Jewspotting in China

The Wall Street Journal tackles problems with religious freedom in China on both is news and editorial pages this week. In the opinion piece, the editors argue that China may have succeeded in using breakdowns to deter resistance in the past, but shows how recent actions by Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics show the crackdowns are now creating more resistance.

By depriving religious and ethnic minorities the space to preserve their culture and practice their faith, Beijing is alienating the next generation who have rising expectations for personal freedom. A clash between the Party's culture of control and the Chinese people's growing consciousness about their rights looms.

Perhaps they should have added Jews.

In "Chinese Jews Face Existential Questions," we learn that a tiny community is viewed with suspicion by both Communist Party leaders and Orthodox Jews. Now, I tend to agree with media critic Jack Shafer when he mocks the New York Times for its "Jewspotting." That's where the paper "expresses astonishment at members of the tribe living in out-of-the-way places." Sometimes that's a place like Montana. Other times it's a place like Peru. It frequently chronicles the dwindling number of Jews in Iraq. Or Bahrain.

But other papers do it, too. And while this Wall Street Journal story has a bit of the "Jewspotting" feel to it, it's also a very interesting story about what makes someone a Jew. It's fluffy in style but has some nice content. Here's a sample:

For much of the past millennium, Jews in Kaifeng— descendants of merchants who arrived here from Persia, probably around the 11th century—have been struggling with an existential question: What does it mean to be Jewish?

The handful of Kaifengers who go to Israel are sometimes floored to discover they need to go through a rabbi-certified conversion to be accepted as Jews, while the ones staying home squabble over which of them are really Jewish.

The question has surprising consequences in this dusty walled city in central China. According to the Chinese government, there are no Kaifeng Jews because there are no Chinese Jews. Judaism isn't one of China's five official religions and Jews aren't designated as one of the country's 55 official minorities. Orthodox Jews have a similar view, though for different reasons. Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do, while orthodox Jews define Judaism as passing through the mother.

"They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren't Jewish," says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. "There hasn't been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years."

Except there is one, though it's divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, "Esther" Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

The article discusses how the Kaifeng community learns about Jewish traditions from the tourists who stop by. She has yet to fast a full day for Yom Kippur and she says that Orthodox Judaism has an unfair standard, "We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it." Interesting quotes.

We learn about the Jewish merchants who arrived a thousand years ago and how they blended in ethnically and became somewhat forgotten. A Jesuit missionary spread the news in the early 17th century. By the early 1900s, we're told, none of the population could read Hebrew and they were called "the Muslims with the blue caps," when they wore yarmulkes. This quote gives a good look at what it was like to be a Kaifeng Jew:

"In our family, we didn't eat pork, that's for sure," says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, "but we didn't know what to do with those things."

There's much more history about Jews escaping from the Holocaust and the Communist takeover in 1949. There's even a Jew for Jesus subplot to the piece.

Here's an interesting anecdote about the lack of religious freedom:

Today, Kaifeng Jews tread with caution given China's ban on unauthorized religious activity. The Jewish descendants say they rarely meet in groups of 10—the number required by Jewish law for a religious service—for fear the government might consider that a political gathering. They make DVDs of themselves wearing traditional Chinese garb while they light Sabbath candles, to portray the act as a folk custom.

A concern with the piece is how it begins and the photo accompanying it. It's a great photo of Zhang Xinwang, who calls himself "Moishe." I was curious about this story and did some looking around. Turns out that the story of the "Kaifeng Jews" was extensively reported in the West in the 1700s and that they've been Jewspotted intermittently since then. Reading around (such as this story in Covenant), I wonder if Xinwang is more a government-appointed Jew than a member of the community. He's not revealed in the Journal piece as a member of the Communist Party. Has the Party gotten involved in the leadership decisions for this community? It would be more noteworthy, knowing what we know of China, if they hadn't.

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