Aaron Wood: from Beijing to Safed, and now to Kaifeng

Aaron Wood: from Beijing to Safed, and now to Kaifeng

Aaron Wood at the blackboard in China

Aaron Wood at the blackboard in China

What do the Chinese people as a whole know of the small Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng? Not much, says Aaron Wood, who was born in Beijing, grew up entirely oblivious of Jews and Judaism, and yet today lives as an observant Jew in the Old City of Safed, Israel, with his wife and children.

Wood now knows a lot more about the Kaifeng Jews: he spent three weeks with the community earlier this year on Shavei Israel’s behalf, teaching Hebrew and Judaism. Wood is now preparing for a second trip in the coming months.

“The Chinese media report that, yes, there are Jews in China, but the message is that they are totally assimilated,” Wood explains.

But that’s not the case, Wood learned, when he arrived in Kaifeng. “Yes, they look exactly like Chinese, there is no difference there. But as soon as you talk with them, you can immediately sense they are not traditional Chinese.”

Wood says that modern Chinese are “very pragmatic, only concerned about today.” Someone talking about God and tradition “would be seen as foolish, stupid, backward or outdated. A Chinese person wouldn’t even bother to ask you about the evidence for it. They’d just throw the idea of God away. But the Jews of Kaifeng, they are different. They really want to connect. They will say, ‘we are not like all the other Chinese people around us. We have our own ancestry. We are from Israel.’”

Aaron Wood’s own transformation from atheist to Orthodox Israeli is equally unique. It began in 1995 during college when he was studying mechanical engineering. “In my senior year, after submitting my thesis, I had a lot of free time,” he explains. “So I began attending graduate-level English classes, taught by an American teacher, in Beijing. One day after class, the teacher began speaking with me about religion and the Bible – a topic with which I was completely unfamiliar. He gave me an English-Chinese Bible to read. I was eager to learn English, and the book seemed liked an excellent learning tool: English and Chinese sentences side-by-side, with each sentence numbered, making it easy to find the corresponding words.”

While the teacher eventually left the country, Wood wanted to learn more about the Bible. With nowhere else to turn, he joined a local church in Beijing, but he thirsted to study the text in the original Hebrew. “Even in a country of a billion-plus people, I could not locate anyone with sufficient scholarship in the text,” he says.

He next hit up Beijing’s central library. After two years of badgering the librarians, a Hebrew-English dictionary finally arrived. “That helped me learn the aleph-bet. But I still didn’t know how to pronounce anything.” That problem was solved a few years later when Wood came across a “learn Hebrew” CD provided by a Chinese tourist who had recently returned from a visit to Israel.

Wood joined a Bible-related Internet forum. He became friendly with an Israeli from Jerusalem who mailed him his first Hebrew-English Bible. “For someone who has always had access to Judaism, it’s probably hard to appreciate how thrilling it was for me to finally have the authentic original text in my hand.”

Wood’s search for anything related to Judaism, Hebrew and – increasingly – Israel itself, intensified. “I set out to read any book I could find that was even remotely connected to the Jews – everything from Holocaust memoirs to Israeli politics, from Maimonides to Martin Buber,” he says.

Eventually, “I started to think about what actually being Jewish might mean for me,” he says. Wood had a shortwave radio and he tuned in to broadcasts from Israel. He didn’t understand what was being said except for one line: Return to Israel. “I somehow felt a deep emotional connection every time I heard that line,” he adds. “I identified with the Jews wandering the world in search of the Promised Land. I felt that I, too, was wandering in search of my homeland. I finally reached a point of utter clarity. I decided to become Jewish and move to Israel…although I had no clue of what precisely that would entail.”

First, Wood would have to figure a way to fully immerse himself in Jewish life and study towards a formal conversion. He needed a halfway stop. Through a Chinese friend, Wood moved to Canada. In Toronto, he became involved with the Village Shul, which is affiliated with the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was exhilarated. “Imagine my first shofar blast, my first taste of matzah, my first dance at a Jewish wedding. It was all so beautiful, so pure.”

Wood became observant. “Stopping to eat pork products, a main ingredient in almost all Chinese food, was a big deal,” he admits. In 2011, 16 years after he first received that Chinese-English Bible in college, Wood formally converted to Judaism. “I had finally come home,” he says.

There was one more step to “coming home” – moving to Israel. He arrived in 2012 and continued his studies at the main Aish HaTorah center in Jerusalem. “It was like winning the lottery,” he says. “Who would have thought that a kid growing up in Beijing would one day be studying Torah at the best location in the world – directly across from the Western Wall.”

Now in Israel, Wood was introduced to Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund who suggested Wood return to China, albeit temporarily, to visit the Kaifeng community.

Wood is a bit of an anomaly when he travels in China – ethnic Chinese in appearance, speaking fluent Mandarin, but wearing a black suit and hat. “People in China had no idea of the meaning of this garb,” he says. “It just looks unusual in their eyes. I felt safe and undisturbed there.” Indeed, the only people who ever asked him about his clothes “were foreigners doing business in China. Some of them were from Israel!”

Aaron Wood (center) with family in Kaifeng

Aaron Wood (center) with family in Kaifeng

Even though the Jews in Kaifeng have a much closer connection to their Jewish roots than Wood, trying to follow Jewish tradition in Kaifeng presents many of the same difficulties Wood encountered along his journey. “They don’t eat pork and they only buy meat from the local Muslims”, whose rules on slaughtering animals are similar to the laws of kashrut, Wood reports. There is also a hunger for knowledge among the Jews of Kaifeng, which Wood was happy to fulfill during his three-week stay.

“The Kaifeng Jews practice Hebrew conversation but their Hebrew reading is not very good,” Wood says. “So I decided to teach them from the beginning – to give them a foundation, going all the way back to the vowels.” From there he moved into brachot – blessings. “Because after all, to be Jewish, you have to say brachot. This is an area every Jew has to study, no matter where in the world they are.”

Wood’s lessons expanded beyond language to include Jewish culture and to instill “pride of being Jewish or being a descendent of a Jew,” as he puts it. One of the most powerful moments on Wood’s trip occurred when the group was looking at a picture of a siddur (prayer book) that had been used hundreds of years ago in China. (The book itself has long since been lost.) And then Wood pulled out the modern day Artscroll siddur that he uses in his personal practice.

“I asked one of the students to read from the Artscroll,” Wood recalls, opening it up to the same page shown in the prayer book in the picture. As the student read from the Artscroll, “he was very surprised. ‘It’s exactly the same,’ he said. ‘Even the vowels!’ For them, this shows that Judaism is not just something from the Western world. It is their tradition too. It gave them a real moment of deep connection through the holy tongue. I sensed a real excitement. I felt some fire in them was kindled.”

Back in Israel, Wood is now studying Hebrew full time. He hopes once his conversational skills catch up with his reading of religious texts, he will be able to find work in his field of specialization: acoustical engineering. “Israel is a booming country and there is construction everywhere. There is a need for my skills,” he says. “I hope someday I can build a business of my own, while continuing to study Jewish texts part of the day.”

Wood found one more link between his past and present that suggests his destiny may indeed have been pre-ordained. “My Chinese family name is Chai, which translates as ‘wood,’” he says. “It’s amazing that this same word is the iconic Hebrew word for ‘life.’” Which seems the most fitting connection for Aaron Wood’s own remarkable life.