Shavei Israel profile: Gidon Elazar – a family role model for the Kaifeng Jews

Shavei Israel profile: Gidon Elazar – a family role model for the Kaifeng Jews

Gidon Elazar in Jerusalem

Gidon Elazar in Jerusalem

When Gidon Elazar finished his mandatory military service, like so many other Israelis he had a hankering for travel. Setting his sights on the Far East, he spent much of his time in China. So began a decade-long fascination, one that continues today and that has blossomed recently into a connection not only with China as a whole, but with the Jewish community in Kaifeng as well.

Elazar’s ties to Kaifeng were prompted in part by his father, the late Prof. Daniel Elazar, who taught political science at Bar-Ilan University and founded the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. As far back as 1985, the elder Elazar traveled to the Far East and penned an early article about the Kaifeng community called “Are There Really Jews in China?”

His son, Gidon, however, never made it to Kaifeng in his post-army trek in 2005-2006, nor in a subsequent year he spent in China with his wife in 2009-2010, while pursuing a doctorate in East Asian Studies at Haifa University. Indeed, his scholarly focus was on the Christian expansion in China – nothing to do with the Jews at all. “I wanted a kind of division between my academic life and my inner world of hassidut,” Elazar says, referring to his personal religious partiality towards Eastern European spiritual and mystical practices within Judaism.

That doesn’t mean that Elazar, now 36, hid his Judaism during his time in China. “When my wife and I were living in China, we functioned as kind of a Bayit Yehudi,” he says, which he describes as a “private” Chabad-style house, open to other traveling Israelis. “We were never alone for a Shabbat meal,” he adds, and for Rosh Hashana in 2005, the Elazars hosted nearly 40 Israel and Jewish backpackers in their home in the Hunan province of China.

Elazar’s Kaifeng connection didn’t come until he was back home in Israel. A neighbor, Rabbi Menachem Weinberg, had been working for Shavei Israel, teaching the 7 young Jewish descendants from Kaifeng, China, whom Shavei helped make aliyah. When Rabbi Weinberg learned that Elazar spoke near-fluent Mandarin, he brought the latter in to substitute teach for a few weeks. Elazar also hosted some of the Kaifeng men at his home for Shabbat.

It was a good match. With a further recommendation from Eran Barzilay, another Israeli East Asian Studies major who is now working for Shavei Israel spearheading the organization’s activities in Kaifeng, Elazar, his wife and two children traveled to Kaifeng for the first time last year to be with the community for the holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Elazar taught classes, started writing several mezuzot (Elazar is also a sofer stam – a trained writer of Hebrew calligraphic texts) and helped the community build a kosher sukkah on the roof of the building where one of the community members lives.

Perhaps most important, it was the first time the community had been blessed with a visit by an entire religious family from Israel – previous teachers had all been young singles, traveling alone.

Elazar was impressed by what he discovered in Kaifeng. “It’s really quite amazing that anything Jewish survives at all in Kaifeng,” he says. “But families, clans and lineage are very central for the Chinese and one of the Ming emperors assigned seven family names to be known as ‘Jewish’ names. This seems to have been enough to sustain some sort of faint memory.”

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. We have more about the community and its history on our website.

The history of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, unlike other far-flung Jewish communities, for example, in Africa, has never been in question. The community’s story is written down – literally in stone (as tablets) – dating back to 1489. (The tablets are now in a museum.) And, although the community’s synagogue is no longer standing, there are detailed descriptions and drawings of its appearance (a reconstruction is in the Diaspora Museum in Israel), as well as documents on its succession of rabbis, the last of whom passed away nearly two centuries ago. The street on which the synagogue once stood is called, in Chinese, “Teaching the Torah Lane.” “In China, written history lasts forever,” Elazar says.

Elazar also remarks how remarkable it is that there is an active, functioning Jewish community in Kaifeng, despite so many years of assimilation. “They meet for Friday night meals and prayers and they have classes whether I’m there or not,” Elazar explains. “They were the hosts and I was the guest. It wasn’t the other way around,” as often happens when outside Jewish groups organize a weekend seminar, for example, for disconnected locals.

Since the reforms of the 1980s in China, people – Jews and non-Jews alike – have been searching for their roots and looking for meaning, Elazar adds. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The Jewish community was rocked two decades ago when the Chinese government removed the ethnicity of “Jewish” as an option on Chinese citizens’ identity cards.

Elazar stresses that the government’s move wasn’t targeting the Jews per se. Rather, “ethnicity is a Pandora’s box. There are hundreds of groups interested in becoming officially recognized, and the government is afraid of what would happen if it opens up too much. It wants to keep a lid on ethnic claims. So there are just 56 official groups, based on ethnic mapping that was done in the 1950s.” With so few Jews in China, “Jewish” didn’t rank high enough to maintain its separate status.

The Jews of Kaifeng don’t suffer from anti-Semitism, Elazar says. On the contrary, “Judaism is very popular. There are self-help books on subjects like ‘the secrets of the Jews.’ They see Judaism as a ‘success story,’ not just in business, but also regarding family values and education. They look around and see the achievements Jews have made in the world and ask ‘how can we learn from that?’ There are also similarities between Chinese and Jewish culture – close family values and learning are part of the Confucian ethic. They recognize things in Judaism they like about their own past but that they’ve lost in the last century.”

Elazar says he is often asked how he kept kosher in a country like China known for its abundance of treife (non-kosher foods). “It’s really not a problem,” he says, perhaps giving encouragement for future religious travelers to China. “You just have to plan for it. I usually cooked for myself. Produce is very plentiful in China.”

Elazar has no current plans to go back to China, although he is in continuing contact with the Kaifeng Jews who are now in Israel. His main goal for the moment is to finish his doctorate and keep up with his work – he leads classes in East Asian Studies at Herzog College, a teacher training institution in the Jerusalem area.

“People who are studying to be history teachers in Israel will have no choice but to start teaching Asian history, too” he says. “This is the future.” Those who are fortunate enough to have Gidon Elazar, with his unique expertise and experience, as their instructor will get an added bonus: the history of China and its remarkably tenacious if tiny Jewish community.