Bar Mitzvah Presentation: Jews in China

I was born in Maoming, Guangdong province, located in the southwestern area of the People’s Republic of China. My Chinese given name is Chao Shao Mao, however, when I was a year old, I was adopted by my mother, Farah, and was given the name Samantha.

My mom is Persian Jewish and was born in Iran. When she was 19 years old she moved to Westwood, Los Angeles. After living there for a while, she became interested in the idea of adoption. When she knew she was ready to adopt children and became serious about doing so, she faced many dilemmas.

For one thing, she thought about what it would be like to adopt a child from China and raise her in the Persian Jewish community. At first she was unsure about how successfully the two cultures could merge.

But then, one day, something interesting happened: while she was in Noah’s bagel shop in Westwood, she noticed that the two main stream of customers were of Chinese and Persian cultural backgrounds. At that point she had a revelation, she realized that a child from China could potentially feel very much at home in such an environment. Raising a Chinese-Persian child around the UCLA campus wouldn’t be so difficult after all, since there are many Chinese and Persian people in the Westwood area.

For this reason, I wanted to explore both my Chinese and Persian heritages further to learn more about myself. As the subject of my Bas Mitzvah project. I decided to research the origins of Chinese Jews and their connection with Persian Jews.

I know you are probably thinking that there is no connection between Persian Jews and China. However, through my research, I was able to learn that there actually is a connection between both cultures, and I would like to share with everyone my findings. Before I do so, I need to unveil a little bit of the historical perspective of Jews in the ancient world.

About 2,500 years ago in Babylonia, which was a part of the Persian Empire, there was a great and wise ruler called Cyrus the Great. One of the reasons Cyrus was considered to be “great” was because he believed in universal human rights and dignity for all people. For this reason, living in Babylonia during his reign was beneficial, not only if you were Jewish, but also if you were a minority of any kind.  Consequently, Babylonia became the greatest center for academia in the entire world, and remained so for many centuries.

However, around the year 1000, as Christianity increasingly became a state religion in Europe, the Muslim world felt they had to keep the pace with the Christians. Babylonia then came under the control of a fundamentalist Muslim government. This meant that life for minorities in Babylonia would take a turn for the worst and the Jews were very much included.

In the late-11th century, the situation became worse. The Christian world decided to re-conquer the “Holy Lands,” embarking on some 200 years of Crusades. This, in turn, caused ripples throughout Mediterranean Africa, the Middle-East and Persia, which brings us back to our story of how Persian Jews made it all the way to China.

Before delving into that, however, I need to tell you about the Silk Road:

Around the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world, starting in his home country of Greece and extending eastward as far as he could go. This conquest opened up many things, but perhaps the most useful to human beings was trade. One of the most valuable commodities, for example, was something that came from China called silk. For this reason, the trading route opened up by Alexander the Great became known as the Silk Road.

The Silk Road wasn’t just one route; it spread all over Asia and Europe. It was the major trading route for most people since Alexander’s time all the way until the rise of European colonial powers beginning in the late-15th Century.

On the Silk Road, many goods were traded from west to east or east to west.

Some of the items that were traded included silk (of course), porcelain, tea, wine, weapons, metal work, horses, camels, woven goods, spices, cloths, glass, precious stones, food, text, plants and dyes.

Other non-material goods were also traded along the Silk Road: Religion, culture, and news were also shared.

The Silk Road, in short, was one of the major portals through which people learned about the world and its vast diversity of culture and goods.

Returning back to the subject of the Persian Jews: Life was not going so well for them anymore. Jews emigrated far and wide during this time, across Europe and Africa to the Middle East.

Like immigrants from all time periods, from ancient humans up to today, the Jews that decided to leave to find a new home that would allow them to live their lives in peace, where they could prosper and raise their families.

Part of the research I did for my Bat Mitsvah topic, included reading a book called The Legends of the Jews of Kaifeng by Xu Xin.  This book tells the story of a group of Jews living in Babylonia in a town called Samawa.

The book is made up of historical records, as well as legends and myths, so even though not every detail is 100% factual, it still provides a very accurate portrait of what life might have been like for these Jews.

There is little historical evidence of how and when this group of Persian Jews actually traveled to China, but the book helped provide a historical context for how the journey might have ensued and what life might have been like once they got here.

Basically, since the Persian town of Samawa was located near one of the many routes of the Silk Road, and as its community of Jews were looking into where they might move, they received news by means of the Silk Road, about a city far away in China called Kaifeng.

