor. They lost all knowledge of Hebrew; rituals and worship were no longer observed; the traditions of their ancestors were neglected; and some did not even know which day of the week was the Sabbath. The Jewish community was now in crisis. Loyalty to ancestors is important in China, and Jews bore great guilt for not being loyal to their ancestral traditions. What should they do, and what could they do? They debated among themselves for decades until they decided to swallow their pride and make a bold decision. They agreed to humiliate and embarrass themselves and write a letter to the outside world, asking for help to save their community. On August 23, 1850, the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng sent a desperate cry for assistance. “Morning and night, with tears in our eyes and with offerings of incense, do we implore that our religion may again flourish…If we can rebuild our synagogue, it will give great joy to our community…Our synagogue has no rabbi, our mikveh and ark are in ruins…The sight of our synagogue brings grief to our hearts and tears to our eyes…If we could again have a rabbi and teacher, and rebuild our synagogue, our future as Jews will be secure.”

This letter was endorsed by the chief rabbi of the British Empire, as well as Rabbi Isaac Leeser in America. Both spoke of the mitzvah of saving this Jewish community. Judah Touro of New Orleans offered to help and left a fortune in his estate for any rabbi or teacher to travel to China to teach a desperate Jewish community. Rabbi Leeser wrote that it would be a disgrace if we abandoned this isolated Jewish community and if their plea would fall on deaf ears.

What happened? Sadly and tragically, no one went to help them. We abandoned them and did not hear their cry and plea for help. Visitors came and took a photo. National Geographic wrote a famous article in 1907. Pearl Buck wrote a novel, Peony, about the Chinese Jews. The Torah scrolls of Kaifeng are now in various libraries or lost. The Haggadah and Megillah are collector’s items. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has many synagogue artifacts and, surprisingly, the Washington Cathedral has the stone lotus bowl that was used for washing hands before eating bread. Hebrew Union College has the community’s siddurim, chumashim, community documents, and records. The synagogue no longer stands, but the street of the synagogue, with its historic name, still remains. One Chinese Jewish family still lives on this street, as they have for many centuries.

Each year, I visit Kaifeng. The remaining Jewish descendants are very poor. I shiver when I meet descendants of the Ai family, for that name still rings in my ear. There is a model of the Chinese synagogue at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, and this synagogue appeared on an Israeli Rosh Hashanah stamp. One young Chinese Jew recently studied at Bar Ilan University in Israel for one year and at a yeshiva in Jerusalem for two years. Some Jews in Kaifeng now meet on Friday nights to recreate a Shabbat experience and learn to read Hebrew. One family from Kaifeng even settled in Israel.

Recently in Kaifeng, on the very first day of school, the teacher asked all the first graders where they were from, expecting the reply of a city in China or a local street. However, one little boy responded that he was from Israel and the teacher and the entire class started to laugh, as they never heard of this city or street in China. The boy began to cry and the teacher asked him to inquire of his mother and report to the class the following day. His mother told him that they were indeed from Israel, and she herself did not know where exactly it was, but this was their family tradition and “Jewish” is written on their ID cards.

It is now Pesach time. From China, we can learn the results of not responding to a Jew in need. When a Jew cries out, it is our responsibility as Jews to answer, to respond, and to help. I am haunted by the plea of the Chinese Jews and our response of indifference. Pesach is a festival of history, and this year, may we all learn this vital lesson from the history of the Jews of China.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer is the rabbi of the Cherry Lane Minyan in Great Neck, and lifetime honorary rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan. He is the author of the Fugu Plan-the untold story of the Japanese and Jews during WWII.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer is the rabbi of the Cherry Lane Minyan in Great Neck, and lifetime honorary rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan. He is the author of the Fugu Plan–the untold story of the Japanese and Jews during WWII.