An hour and a half south of Beijing by plane, the small city of Kaifeng, China is about as far as you can get from Jerusalem, culturally, as well as on the map. Shi Lei, who proudly explains that he is one of the thousand or so Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, has made that journey. Now he is traveling farther: touring the United States to tell his story and that of his ancestors who, for a thousand years, have maintained the memory of their Jewish identity, even as everything around them has changed.
Shi Lei (pronounced “Sher LAY”) is a cheerful ambassador for this long-forgotten community. He works as a tour guide, showing his native country to Western tourists, from Beijing and Shanghai to his own city and far beyond. In his soft-spoken, flawless English he takes his audiences on a verbal tour of the centuries that separate his tribe from the rest of the Jewish world, a separation for which he has become the bridge. Shi came to Seattle as a guest of the American Jewish Committee’s Pacific Northwest chapter.
Growing up in the east-central city, (one of the eight ancient capitals of Imperial China), he was reminded frequently by his father and grandfather of his Jewish heritage.
“Every Jewish descendant in Kaifeng, they just learned that they are of Jewish descent from our father or our grandfather,” says Shi (as is traditional in China, he places his surname first). But, while they remembered their origins, nothing of Judaim’s rituals or practices survived the centuries of the Diaspora.
“Virtually, we knew nothing about our traditions or about Judaism,” he says.
Over time, the Jewish settlers who traveled there from Persia were welcomed by the Emperor, intermarried, adopted more and more of the Confucian traditions and eventually forgot the rituals and prayers that set them apart. They traced themselves through patrilineal descent, and so, by halachic standards, they ceased to be Jewish. Yet they clung to their unique identity.
“It means a lot to us, not only to me but to other Kaifeng Jewish descendants, because our grandparents are always telling us we are Jewish, and to pass [this] down from generation to generation and never stop, because we are of Jewish descent. This is in our blood and cannot be removed,” he says. “Our ancestors, when they first came, they were practicing Jews – it was a traditional Jewish community, it had everything. But as time goes….
“Eventually they forgot everything. In the synagogue they emphasized reading the Confucian texts in order to get ahead professionally in ancient China,” Shi says.
As more time passed, Torah reading was abandoned, and the 700-year-old synagogue fell into disrepair and decay from lack of use. When the last rabbi died, in 1810, no one had the training or knowledge to replace him.
“The word just sort of died out,” Shi says.
Growing up steeped in the knowledge of his Jewish heritage but without a grounding in the beliefs and practices, Shi was always curious and wanted to know more.
“From my childhood, as I was learning more and more about this, and also saw the situation of the community, I really felt so bad,” he says. “This nation in China came a thousand years ago from Persia to China; they were very prosperous businessmen when they first came and also, in every field became so successful. Then, in the early 20th century, they just went downhill and almost died out. I just began to have a dream that someday, if I had a chance, [I] would like to study Judaism in Israel.”
That desire was spurred on by meeting Dr. Wendy Abraham, who came to Kaifeng to study the history of the Chinese Jews 20 years ago, when he was around 10, and became a friend of his family.
Then, in July, 2000, an opportunity opened up for him to fulfill his dream. Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who was chief rabbi of Tokyo for many years before retiring, led a group of American Jews on a study tour of Jewish communities in Japan and China. A few days after meeting Shi Lei in Kaifeng, Rabbi Tokayer suggested that he might be able to become a student at Bar Ilan University in Israel. Shi jumped at the chance to spend a year in Israel in the one-year English language Jewish Studies program there.
“I was chosen by the Sino-Judaic Institute to study there, because at the time I was probably the only one of the Jewish descendants there who knew English very well,” he says.
At the end of that year, he moved on to Jerusalem, where he spent an additional two years at the Machon Meir Yeshiva, where he studied Hebrew and dug deeper into the spiritual and cultural dimensions of being Jewish. At the same time, he was in for a shock. He spent the three years, from 2001 to 2004 immersed in largely Orthodox communities there, where his Jewish identity was a matter of some dispute. Shi says one of his fellow students asked him if his mother was Jewish and when he said no, he was told that, according halachah, he was not really a Jew and he was pressured to convert.
Despite that, Shi Lei feels very much a part of the Jewish world. He says his years in Israel allowed him to open himself up not only to his traditions but also to learn about the various cultures thriving in Israel and to gain a wider view of the world in general.
Sponsored by the Sino-Judaic Institute, he is speaking around the U.S. on the “rekindling of the Jewish spark” in his homeland, which brought him to speaking engagements at Temple Beth Am and the University of Washington.
At home, he has become an ambassador to that world for the last remaining ancient Jewish community in China. He says the younger generation, especially, has shown an interest in a Jewish awakening, beginning to observe some of the holidays and traditions that were lost over the centuries.
“They are very happy. After I was back from Israel, the Jewish descendants in Kaifeng have a new hope. They are excited, they are very happy and they would like to learn from me because they know I was in Israel, the ancestral land.”