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Kaifeng's Jews

The origins of Kaifeng's Jewish community are a mystery. Three stone tablets (dated 1489, 1663, and 1679) from Kaifeng's old synagogue record different dates of arrival. Although inscriptions on the 1663 stele record the arrival of Jews during the Zhou dynasty (1100-221 B.C.), it is now more widely accepted that the early Jews likely came from Persia via the Silk Routes sometime in the late 10th century during the Song dynasty. According to the 1489 stele, the first arrivals were traders who were invited to stay on in Kaifeng by the Song emperor, who also bestowed his surname and those of his six ministers on the Jews who were said to have arrived with 73 surnames, and who subsequently took on the Chinese surnames of Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin, and Shi. A synagogue was established in 1163 but was often rebuilt, usually after natural disasters like the Great Flood of 1642, which damaged much of the town.

By most accounts, the Jews in Kaifeng did not retain any contacts with other Jews outside of China. The first Western report of their existence came from Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci in 1605 when he met Ai Tian, a Kaifeng Jew who had come to Beijing seeking office. Ricci later sent one of his Chinese converts to Kaifeng, who confirmed Ai Tian's story that the town had many Israelite families and a magnificent synagogue containing the five books of Moses.

The Jewish community continued to worship in Kaifeng until the flood of 1852 again destroyed their synagogue, which was never rebuilt after that. Evidence indicates that the remaining Jews became completely assimilated. Today, with renewed interest in the Jews of Kaifeng, there are a few self-identified Chinese Jews making themselves known again, the most notable being Zhang Xingwang, who has been working with the Kaifeng Museum to preserve the history of Kaifeng's Jews. He can be contacted through CITS or the Kaifeng Tourism Bureau (Luyouju; tel. 0378/398-8488). In the United States, information about Kaifeng's Jewish heritage, sometimes including special-interest tours, is available through the Sino-Judaic Institute, 232 Lexington Dr., Menlo Park, CA 94205 (www.sino-judaic.org).

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