Several hundred residents in the central Chinese Province of Henan, who believe they are descendants of Jewish traders, will celebrate the ritual Passover feast next week as they rediscover their ancient roots.
The celebration reflects a growing interest in practising Jewish faith among the community, where a few years ago none spoke a word of Hebrew or knew why family tradition made pork consumption taboo.
“I knew I was a Jew, but I didn’t know what that meant,” said Esther Guo, a resident of the former imperial capital Kaifeng, who says she is a descendant of Jewish settlers. Guo said she was the first generation in the family to rediscover and practice her ancestors’ religion.
First records of Jews settling in Kaifeng date to the Northern Song dynasty. From the 10th to the 12th century, the imperial capital served as a trade hub linking the empire with the Silk Road.
“The emperor allowed 17 clans of merchants to settle in the city as traders,” said Liu Bailu, a professor at the Jewish Cultural Studies Centre at Henan University in Kaifeng. “Some estimate that more than 500 Jewish families settled in the city.”
The community, however, faded into history with China’s isolation in the early 19th century and the death of Kaifeng’s last rabbi around 1810. “By 1840, locals began selling parts of the synagogue,” said Liu. “By 1866, nothing was left.”
For Liu, the last century marked the end of that half a millennium of lived Jewish history. “The Kaifeng Jews aren’t Jews, they are descendants of Jews,” said Liu. “Some have only started to discover their roots with the help of foreigners very recently.”
The Chinese government only recognises five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Practitioners have to register with the state-sponsored religious organisations.
Despite the lack of government approval, authorities have tacitly tolerated the practicing of the Jewish faith.
China's ties with Israel have improved significantly since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992.
The Passover celebrations in Kaifeng will come four days after Israel's President Shimon Peres' return to Israel from his ongoing state visit to China, the first such visit in a decade. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beijing last May.
Esther Guo, a former teacher, now runs a small museum dedicated to the Jewish community in Kaifeng. She said she felt she was a Jew first and Chinese second. She refers to Jerusalem as her hometown, even though she has never lived there.
Efforts by missionaries to her community to convert people to Christianity had made it more resistant to outside pressure to let go of their old ways. “We refused to learn from foreigners,” she said. “We thought foreigners are all liars.”
It was only in the 1980s when the community discovered the similarities of their traditions with those of Jewish visitors. “We found out that they had the same religion!” she said.
A first group of four women from Kaifeng moved to Israel to study Hebrew in 2006 and converted to Judaism the next year. One of them was Guo’s cousin.
Shavei Israel – a group dedicated to connecting isolated Jewish communities around the world with the state of Israel – organised the journey. In 2009, they sent another seven men to Israel, who converted to Judaism and have swapped Chinese citizenship for Israeli passports.
One of them, 28-year-old Tzuri Shi, or Shi Heng, returned to his hometown this week so he could celebrate Seder, the Passover ritual next Monday. Another, Yaakov Wang, aims to return to Kaifeng as the city’s first rabbi in more than two centuries.
His other dream was to join Israel’s armed forces, according to an interview on the Shavei Israel website .
In October last year, Shavei Israel opened a Jewish centre in a small two-story apartment in Kaifeng. Once a week, an American rabbi teaches Jewish scripture via Skype.
For Asher Oser, rabbi with Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, the rediscovery of the Jewish faith by the Kaifeng community has raised a debate about how to respond. “We are not a proselytizing faith,” he said. “But what do you do when a long-lost relative knocks on your door?"
Guo said about 200 people now identified themselves as practising Jews in Kaifeng. The number is growing, she said.
The faith has become so popular that even non-descendants have tried to join, she said. “Many people seek to worship,” she said. “In the past, they chose to be Christian. Now they see a chance to be Jews.”