Between Yangtze and Yarkon

For the past five years, Jin Wen-Jing and her parents, Jin Guang Yuan and Zhang Jin Ling – “Shlomo” and “Dina,” as they are called in Hebrew – have lived in Jerusalem. The daughter, whose name means “tranquillity” in Chinese, and is known by that name (“Shalva”) at the boarding school in the north that she attended after arriving in Israel, is the prism through which the parents see the country. She is their interpreter and spokesperson, and she guides them through the subtleties of Israeli culture and the labyrinths of the civil bureaucracy and the rabbinical establishment. She is 21, tall and thin, perhaps contrary to the stereotype of the Chinese as being short of stature. “My grandfather always wanted to come here, to Israel,” she says, “and we also always wanted to live among Jews. We were not afraid that we would have a hard time.”

Since the family – one of about 600 Chinese families from the city of Kaifeng who claim to have been Jews for many generations – realized its dream of immigrating to Israel, its members have faced numerous obstacles on the road to being recognized as Jews. Like many others, they found out the hard way that it’s not easy being a foreigner in Israel. Especially if you are a Chinese Jew. The family lives an isolated existence, eking out a living by cleaning houses, and misses the relatives who were left behind. Nevertheless, a smile never leaves their faces. The grief and affront they experienced here are well hidden beneath a restrained exterior.

Last week, Shlomo, who looks younger than his 50 years, underwent a circumcision. But that has not saved him from being marked as a foreign worker. Despite the knitted skullcap he wears, he is vulnerable to various forms of harassment, especially by the Immigration Police, who are convinced that he is an impostor. Once he even spent the night in detention. He relates, without being aware of the racist treatment he received, that at first he was not allowed even to sit on the bunk bed, but after he insisted on joining the minyan (prayer quorum of 10 adult males), he was permitted to sleep on a mattress.

A few weeks ago, at 3 A.M., the family awoke to pounding on the door. “When we opened the door, the policeman with the rifle aimed at me identified me immediately,” Shlomo says, laughing. “What are you doing here, Shlomo?” he asked. Since then the family has refrained from placing its Chinese name on the door.

Shlomo is the pious one in the family. When he is not cleaning stairwells, he sits at home and reads an improvised Bible, on whose pages he glued the Chinese translation he cut out of another book. Another ray of light is the weekly soccer game with Chinese students at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Friday night ritual

The Jewish identity of the Jin family, a kind of Chinese version of the Ethiopian Falashmura (descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity), has been passed on from one generation to the next. About 150 years ago there was still an ancient Jewish-Chinese community in Kaifeng, descendants of Jews who apparently arrived from India via the Silk Route. However, after 1860 – when the synagogue was destroyed because the Yellow River overflowed – the community disintegrated and assimilated into local society.

What does it mean to be Jewish in China? After a quick exchange with her parents, Shalva Jin smiles with embarrassment: to light candles and drink wine on Friday. As proof of their Jewishness they show a small book written by a Chinese official, which describes the descendants of the Jews in China. The Jin family was photographed there, looking festive, when their daughter was three.

In Israel, the rabbinate was not persuaded of their Jewish identity. According to the daughter, what broke them was when the rabbi told them straight out that they are not Jews and that they would have to undergo an Orthodox ritual conversion. “They thought [my parents] would return to Kaifeng,” she says.

Noam Urbach, a student in the East Asian department at the Hebrew University, is working on an M.A. dissertation about the Jews of Kaifeng. He has also chronicled the Jin family in a documentary film now in the editing stage. Urbach met the couple in Kaifeng in 1990, when he went to China to learn the language and encountered the Jewish story.

Despite the communist government’s suspicion of minorities, he says, until 1979 there was local recognition in the province of Henan, where Kaifeng is located, of the few residents who maintained a Jewish identity. Since the start of the 1990s, in the wake of developing relations with Israel, the local authorities have permitted outside Jewish groups and individuals to rehabilitate the synagogue and establish a museum in it. Jews abroad have donated $4 million for this purpose. A framed plan of the synagogue hangs on the wall in the Jin home.

Shalva Jin and her parents recall that during that period “foreigners came to visit us all the time and to take an interest in our Jewishness.” According to Urbach, the Jewish awakening occurred against the background of the slow decline of communism, but was also related to the opening of the Israeli embassy in China, in 1992.

“The descendants viewed that as a symbolic event and hoped it would be possible to start maintaining a community,” he explains. “That was a problem. The authorities began to be apprehensive about a new minority.” As a result, in 1996 the city authorities shut down the office that was in charge of rebuilding the synagogue and a year later the category of “Jew” was erased from residency cards. Israel ignored these developments. The embassy, Urbach notes, canceled a planned visit by a Jewish Agency delegation to Kaifeng out of fear that it would be frowned upon by the authorities.

Of all the descendants of Jews, who are said to number about 2,000, how is it that onl y the Jin family immigrated to Israel? “It was Shlomo’s life project, after he and others had been focused on their Jewishness for years, without hope,” says Urbach, who is critical of the fact that Israel is ignoring the Jewish descendants in Kaifeng, and adds that the state’s attitude toward Jewish communities abroad is cynical. “The test is the Law of Return. If they are not considered Jews according to halakha [Jewish religious law], they are totally ignored. But there is a fascinating Jewish story here,” he says. In the final analysis, he adds, the rabbinic court is less racist than the state, because it converted the family. However, they have yet to receive an ID card and do not know what their status is.

Shalva Jin is worried about the ID card issue. Without it she feels she does not belong. But it is also a psychological matter. Although she no longer thinks about her friends in China, she says, she is also not especially attached to young people in Israel. “I don’t feel that I belong either here or there,” she says. She loves Chinese culture, she explains, and is connected to it via the Internet. However, she does not want to go back to China. In the meantime, she has registered in the East Asian Department at the Hebrew University and maybe, she says, she will be able to bridge the two parts of her identity when she works as an interpreter or in the diplomatic corps.  

Contact Tamar Rotem

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