Saturday, April 11, 2009

Passover in Kaifeng

Passover in the middle of China! My wife and I amid a crowd of Chinese celebrating the holiday. How did this curious event come about?

A thousand years ago a Jewish community in what is today Turkey got wind of an upcoming persecution. The decision was made to flee far from danger. Off the people went, traveling east on the Silk Road all the way to China. They were welcomed by the Emperor in his capital. So it was that a small number of Jews settled in Kaifeng.

Over the years the people prospered. They encountered none of the prejudice and oppression so tragically common in the West. They embraced their new Chinese lives.

In the wake of Marco Polo’s expeditions missionary Matteo Ricci came to China, where he would spend the rest of his life. One day he received a visitor. The Chinese man had heard that there was a Westerner who was an adherent of the one true God. Completely unaware of the existence of Christianity, he was sure he was about to reestablish contact with the Jewish world.

Ricci in turn thought he might have found a lost colony of Christians. After a discussion they realized their error. Ricci sent to Kaifeng a Chinese Jesuit who confirmed the unexpected existence of a Jewish community—in China!

Curious about this oddity, the Jesuits eventually built a church near the Kaifeng synagogue. Relations between the groups were good when focused on studies of mutual interest. But any efforts at conversion were resisted and resented by the Kaifeng Jews. The only Catholic church in town still stands near the site of the old synagogue. In between stands the city’s biggest mosque. Due to the historical proximity of the three religions to one another, Kaifengers call this area Little Jerusalem

Over time the Jewish community disappeared. It wasn’t suppressed. Many Jews intermarried. Young men neglected their Jewish studies in order to prepare for the imperial examinations. They became more and more Chinese until no one could read Hebrew or say the prayers anymore. When the last rabbi died and the synagogue was destroyed in a flood, the community faded away.

In recent times the Kaifeng Jews have become a subject of curiosity and study. Israeli and American Jews come to town to find out more about this unique outpost. Descendants of the Kaifeng Jews have dedicated increased energy to reviving their dormant heritage.

In the spring Jews all over the world celebrate Passover. All over the world—even in Kaifeng, China. On the evening of April 8 my wife and I attended a Passover seder (service) here. About 50 of the descendants gathered at a local restaurant. The crowd also included guests from as far away as Beijing and Hong Kong—and two from Wooster, Ohio, USA.

Immediately preceding the Seder was an event of signal importance. One of the visitors presented the group with a baby Torah. Representatives received it with the appropriate combination of solemnity and happiness. This scroll is the Five Books of Moses, the Books of Law, the Pentateuch, studied, parsed and combed for every nuance over the centuries. The gathering was genuinely joyful and enthusiastic as the little Torah was taken around the room and everyone stood and touched the box.

The service was led by two earnest young men. While most was in Chinese, it was strange to hear the Hebrew portions spoken with such an exotic accent. The people ate matzo and drank wine as they made their way through the liturgy. A highlight came when a young girl recited the four questions that ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” With the focus on task so typical of the Chinese, she had memorized the long Hebrew portion perfectly in only two weeks.

After the service we had a typical Chinese meal. That means a bewildering array of dishes made a seemingly endless parade to the table. There was mutton and duck and beef and chicken. There was lotus root and aloe plant in yogurt sauce and everything else from pickled bean sprouts to sheep intestines. And there was the standard feature of any Chinese banquet—jolly toasts in which everyone must click their cups and glasses. “Kambe!” Drink it dry!

Finally we engaged in another inevitable part of any Chinese event: photographs. Everyone takes pictures of everyone and the weigoren (foreigners) are especially popular. We posed and smiled and said “Qieze.” That’s the Chinese version of “say cheese” but it’s the word for eggplant.

The Chinese Jews were and are a minuscule sliver of a population of 1.3 billion. Most Chinese are unaware of their existence. Among the few who know anything about the Jewish people there is respect. The Jews have a long history and exhibit perseverance. The Chinese can identify.

The Kaifeng Jews are determined to build a future based on a proud and rich past. To China they add a little much-needed diversity. To Barbara and me they gave one never-to-be-forgotten evening.

For pictures go to and click on slideshow in the upper left corner


  1. Excellent story and photos, Paul. This blog is a great read, although I am left with some unfortunate mental images of Chinese public toilets!

    Good luck, world traveler. We look forward to your safe return -- and hearing all your stories in person.

    Best Wishes,

    Mark Wilson

  2. Hello,

    I am going to be in Shanghai this year for Passover and wanted to join a seder in Keifeng do you know if this would be possible? Who should I contact? If you have any suggestions about traveling in Keifeng, I would love to hear them!