Back in 1992 when I was working at Maimonides School in Boston, I wrote and directed a musical called The Jews of Kaifeng. Few people know about the small community of Jews that lived in China for more than a thousand years. These Jews, who found their way to China via the Silk Route, faced many hardships. Kaifeng is situated perilously close to the banks of the Yellow River, and every few years or so a terrible flood would strike the town, leaving devastation in its wake. There were spiritual dangers as well. With the advent of civil service exams (which enabled people to get ahead in society), it was suddenly more important to master Confucian texts than it was to study the Talmud or Torah.
Here's more on the history of the Jews of Kaifeng:
What was life like for the Jews of Kaifeng from the time they became firmly established in the city until their community fell apart? The answer is that in its everyday non-religious aspects the life of the Kaifeng Jews was not very different from that of their neighbors. They dressed like their countrymen, wore pigtails (a custom decreed by the Qing conquerors of China to symbolize the submission of the Chinese to their new rulers), bound their daughters' feet, spoke the local dialect, and engaged in the same occupations as the people among whom they lived. They were thus farmers, merchants, artisans, scholars, officials, soldiers, doctors, and the like. In proportion to their numbers, however, they seem to have been quite successful. Many attained mandarin rank, the most noteworthy of these being the brothers Zhao Yingcheng (Moshe ben Abram) and Zhao Yingdou (Hebrew name unknown), who in the 1660s held prestigious governmental posts and were instrumental in rebuilding the synagogue that was destroyed in the flood of 1642.
A prayer book for the Sabbath Eve, containing a membership list of the Kaifeng Congregation from the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Here's a 1907 National Geographic article entitled The Chinese Jews, written by Oliver Bainbridge.
Two years ago, after visiting Kaifeng many times in my imagination, I finally got to see the real place. Though the skies were gray and dreary the whole time I was there, I still found the place magical. Here are some photos from my trip.
Finally, here are two pieces about Kaifeng from the present and the near present:
1. Kaifeng-on-the-Hudson: An Audio Slideshow by Nicholas Kristof
2. A Jewish Spark Rekindled in China (Michael Freund, The Jerusalem Post)
Shi Lei’s grandfather would recount to him the distant memories he still preserved of Jewish practice. “When my grandfather was a kid, maybe when he was 8 years old or so, he saw the celebration of the Passover,” says Shi Lei. “His father, my grandfather’s father, used a traditional Chinese writing brush to dip in chicken’s blood mixed with water. After dipping, he would dip this on the doorpost of his home.” The ritual echoes the Biblical command given by G-d to the Children of Israel prior to the exodus from Egypt.