Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Jews of Kaifeng (1990)

As promised here is the story about one of the last Jews in the town of Kaifeng, China. Like the article on the 2 Afghan Jews, this is also something from a newspaper which I clipped at the time. And, as with the other, it was kind of a surprise to find it after so many years. This one is actually a photocopy of the original article, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun on July 22, 1990.

It’s really kind of a Passover story in a way. But I thought I’d better get it done now, rather than wait the 2 weeks until Passover, as the article has been lying about for 24 years since I’ve clipped it and if I don’t do this now it could be another 24 years before I see the article again. As they say, there is no time like the present.

Zhao Pingyu is, according to this article, one of the last Jews in China. At the time of the article he was a 69 year old retired tax collector living in a one room house in Kaifeng. It is a far cry from the once thriving village which was home to a substantial Jewish population, even boasting its own temple. Stone markers placed by missionaries in the 18th Century mark the spot where a hospital now sits.

The Jews first arrived as traders in about 900 A.D. They were traders traveling the old Silk Road, who numbered in the thousands and by 1183 had built their own temple. It was called the Purity and Truth Synagogue. They were known by the Chinese as the “sinew plucking people” due to the habit of removing the sinews from the meat they ate in accordance with Kosher dietary laws. They were also respected for their treatment of the poor. There are several tablets in the town, some dating back to 1489, which commemorate the high regard in which the Jewish people of Kaifeng were held.

As the years passed the Jews of Kaifeng assimilated into Chinese life, much as they would wherever they went. They took the Imperial Examinations; which were like our Civil Service Exams; and became trusted members of the society, some even rising to the height of Mandarins.

When the last of their Rabbis passed away about 1810 the community began to lose much of its Jewish roots and character. And as society changed the Jews of Kaifeng found themselves growing into poverty, selling many of their prized religious artifacts in order to survive. The Torah scrolls, the holy books, the candles all went to British missionaries. The once proud synagogue was allowed to crumble into ruins.

Mr. Zhao kept the faith alive even while not knowing much about it. When this news article appeared in 1990 he expressed his love for the Passover holiday. He lit candles in observance of it. He even told the story of people dabbing lambs blood on their door frames before eating a dinner of lamb and reciting prayers. He even lit candles each Friday evening at sundown, but he had no idea why.

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