Kaifeng was an international city that embraced multiple cultures and minorities. It was a place where these Persian Jews were convinced they would have the best chance at being successful in their lives and raising their families.

Although there is little historical evidence of how or when these Jews actually traveled to China, there is definite evidence that they made the incredible and improbable journey to China, consisting of some 3000 miles—which even for today’s standards, would be considered a very long trip!

Reading the book, The Legends of the Jews of Kaifeng was comparable to studying the book of Genesis, which my Bar/bas mitsve class has spent most of the year engaged in, with Hershl. Even though, unlike Genesis, there are no supernatural elements in The Legends of the Jews of Kaifeng, both books are comprised of legends and truths, as well as moments of shared cultural identity.

First, I would like to discuss what the book of Genesis is about. The first book of the Torah, which is originally comprised of the Five Books of Moses, this collection of legends, myths, popular stories and laws connects me directly to the Jews journeying from Persia to Kaifeng. How, you may wonder? These are the same stories that the Jews from long ago revered.

There is a story that I would like to share with you from The Legends of the Jews of Kaifeng. It happened several centuries after their community had been established.

Kaifeng had turned out, much as their Persian ancestors had hoped. It was an open-minded city, part of the Song Dynasty and later the Yuan, then the Ming Dynasty, which allowed them to live and thrive for hundreds of years.

In 1640, the Yellow River experienced a terrible flood. This is a historical fact. It displaced many people and caused awful hardship. In the story, the Jews of Kaifeng were also terribly affected by the flood. Their homes were destroyed and their lives were left in ruins. The Kaifeng Synagogue had also been destroyed, and although the Rabbi gave a passionate speech for his congregation to pitch in, they had more pressing concerns with their lives, so the Synagogue was rebuilt, very slowly, taking some three months just to rebuild and lay its foundation.

Unhappy with the progress, the Rabbi gave another sermon, in which he reminded the congregation about the story of the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem. Although this story took place more than 2000 years earlier, it inspired the congregation, because as the rabbi said, if the Jews from long ago, who were surrounded by those that wished them harm, could rebuild the temple…

…couldn’t the Jews of Kaifeng, rebuild their synagogue in the nice, safe place, where there were no enemies other than the rising flood waters?

In the story, the Rabbi’s sermon inspired the Jews and they set to rebuild the synagogue, which was finished soon after.

What I like about this story is that, just as the specific details of the rebuilding of the first temple had been lost to myth and legend, it was also entirely possible that the story of the Jews of Kaifeng rebuilding their synagogue was also just a myth and might not have actually happened.

Today, there is a synagogue in Kaifeng. However, was it destroyed in the 1640 flood? Historical records say that over the centuries, the synagogue was destroyed many times by flood waters and fire. But whether it was the Rabbi’s sermon that contributed to it being rebuilt, no one knows for sure, but it is a great story.

Like all the great stories, like the rebuilding of the first temple of Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the Kaifeng synagogue, like the story of Moses, these stories help inspire our lives and give us strength.

The story of the Jews of long ago rebuilding the temple gave the Jews of Kaifeng inspiration to accomplish a task that seemed impossible. Having read the story of the Jews of Kaifeng overcoming great hardships, in turn, helped ME do something seemingly impossible:

my bat mitzvah project!

Throughout this past year, I have researched and read countless articles about Jews in China, studied maps, read books, and explored my deep thoughts and questions.  I have learned that there are Jews all over the world, and that I am not the only Jewish Chinese person that I know of other than my sister.  I have also learned that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything, and even though it might be hard, it is all worth doing so.

As for the Jews of Kaifeng, to this day there is a small community of Jews living there. By some estimates there are fewer than 50 families, but these Jews came from somewhere with a story revealing a unique and fascinating heritage. Their ancestors overcame amazing hardships and their descendants  are there to this day to prove it.

My personal story is also connected to Persia and China. Like the Jews that traveled through the Silk Road to Kaifeng, I too have traveled thousands of miles, from China to LA, to gain my Chinese-Persian Jewish identity. This is the identity I have explored during my bas mitzvah project.

In conclusion, I would like to thank my mom  for giving me my identity and for making me who I am today. My sister Hannah for being my sister and sharing a similar story with me. Hershl Hartmen for teaching me about the stories of The Book of Genesis. My mentor and Vegvayzer Ross Helford for helping me every step of the way with this project. Last but not least, thank you to everyone for  being here today to take part in this special day.

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