When Yaakov Wang joined friends for dinner growing up in Kaifeng, China, he was the only one who did not order pork – a big deal in a country where that particular non-kosher dish is a cultural and culinary norm. But for Wang, a member of Kaifeng’s small Jewish community, it was one of the only ways he knew to express his Jewish heritage.
Jews have lived in Kaifeng, once one of the capitals of Imperial China, for over a thousand years, arriving originally as merchants from Persia or Iraq plying their trade along the fabled Silk Route. The community numbered as many as 5,000 at its peak in the Middle Ages, but has since dwindled to just several hundred descendants. The last synagogue closed 150 years ago.
Today, the Jews of Kaifeng know relatively little about their heritage – but they continue to nourish the dream of returning to the land of their ancestors and immigrating to Israel. Wang was one of the lucky ones. With the help of Shavei Israel, he has been studying in Hebrew, along with six other young men from Kaifeng, at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in Israel’s Jordan Valley.
Wang is passionate about mastering Hebrew, in part thanks to the influence of his grandfather. “He knew Jews had their own language,” Wang explains, “but he didn’t know the language itself.”
Over the last decade, visitors to Kaifeng – including a number of young Israelis backpacking through Asia – have brought books in Hebrew and Jewish ritual objects such as mezuzahs and a shofar to China. In addition, Jews visiting from abroad have met with members of Kaifeng’s Jewish community and taught them more about Jewish tradition and culture..
On the Shavei Israel YouTube site, you can see video of Kaifeng Jews learning the blessings over the Torah and singing songs in Hebrew. Wang is in those videos (he’s the young man in the back corner behind the wine bottle).
Despite their isolation, the Jews in Kaifeng were reminded of their heritage daily: until recently, their internal passports listed their ethnic identity as “Jewish.” In middle school, when Wang’s fellow students found out he was Jewish, they would comment, “now I know why you are cleverer than me,” Wang recalls with a smile.
Wang’s connection with his roots is even more pronounced: his Chinese surname is “Yage” which derives from the Biblical patriarch “Yaakov.”
Now in Israel, Wang is immersed in a Hebrew speaking environment 24/7, studying intensively for several hours a day while at the same time learning words specific to his kibbutz jobs, which have included working in the kitchen, the vineyards and with livestock.
As part of their studies, the seven newcomers from Kaifeng also learn Torah. “I like learning about the parsha (the weekly Torah portion) so that I can better understand what is being read in synagogue on Shabbat,” Wang says.
Wang hopes one day to be able to defend the Jewish nation by joining the Israel Defense Forces. And, he jokes, “I heard that in the army, they only speak Hebrew and they speak it very quickly.”
Wang has been enjoying his stay on kibbutz. In addition to work and study, the students have taken trips to old Jaffa, gone hiking in the nearby Gilboa mountains, and prayed at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. “When we were close to the Kotel, I felt in my heart that we shouldn’t speak loud,” he says. “We need the quiet to think about our life and our connection with G-d.”
It’s a far cry from life back in China. As the Jewish community began to learn more about Jewish practice over the last decade, they tried to keep a semblance of Shabbat. The Jews would gather in a central area Wang calls the “synagogue” where they would sing Shalom Aleichem and say Kiddush (the sanctification over the wine on Friday nights). “We tried not to cook, but it was difficult,” he says. The winters can be quite bitter in Kaifeng, he explains. “We were afraid the food would get cold.”
What does Wang think of his fellow kibbutzniks? “Before I came, I imagined that people in Israel would all speak very loudly,” he says. “On the kibbutz, though, they speak quietly and it’s we Chinese who speak loudly!”
When asked whether he would like to return to Kaifeng, Wang responds quickly: “No, I want to live here,” adding that he prays the remaining Jews still in Kaifeng will be able to make aliyah (immigration to Israel) “as soon as possible.”
That, he says, was always the wish of his ancestors, and Yaakov Wang is proud to be finally living out their dream in his new home.