On Passover, Shi Lei and the other Jews in the city of Kaifeng eat Chinese pancakes. It’s not exactly matzoh, “but it is unleavened,” he said.
That accommodation, and others, is emblematic of an ancient Jewish community’s effort to revive its religious traditions, eroded over the passing centuries as its members assimilated into the life of their city and country.
But the light of Judaism never went out. “We always knew we were Jewish because our parents and grandparents told us,” said Shi Lei. “They told us we are Jews, we are from Israel.”
“This information is never forgotten,” he said.
Shi Lei, 32, spoke on a recent Sunday to more than 200 rapt listeners at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne. It was his last stop on a speaking tour that took him across the country and into Canada, during which he told the story of how his ancestors came from Persia and settled in Kaifeng in the years 960 to 1127 CE.
Close to 1,000 years have since gone by, and “we never left,” he said.
China is a different place today from what it was just a few years ago, and part of that change is a move by the some 500 residents of Kaifeng, who identify as Jewish, to rekindle their Jewish lives. It is a “learning” experience, Shi Lei said.
|After the talk, Shi Lei, center, chats with Jeff Haveson, left, and Yehuda Ben Lewi, both of Ahavas Sholom in Newark. photos by Charles Zusman|
In 2001 Shi Lei, who majored in English literature at Kaifeng University, went to Israel. He studied for one year at Bar-Ilan University and then for two years at Mahon Meir yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is fluent in Hebrew and speaks flawless English.
His trip was prompted by a meeting with Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who served as a rabbi in Japan and traveled extensively in Asia. Speaking from his home in Great Neck, N.Y., Tokayer told how he met Shi Lei on a visit to Kaifeng.
The man knew little about Jewish practices, Tokayer recalled, “but he was asking so many, many questions” that the rabbi suggested he go to Israel to study. Shi Lei’s parents greeted the rabbi like a long-lost relative, and readily agreed to their son’s trip.
After one year at Bar-Ilan, Shi Lei said, he learned a lot but there was so much more to learn, so he stayed another two years at Mahon Meir, Tokayer recalled.
Back in Kaifeng, Shi Lei serves as a teacher to the rest of the community, 18 of whom have since also visited Israel. They were assisted in their visit by Shavei Israel, an organization that helps those with Jewish roots return to their Jewish identity.
Their ancient synagogue is no more, but Shi Lei has converted the home of his late grandparents into a mini-museum and community center, in which the group meets.
For larger gatherings, the group uses a Muslim restaurant, where dietary laws are similar to Jewish ones. Cost and logistics make it impossible for the group to keep kosher, “but we never eat pork,” Shi Lei said. They honor the dietary laws in spirit, he explained.
The group does not have a traditional scribed Torah, but rather has a printed version translated into Chinese. Also, they have simple prayer books written in Chinese, Shi Lei said. They are learning about the holidays and rituals, and light Friday night candles. For Passover they have Chinese-language Haggadahs.
“I am teaching in the Ashkenazic way,” he said, but Sephardic tradition might better reflect the group’s Persian roots, he added. In any case, Jews in China must “find their own way” and adapt to the country they are in. Traditional practices stopped three or four generations ago, Shi Lei said, but the Kaifeng Jews are relearning how to celebrate their faith.
One of the historic drawings Shi Lei showed depicts two Kaifeng Jews with Western facial features but wearing Chinese-style pigtails. Intermarriage has made its mark, and later photos, from about 1910, show Kaifeng Jews with Chinese-appearing facial features.
Shi Lei drew a laugh from the audience when one man said there were a number of intermarriages in his family with people of Chinese descent. “I’m glad it (intermarriage) is happening here too,” Shi Lei responded.
While Jews are living in other Chinese cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Canton, and Hong Kong – they are not Chinese, Shi Lei said. There are Chabad houses in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but not Kaifeng.
Shi Lei is a licensed tour guide specializing in Jewish sites (jewishchinatours.com). He laced his presentation with enticing tidbits of history and illustrated it with a slide show of historic paintings and illustrations (kulanu.phanfare.com/4601067#imageID=95418736).
A thousand years ago Kaifeng was a bustling city of some 1.5 million and the capital of China, Shi Lei said. Although it was unknown in the West, it was likely the largest city in the world at that time, he said.
The Jews came as merchants, following the Silk Road, a trading route across the desert, bringing cotton cloth to trade, a material unknown in China, Shi Lei said. Their arrival drew the attention of the emperor, who welcomed the Jews and told them to keep their faith and honor their ancestors.
It was during the Song Dynasty, and Shi Lei was uncertain which emperor was in power. If the emperor said something, it was an edict, and the Jews in effect became Chinese citizens, he said.
The synagogue was built in 1136 in Kaifeng, which lies about 800 kilometers south of Beijing, near the coast. The community must have been wealthy, Shi Lei said, because the synagogue was built on a large piece of prime property at the center of the city.
The synagogue was rebuilt in 1279 and lasted for centuries. The last rabbi died in 1805, and the synagogue fell into disrepair and disappeared in 1860, Shi Lei said. The remnants of a mikvah have been found at the site.
Over the years, the Jews moved from the business world and many learned Confucian ways and became government officials. They became more and more assimilated and intermarried. Slowly their Jewish practices faded away, Shi Lei explained.
There was a likely a Jewish presence in China in the eighth or ninth century, Shi Lei said, pointing to figurines showing men with “Semitic-looking” features. He also cited a document of the period that was written in Hebrew on paper. Paper existed only in China at that time, he said. The Jews were likely merchants, passing through, he said.
He showed illustrations of the synagogue – built Chinese pagoda style. The interior drawings show the “Moses chair,” where, Shi Lei explained, the Torah would be placed. The worshippers faced West during prayer, Shi Lei said, in the the direction of Jerusalem.
Shi Lei will be in the United States for another speaking tour next year, with a session tentatively planned for the 92d Street Y in Manhattan Feb 15 at 8:15 p.m., Bograd said. Interested groups can e-mail Kulanu.org to engage Shi Lei for a presentation, Bograd said.
“The reaction [to the talk] was unbelievable,” said Richard Moskow, a past president of Temple Beth Tikvah. “People wouldn’t let him go” as they plied him with questions, Moskow said. “It was wonderful.”
Shi Lei is single-handedly trying to “resurrect the Jewish religion in China,” Moskow said, and even though he isn’t ordained, he is, in effect, the rabbi of Kaifeng.