Jewish heritage in China? It's true, and it's not just a matter of heritage, either--in places like the ancient dynastic capital of Kaifeng, China's ancient Jewish population is reconnecting with its roots and with Jews from around the world.
An increasing number of travelers have come to know that Shanghai has a rich Jewish past, due both to the success of early 20th century Jewish businessmen like Victor Sassoon and to the tragic World War II diaspora that saw the establishment of a Jewish refugee community in the open port of Shanghai. Shanghai Jewish heritage tours of sites like the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, now home to the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, are increasingly popular.
A lesser-known chapter of Jewish heritage in China continues to be written in Kaifeng, where a community of Jewish merchants established residence some time around the 8th century AD. The details of the community's origins remain fuzzy, with some claiming the Kaifeng Jews are remnants of the fabled lost tribe of Israel while others argue they are descendents of Persian Jewish Silk Road merchants, but what is clear is that for over 800 years, a vibrant Jewish community thrived in Kaifeng.
Today, as the effects of China's tumultuous 20th century begin to subside, Kaifeng's Jews are reconnecting with their heritage, as Jewish World reporter Rami Tal details here. One enterprising young descendent of Kaifeng's Jews, Shi Lei, has taken major steps toward reestablishing Kaifeng as a center of Jewish culture in China. After studying in Israel, Shi returned home and established a small museum and community center of Jewish culture in his home, as Rami Tal explains:
"Thirty-year-old Shi Lei does not try to hide his excitement when he takes his guest, an Israeli journalist, to the central room in his parents' home. His family, which is of Jewish descent, has lived in this home for more than 100 years. After the death of his grandmother and grandfather, Shi, together with his father, turned this room into a mini-museum and a small Jewish center, where he gives classes on Jewish tradition to children and adults of Jewish descent."
Shi's private museum, open to visitors from all over the world, joins the Kaifeng Museum and several other sites around town, including that of the Kaifeng Synagogue (destroyed by fire centuries ago, though the synagogue well remains as a poignant reminder) and the offical Kaifeng Institute for Research on the History of Chinese Jews in not only preserving this unique heritage, but quite possibly preparing the ground for a renewal of one of a proud and ancient community.