Kaifeng Jewish Descendants Learn about Jewish Heritage and Hebrew Language at Nanjing Seminar

For the first time in recent — or possibly even ancient — times, 12 Jewish descendants from Kaifeng, the city which housed a thriving Jewish community 200 years ago, traveled to a distant city in order to attend a three-week workshop on Jewish history and culture. Their goal was Nanjing University, Nanjing, China where they spent July 14 - August 2, 2002 learning about the Jewish heritage and the Hebrew language long forgotten by their community.

Those serious descendants spent six hours daily in classrooms studying their history and culture, taking advantage of this unique opportunity to learn about their past. The 12 represent six different clans. (Traditionally, Jewish descendants from Kaifeng take one of seven clan names: Zhao, Ai, Shi, Li, Gao, Jin and Zhang.) As two from nearly each clan attended, their relationships spanned two generations: father-son, father-daughter, mother-daughter, or mother-son. The oldest, Zhao Meiling, 58, is a retired worker and daughter of Zhao Pingya whose celebrated photo taken with American Jew, David Brown, in 1930’s is well known. The youngest, Zhao Hui, 12, is an elementary pupil whose mother, Gao Suyu, teaches in a high school. Moshe Zhang, who led the group, was as enthusiastic as his 17-year-old son.

The workshops were originally designed to train Chinese professors who lead courses in world history or western civilization. The goal was to present reliable, accurate, and concrete knowledge of Jewish history and culture through intensive study, facilitated by Jewish scholars from outside China. This, in future, would enable local professors to incorporate information on Jewish history and culture into the scope of their courses, passing on the knowledge to their students.

“Hebrew language, Jewish rituals and Jewish songs we learn at this seminar will tie us closer to other Jews.”

The first two workshops of this kind held by the Center at Nanjing University in the summers of 1997 and 1999 were so effective and useful that the third was added to meet the growing demand for such information.

While the workshop did not aim its subject matter at the Kaifeng Jewish descendants, the organizer offered them the opportunity to join the scholars in residence and benefit from their expertise.

Since the Kaifeng Jewish descendants are non-academic and do not have necessary English skills, special treatment was provided. The first week, when all lectures were delivered in Chinese, they joined the other 36 participants from Chinese colleges and universities. After this, they met in their own, separate classes where Ellen Heilman and Tamar Friedman, wives of two Jewish professors from the US and Israel and scholars in their own right, presented classes emphasizing Jewish customs, traditions and Hebrew.

The requirements for their classes were practical rather than academic. Therefore, Mrs. Heilman focused her teaching on Jewish holidays and rituals. When she taught about Passover, she emphasized how to have a seder at home. A Chinese version of the Passover Hagadah was specially prepared. Mrs. Friedman focused on spoken Hebrew, blessings and Jewish songs.

All three foreign experts, Professors Heilman, Friedman and Dr. Perednik , who were invited to conduct the workshops for academic group, also presented pertinent lectures.

Bo Yang, a formal MA student of mine, who will go to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to pursuit his Ph.D., served as an English interpreter to make sure that the Kaifeng Jewish descendants understood the special lectures intended for them.

Both Chinese professors, Xu Xiangqun from Beijing and myself, provided a general outline of Jewish history and culture.

In addition to the regular classes, they were involved in cultural activities, including setting up Sabbath services, blowing the shofar, reading Hebrew, and singing. Over 20 Jewish artifacts collected by Xu Xin, were presented to the participants. These included a Torah scroll, Sabbath candlestick, teffilin, tallit, mezuzah, shofar, megillah scroll, yarmulke, seder plate, spicebox, and yad. We wished to provide them with as much tangible and concrete knowledge of Jewish culture as possible. Many had formerly had opportunity to meet Jewish visitors in Kaifeng but lacked knowledge of their own history and customs when questioned. Now, following the seminar, they believe they will have much more to share with visitors

“Hebrew language, Jewish rituals and Jewish songs we learn at this seminar will tie us closer to other Jews. We should be able to do something together next time we meet Jewish visitors in our city,” commented Ai Xiuqin, daughter of Ai Fengming who had been chosen as far back as in 1952 to represent the Kaifeng Jews in Beijing when the country celebrated National Day.

“We feel very lucky to become the first group to learn about our history and culture in such a systematic way. We hope more opportunities like this will be available to us and other Kaifeng Jewish descendants,” others remarked.

During the seminar they received free copies of books dealing with Jewish history and culture, such as the Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, Anti-Semitism: How and Why by Xu Xin, the Chinese version of the Dent Atlas of Jewish History by Martin Gilbert, Cactus in the Desert — Sketch of the Jews by Xu Xiangqun, and Ahad Ha’am and Jewish Spirit by Alfred Gottschalk. All are in Chinese!

Their learning obviously roused the interest of Chinese media. A reporter from 21st Century World Herald, one of most popular weekly papers in China, arrived in Nanjing to interview them and their instructors. As a result, three related articles appeared under generally eye-catching title: “Will Chinese Jewish Descendants Immigrate to Israel?” (indicating that they will return to their tradition and are entitled to immigrate to Israel.) in Aug. 5 issue. The Chinese network also reported it.

The organizer covered all their expenses during the seminar including travel, accommodations and board. The generous sponsorship from institutions such as Kulanu, the Sino-Judaic Institute, and individuals such as Michael Freund made this unique, groundbreaking program possible.