This Year in Kaifeng
My name is Heng Shi, I am a Chinese Jew, born and raised in the city of Kaifeng, along the banks of the Yellow River, among hundreds of people in Kaifeng who are descendants of the city’s Jews.
Now I live in Jerusalem, using my Hebrew name Tzuri.
Jews lived in Kaifeng for more than 1,000 years. Our ancestors were Sephardic Jews who traveled along the Silk Road and settled in China with the blessing of the emperor during the Song dynasty. They built a synagogue that stood for 700 years and had rabbis and preserved the traditions of our ancestors.
But by the end of the 19th century, because of assimilation and intermarriage, the community’s existence came to an end.
Last year, Passover returned to Kaifeng. For the first time since the 19th century, we had our first real, meaningful seder, organized by Shavei Israel in Jerusalem. It was the first time in 200 years that a Chinese Jew was leading a traditional seder there.
While we did try to have seders in past years, last year was the first time we had a ritual meal and fully understood the meaning behind it.
Dozens of descendants of the Chinese Jewish community gathered around the table, and we stayed up late into the night talking about the Passover story, about the seder, and what it means for us as Chinese Jews.
Several years ago, Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, brought me and six other young Kaifeng Jews to the Jewish state, where we learned Hebrew and Judaism. Two years ago, I completed my conversion with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate together with the other six guys.
We decided to make aliyah.
Last year I traveled back to China to lead the seder. I felt that I had to bring back to my family and friends in China what I had learned.
On the night of Passover, more than 50 Jewish descendants of Kaifeng Jews gathered at the Shavei Israel Hebrew Center in Kaifeng. We distributed Haggadot in Hebrew and English to the participants, along with a Chinese translation.
We sang the traditional songs (with a Chinese accent, of course!), drank the four cups of wine, and welcomed Elijah the Prophet.
The chazzan of our community, Gao Chao, who has a beautiful voice, learned many of the popular tunes that are sung in the West. Then, one of the old people told about how he remembered, as a child before the Revolution, that his parents used to slaughter an animal and put its blood on the doorpost on Passover, but he did not know the reason why. When I showed him the verse in the book of Exodus where it says that the people of Israel did just that thousands of years ago, right before the killing of the Egyptian first-born, he was shocked.
In Chinese culture, respecting one’s ancestors is a very important value. As we read the Haggadah and studied the experiences of our forefathers, we felt very connected to Jewish history.
The most emotional part of all was at the end, when we sang “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Many of the older people began to cry because it is a dream of theirs to go to the Holy City and live there. But unfortunately, because of bureaucratic reasons, they are unable to do so.
In my own life, “Next year in Jerusalem” has come true. Even though I would rather spend Passover this year in Israel, now it is my turn to give back to my community.
I feel the Kaifeng Jewish community still needs me. This year, I will once again be leading the seder in Kaifeng. And it looks like we will have an even bigger crowd than last year.
Tzuri (Heng) Shi, 29, lives in Jerusalem.
This article also appeared in The Jewish Week.