The History of Kaifeng Jews

04/02/2021

Did you know that the city of Kaifeng has the oldest, still existing, Jewish community in China?

An ancient building which used to be part of the Kaifeng Synagogue

Kaifeng is a city in central China's Henan province. Between 500 and 1,000 people in Kaifeng claim to be Jews. While they don't speak Hebrew, celebrate Jewish holidays, or practice traditional religious beliefs, and they aren't really in contact with other Jews in the city, these Chinese citizens still call themselves Jewish.

Some members of the community remember celebrating Passover and Yom Kippur as children, or having Stars of David in their childhood homes. In the past, Jews prayed in the synagogue of the city in both the Hebrew and Mandarin languages. Yet, today, the only custom observed by most Kaifeng Jews is the practice of not eating pork. There are approximately 100 Kaifeng Jews who observe Judaism to a fuller extent.

Although no one knows for sure, research indicates that Jews first arrived in Kaifeng before 1127, from India or Persia (present day Iran), over 1,000 years ago. While Jews living in other cities of China, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are expat Jews who live in China, the Jews of Kaifeng are ethnic-Chinese of Jewish descent. Kaifeng Jews consider themselves to be the only proper community of Chinese Jews in the world. At its peak, the community had around 5,000 members.

The original synagogue in Kaifeng was destroyed by a flood in 1642. Another flood wiped out the new synagogue in the 1850's. The community's last religious leader died around the same time. Later on the synagogue's land was sold, the Torah scrolls taken to libraries in other countries, and today, there are no remaining synagogues (or Rabbis) in the city.

The street signs at the site of the ancient Jewish neighborhood in Kaifeng

An ongoing period of war and social upheaval which began in 1644, along with the increased tendency of Kaifeng Jews to intermarry with Han Chinese and assimilate, led to a decline in Jewish religious observance. For years Kaifeng Jews were isolated from other Jewish communities around the world, and very few people knew of their existence.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel, and the arrival of Jewish tourists to Kaifeng, inspired an interest among Kaifeng Jews to rediscover their Jewish identities. A prayer group met for the first time in years, local residents gave tours to sites of Jewish interest, and a 50 person Passover Seder was held in 2015.

While Communist China never recognized Judaism as an authorized religion, for years, Kaifeng Jews had been unofficially tolerated. Yet, in 2016 the Chinese government shut down the few existing Jewish organizations in the city and forced the small Jewish community to celebrate, learn and pray in private.

This policy has to do with the fact that the government mistrusts ethnically Chinese groups claiming minority status, which in its eyes could lead to social and political instability. In contrast, non-Chinese Jews in the main cities of China are free to practice their religion as long as they don't promote Judaism among the Chinese population.

By: Madison Jackson