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Chinese Jews (part one)

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We are walking in a narrow alley way in a hot and dusty city in central China. Cicadas buzzing our ears off. No shade in sight.

It is Tuesday, or Wednesday, I can’t remember anymore. I cannot think straight in this heat. Then I hear my wife Toby calling, breaking me away from this mental haze. “Come here and look at this.” A large fig tree extends its life-saving limps toward the sky, offering precious escape from the sun.

Beneath the shade, I begin to take note of my surroundings. The alley way takes a ninety degree turn toward the south, thus the name of the alley changes from “North Teaching the Holy Text Alley” to “South Teaching the Holy Text Alley”. From our research over the last few months, these are the neighbourhoods of the Kaifeng Jews, who migrated here more that eight hundred years ago.

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Not much of the old times remain in China — a muscular giant who is falling head over heels to catch up to the rest of the world. Kaifeng has even less to show for its sprouting history of thousands of years. The city sits on the southern banks of the notorious Yellow River. Flood rushes in once every ten years to cleanse the metropolis of houses, people and memories.

Memories are all that is left of the seventeen clans of Jewish cotton merchants who braved the Himalayas and sea routes to arrive at the gates of middle kingdom during Song dynasty. Presently, I trace down the tree’s limbs with my eyes and see that it is growing at the base of an iron gate. The gate looks like the last time it operated an Emperor might have been on the throne in China. On the left side of the gate is a curious sight: a shovel is stuck in a pile of rubbles. Who left a shovel here? Those that wanted others to dig I am sure.

Continuing on the alleyway southward we meet only a few people. Remembering the advice from our taxi driver I choose only to speak to old folks. “Do you know of any Jews that lived here?” I ask an old man sitting on a tricycle. A brash wave is all I get in return before he rides off on his vehicle loaded with recycled metal. “Not a local resident.” I think to myself.

Suddenly my world becomes quiet, too quiet. Where is my wife? I trace back and find her inside a courtyard, taking photos on her phone. She takes a deep breath and puts her phone back in her pocket. We exchange a smile that says: what a nice neighbourhood. In my mind I superimpose history with the present. Jewish families lived here, died here, celebrated Passovers here, ate their baked eggs here, hid their pieces of matza here. The Chinese neighbors must have thought them strange: eat no pork, pluck the sinews, wear funny hats, worship a scroll.

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Being Chinese myself and having married a Jewish wife, I can understand the neighbors’ feelings quite well. I find the Jewish customs strange and sometimes outlandish, but by no means detestable or deserving hatred. I take part in the celebrations with more than enough enthusiasm, curiosity and fervour. For over eight hundred years the Chinese accepted Jewish communities to live among them. Blue-capped Muslims, they used to call them. “You worship your gods we worship ours. Let there only be good wine between us brothers.”

According to our research we should be near the site of an ancient synagogue, the oldest and most colorful place of Judaic worship in all of China. The building is described in Pearl S. Buck’s novel Peony as well as mentioned countless times in diaries of early missionaries. Some even recorded its magnificence in paintings and drawings. However, at this particular moment, all we see around us is derelict plastered walls, barred windows and locked gates.

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As we near the end of the alleyway I feel defeated. We travelled all this way just to walk the streets? The promised tour guides didn’t return our emails. The private museum is nowhere to be found. When we went to the city museum three quarter of the building was off-limits. The young volunteer there told us there has been more than a few foreigners seeking information on Kaifeng Jews but all she can say is “Sorry, but you understand that I cannot give you any more information.”

Beyond the alleyway, the busy afternoon street traffic beckons us to join in. If we hurry we can grab a taxi before the rush hour and be in our air-conditioned hotel rooms shortly after. A cool shower? Some sweet watermelon? I find my steps quicken as I am about to exit South Teaching the Holy Text Alley.

As is often the case, fate has other plans.

An old lady catches the corner of my eye. She sits feebly in a dark doorway. Her eyes fixed on a space and time immemorial. I don’t know if I should snap her photo; offer her some water; give her a smile or sit beside her and find out what she sees. So I throw out my question: “Do you know of any Jews living in this neighbourhood?”

She lets the question sink in, then she raises her right arm pointing toward the alley we just came out of. She speaks in such a heavy Henan accent that even I cannot understand a word of it.

To be continued in Chinese Jews (part two).

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