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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  • Justin

    “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.”

    I find it remarkable how racist and exclusionary statements like that issue forth from Orthodox leaders, yet no condemnation by the religious press is ever offered. Is this a double standard in reporting?

  • Mollie


    I thought that the article handled it fine. The Rabbi is basically saying that Judaism must be handed down matrilineally and since they’re a patrilineal society, they don’t qualify. He’s also making a point about how being Jewish requires following the law and no one is claiming that this group does that.

    I thought the article raised those issues and, if anything, deferred in the opposite direction by referring to the “Kaifeng Jews” as Jews.

    Who gets to be part of a group is a very tricky issue. It’s actually MUCH trickier in Judaism than, say, the Roman Catholic clergy debates we cover.

  • Jerry

    The story was very interesting from many different perspectives including what happened to an isolated community who almost lost their traditions. And, of course, we had another reminder how the modern Chinese government continues to repress religion unless it serves the state first.

    Mollie, your point about complexity is a valid one. I wish the piece had included not only the Orthodox view of who is a Jew, but also Conservative and Reform viewpoints because they have different ideas including Biblical/historical arguments to bring to the table.

  • Justin

    Mollie, thank you for the reasoned reply, but I think you are still approaching it from their racist and exclusionary categories, which are clouding your analysis.

    The correct statement that the rabbi could have made is: “They aren’t Orthodox Jews”.

    By agreeing with his statement (that “they aren’t Jews”), you are affirming the presumption that Orthodox rabbis get to define what it means to “be Jewish”.

    Oddly enough, you will read in textbooks statements like “Judaim is decentralized, there is no Pope in Judaism”, but in fact, we see quite the opposite here. The Orthodox establishment is attempting to normatively define Jewishness.

    A respect for diversity, or even accuracy from reporting perspective, indicates that we acknowlege, Orthodox is not even a majority among Jews, and Orthodox rabbis do not have normative authority to define Jewishness.

    Imagine a Catholic bishop stating, “There have been no Christians in China for 400 years” simply because the Christians there didn’t belong to his denomination…. It is almost inconceivable that he would be allowed to get away with it (or even think it). That is the crux of the double standard I am talking about.

  • Mollie


    I see your point. I agree that the journalists have to be more clear in explaining the differing views in Judaism.

    It’s a related issue, but I’ve recently wondered about the usefulness of the term “secular” Jew even.

  • Will

    It is thorny because of the ambivalence (sometimes, I suspect, intentional) on whether “Jewishness” is a religion or an ethnicity.

    As I have commented on other stories: someone can say “I spit on G_d, I spit on Torah, I spit on halakhah”, and there is no risk he will be told he is “not Jewish”, as all that matters is who his mother was.
    But as soon as he says “I believe in Jesus”, it abruptly no longer matters who his mother was. Now THERE is a double standard.

  • Will

    “Secular Jew”? How about “secular Muslims”, which I have seen in NYT stories?

  • Izak Friend

    What “double standards” are being applied? I see standards, but no “double standards.”

    Judaism began to actively discourage converts, 1000 years ago, as a matter of realpolitik. A charismatic rabbi in a Christian or Muslim state might draw converts to Judaism. Such converts would soon be followed by Christian/Muslim armed forces, who would exterminate every Jew in town, as an object lesson.

    Chabad is a Jewish proselytizing organization, of recent vintage. They focus on returning “lost Jews” to the Jewish mainstream. If they aren’t in China, it’s because they can’t get in.

  • Izak Friend

    I’d guess that Chabad also does not operate in any Muslim state, in which leaving Islam is a death penalty offense. You know, one of those “no coercion in religion” places.

  • R.F. McDonald

    Mollie, Will: The term “secular Jew” refers to someone of Jewish ethnic background, IMHO, and is a very useful category given the trend towards secularization.

    Izak Friend: “What “double standards” are being applied? I see standards, but no “double standards.””

    The double standards, I think, are the ones which include Jews whose identity is transmitted matrilineally but exclude the ones whose identity is transmitted patrilineally.

  • Thomas

    Re: ‘no Jews still in Kaifeng’, Jewish Law does stipulate the process for conversion. This isn’t orthodox standards- it’s Jewish standards long before anyone was ever called orthodox, conservative or reform. As far as I can tell, these people in Kaifeng have not gone through any Jewish conversion process at all.

    They have been assimilated for hundreds of years. Regardless of whether it’s matrilineal or patrilineal descent they claim, given their total assimilation, they probably can’t claim either.

    Will: as for Jews who say they believe in other gods- well, that’s your answer right there. They may still be Jewish, but one could hardly call their religion Judaism- just as a Christian who bows to Mecca and declares that Muhammad is the last prophet- would hardly still be called a Christian.

