Chinese Jews (part two)
Continued from Chinese Jews (part one).
What the old lady says is still a mystery to this day, but all her arm waving and high-pitched dialect through her toothless lips does not go unnoticed. Soon a mid-aged neighbour comes to her aid.
“Jewish people? Yes I know them. But they are not here anymore.” the man says.
“Where did they live?”
“Years ago, they lived on this street. But since the old man died, the family moved away.”
“You know the old man?”
“Yes, but that was years ago. Decades maybe.”
“What was their house number? We would like to go and visit.”
The mid-aged man started counting in his head, as if to rewind the years on an invisible time-machine.
“House number twenty-one, but there is nothing there now. Just a dirty old courtyard. Nothing to see.”
After thanking the man and old lady, we run back into South Teaching the Holy Text Alley. An address! We got an address! It may be just another dirty old locked yard but it is something. We follow the curvy alley and count the doors.
Incredibly, we are right back to the courtyard where my wife took a picture and breathed in deeply. “Something spoke to me then” she recalls. Walking deeper into the yard we now see small stars of David. My heartbeat quickens.
I stop at a window and my jaws drop. Taped to the inside is a business card. On it is the name of the person I have been trying to get in touch with for months. After all this time and effort, I finally see her name written on a piece of paper behind a pane of glass. My days of chasing ghosts is over. Jews in China is not just a fairytale!
We bang on the door. No answer. We tap the window. No sound. I dial the number on the business card. A ring can be heard from inside the house followed by some shuffling around. I give the phone to my wife and ask her to speak to it. Before long a female voice answers: “Wei? Nihao.”
Esther, the tour guide who never answered my emails, opens the door to her ancestral home and private museum. She looks at us as if she has been expecting us for weeks. “Come in, it’s hot out there.”
Esther is a Chinese Jew. In China Jewish bloodlines were passed down by the father. Whether this was an adaptation to the Chinese culture at large or an alternate interpretation of the Torah remains to be debated. In any case, Esther’s grandfather can trace his patriarchal lineage all the way to the Ming Dynasty as a Chinese Jew. The grandfather had five daughters and no sons. Luckily they heard about the Western Jews who trace bloodlines by the mother. This arguably makes Esther a Jew both in the Western and in the Chinese sense.
Her ancestral home museum is small and dark. One floor fan and two stools in front of it indicates where the guests should sit. I ignore my urge to rest and walk around the small room. Many of her photos I have seen on the internet. The amazing thing is she can point at a person in the photo and say that is the grandfather of her grandfather.
I learn that the room we are in was part of the synagogue. If we had a shovel and dug down three meters we would find the remnants of the south store room of the Israelis’ One True God Temple from the Ming Dynasty. If we pried open the walls of this room we would also discover a stone monument documented the rebuilding of the synagogue during the Qing dynasty. What is also mind-boggling is that the front gate of the old synagogue is at the exact point where my wife and I stopped and rested under a fig tree’s welcoming shade.
We spent the next two hours travelling through the unforgiving tides of history dominating the Chinese Jews. The Jews here, unlike elsewhere on earth, rarely suffered at the hands of other men. The Chinese were and are still mostly ignorant of Judaism. They were not bothered nor threatened by the Jews, who were brilliant merchants and financiers.
The sorrows of the Chinese Jews were mainly the sorrows of China herself: natural disasters, wars, invasions, cultural revolutions, anti-religious movements, famine etc. They withstood the test of time like the willow trees that cling onto the dry beds of the yellow river. Year after year their rabbi prayed in the direction of Jerusalem asking to be cleansed by a river of knowledge from their homeland. A river of faith to rejuvenate the community under their one true God. A river of desire to lead Jewish sons to Hebrew schools instead of Confucius libraries.
In the late eighteenth century there were many documented outcries for help by the Kaifeng Jewish community. Catholic priests, Jesuit missionaries, Muslims and even Jewish refugees in Shanghai tried their best to keep the lonely lantern of Judaism burning in Kaifeng, but God’s will was stronger. In 1845 the river came. The Chinese Jewish synagogue was destroyed for the very last time. Esther tells us their last rabbi went to India to look for other rabbis to carry on his work, but he died on the way.
Toward the end of our session I was thoroughly depressed. An entire colourful people with unique culture and beliefs was submerged and washed away. I decide to tell Esther my intention of making a documentary film about the subject. When she hear this her olive-shaped eyes brightens behind her glasses. It almost looks like a sparkle of hope has escaping from this reserved lady.
She stands up and gives us a rare smile: “Tomorrow, Come to my new home with your camera, I will show you our Torah and the model of our Synagogue.”
To be continued in Chinese Jews Part Three.
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