  • Will

    “Other gods” is begging the question.

  • Thomas

    Hi Will: Not sure how you arrive at that conclusion. To Jews, Jesus was never present at Mt. Sinai, and was never identified to the Jews as their god, and they were never commanded to worship him. So to a Jew, Jesus is indeed ‘another god.’

  • Thomas

    To clarify: Jews may not follow Judaism at all, but they are Jews still (who do not follow any religion). Jews who follow Christianity may still be Jews, but they cease to follow Judaism.

    You asked why Jews do not accept messianics as Judaism- well, to Jews, Jesus is indeed another god as he was never identified to them at Sinai. So yes, to a Jew, it is assumed from the onset he is another god, so if you’re asking for why Jews do not consider, say messianics to be Jewish, it’s not begging the question- that is their assumption from the get-go. One may disagree with their rationale, but that is the reason they do not see messianic judaism as judaism- anymore than a Christian might not see Mormonism as Christianity.

  • Thomas

    The issue is that Judaism is really neither a race nor a religion- one can be a Jew and not practice Judaism, and theoretically still be a Jew and practice another religion. The question is whether the religion he practices is Judaism.

    Re: another god, you asked a valid question, but your question is being asked of someone from the perspective of a Jew- thus, to that Jew who you ask, Jesus is “another god.” And to him, “another god” is worse than “no god” for 1/ Historical reasons (persecution, anti-Semitism, etc), 2/ theological (ie. an atheist might be ambivalent to Judaism, but a Jew who believes in Islam, or Christianity, will be more likely to conflict or seek a convert from the other Jews, ie- more ‘conflict’ with Judaism. If your question is with regard to secular Jews, I’d say history is the reason, absolutely.

  • Izak Friend

    The Holocaust altered “Jewishness.” For now, any population that is facing persecution on grounds of “Jewishness” can find help from the world’s Jews, whether their practice of Judaism is ideal or not. Coupled with that is the reluctance to bash any people who describe themselves as “Jews.” Even “Jews For Jesus” don’t raise hackles, the way that they used to.

    Post-Holocaust Jews like stories about Jewish survival. Survivor communities— people with the faintest historic memory of a Jewish past— have been found and greeted with fanfare in Brasil, Minorca, Portugal, New Mexico, India, Peru, and Southern Africa.

    If Kaifeng Jews are problematic, it’s because of the Chinese Communist context in which they live. It’s not because the Jews won’t have them.

  • Rolf_l

    hi justin, you have presented a false analogy with your catholic bishop example. No orthodox rabbi will claim that only orthodox jews are actually jewish – a secular jew may not be following judaism, but he is still a jew.

    Conversely, catholics and protestants each claim to hold THE legitimate Christian teaching, whereas reform, conservative, reconstructionist, etc. jews never claim that their denominations are THE original teachings of Moses or of the Torah; rather, they merely see orthodoxy as antiquated or antique- but the major distinction you missed is that a Catholic bishop really may feel that non-Catholics are completely non-Christian, whereas an orthodox rabbi will not deny that reform or conservative jews are jews.

    Furthermore, no conservative or reform jew will claim that orthodox jews are not jewish- they simply think orthodoxy needs to change with the times. In other words, in Christianity, many sects all claim to hold the original teachings of Jesus (and thus, only THEY are the real Christians), whereas in Judaism, only orthodox jews claim to hold the original teachings of Moses, and even then they do not deny that non-orthodox jews are not jewish. And because “orthodox” jews are the only group claiming to be “orthodox,” it is therefore not surprising that no other jewish group denies their jewishness.

    In terms of orthodoxy becoming the norm in judaism, it’s probably for the reasons above- other denominations may disagree with the rationale for orthodox practice, but they do not deny that the orthodox are “truer” to the original teachings of Moses than they are- they simply believe the original teachings of Moses are dated, or need to change with society.

    Furthermore, the shulchan aruch, which stipulates jewish conversion processes, far predates any schism of “reform” and “orthodox”- in other words, reform judaism does not claim that patrilineal lineage was ever the accepted law in exilic Judaism; rather, they simply thinks it needs to be updated.

    Hope that helps.

  • Tiberiu Weisz

    I think that the question of the Kaifeng Jews needs to put in historical context, both Jewish and Chinese. They inscribed their Jewish heritage in stone (see The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions), a book which I translated and annotated in both Jewish and Chinese context. The handful of Chinese who claim to be Jews in today’s China only know that their ancestors were Jewish, but from a Chinese point of view they are proud to be the surviving descendants of a once thriving Jewish community. That is very important to them since ancestry is of utmost importance in CHina.