From Kaifeng to the Kotel
A Chinese rabbi in the making
by Michael Freund
Yaakov Wang (center) at morning prayers
Yaakov Wang (on left) working on kibbutz
It is a warm summer day in Israel and despite the agreeable weather outside, Yaakov Wang is glued to his seat in the study hall.
Arrayed on the desk in front of him is a small mountain of Jewish texts, ranging from the Bible to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Concise Code of Jewish Law) to books on Jewish philosophy and thought.
Yaakov listens intently as his teacher at a Jerusalem-area yeshiva explains the intricacies of Jewish practice and belief. Puzzled by a particular explanation, he doesn’t hesitate to ask for clarification when the need arises.
Satisfied with the answer he receives, he dutifully enters the information into a spiral notebook for further study and reflection.
It is a typical scene, one that is repeated throughout schools of Jewish learning across the land.
But Yaakov is not your typical yeshiva student.
He is a descendant of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, and he is avidly pursuing an extraordinary dream: to become the first Chinese rabbi in 200 years.
Jews are believed to have settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th century during the Song Dynasty or perhaps even earlier. Scholars believe they may have been Sephardic merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route. With the blessing of the Chinese emperor, the Jews established themselves in the city, where they found an environment of tolerance and acceptance, in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the Diaspora.
In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions throughout the centuries. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people.
By the 17th century, a number of Chinese Jews had attained high ranks in the Chinese civil service, but along with success came the blight of assimilation, which took an increasingly heavy toll on the community and its cohesion.
By the mid-1800s, the Chinese Jews’ knowledge and practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community is believed to have died in the early part of the 19th century, and the synagogue building was all but destroyed by a series of floods which struck the city in the 1840s and thereafter.
Nevertheless, against all odds, Kaifeng’s Jews struggled to preserve their Jewish identity, passing down whatever little they knew to their progeny.
In the 1920s, a Chinese scholar named Chen Yuan wrote a series of treatises on religion in China, including “A study of the Israelite religion in Kaifeng.” Yuan noted the decline the community had endured, but took pains to recall that the remaining descendants still tried as best they could to observe various customs and rituals, including that of Yom Kippur. “Although the Kaifeng Jews today no longer have a temple where they can observe this holy day,” Yuan wrote, “they still fast and mourn without fail on the 10th day of the month.”
Nowadays, in this city of over 4.5 million, there are still several hundred people – perhaps a thousand at most – who are descendants of the Jewish community. Because of intermarriage in preceding generations, most if not all are no longer considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law.
In recent years, an awakening of sorts has taken place, especially among the younger generation of Kaifeng Jewish descendants, many of whom wish to learn more about their heritage and reclaim their roots.
It was this stirring which propelled Yaakov and six other Jewish descendants from Kaifeng to make aliyah in October 2009. They were brought to Israel by the Shavei Israel organization which I founded and chair.
Upon arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurionairport, Yaakov could barely contain hisemotion. “I am very excited to be herein the Holy Land,” he said, adding, “Thisis something that my ancestors dreamedabout for generations, and now, thankG-d, I have finally made it.”
From the airport, the group went straightto the Western Wall, where they recitedthe “Shehehiyanu” blessing with greatfeeling, and then burst into a chorus oftraditional Jewish songs.
For the first six months after his arrival,Yaakov studied Hebrew at a religiouskibbutz in Israel’s Beit Shean valley,before going to yeshiva to deepenhis Jewish knowledge and prepare toundergo a formal process of conversion.
He dove into his studies with alacrity,thirsty to acquaint himself with the waysof his ancestors.
As a youth growing up in Kaifeng, Yaakovhad a strong if somewhat vague sense ofhis Jewish heritage. Whenever he joinedfriends for dinner, he recalls, he was theonly one who did not order pork, whichis no small matter in a country where thatparticular non-kosher dish is a culturaland culinary norm. But for Yaakov, it wasone of the only ways he knew to expresshis attachment to being Jewish.
Yaakov is especially passionate aboutmastering Hebrew, in part thanks tothe influence of his grandfather. “Heknew Jews had their own language,”he explains, “but he didn’t know thelanguage itself.”
Despite their isolation, the Jews inKaifeng were reminded of their heritagedaily: until recently, their internaldocuments listed their ethnic identity as”Jewish.”
In middle school, when Yaakov’s fellowstudents found out he was Jewish, theywould comment, “now I know why youare cleverer than me,” he recalls with awry smile.
His connection with his roots is evenmore pronounced: his Chinese surnameis “Yage” which derives from the Biblical patriarch “Yaakov.”
Since his arrival in Israel, Yaakov hasimmersed himself in his studies. Heparticularly enjoys the Bible.
“I like learning about the Parsha (theweekly Torah portion) so that I canbetter understand what is being read insynagogue on Shabbat,” he says.
In addition to study, Yaakov and the otherKaifeng descendants have also foundtime to tour the country, taking tripsto old Jaffa, going hiking in the Gilboamountains, visiting Theodor Herzl’s tomband praying several times at the Kotel(the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. “Whenwe were close to the Kotel, I felt in myheart that we shouldn’t speak loud,” hesays. “We need the quiet to think aboutour life and our connection with G-d.”
Once he completes his conversion,Yaakov plans to study towards rabbinicalordination. And while he is aware thatthis would make him the first nativeChinese rabbi in two centuries, his focusis less on making history and more onhelping others.
“I want to help other Kaifeng Jews tolearn more about our heritage,” he saysmodestly. “They deserve a chance tobecome more knowledgeable Jews. Thatis what our ancestors would have wanted.”
Every day, three times a day, Yaakovattends services in synagogue, sayingthat he prays that the remaining Jewishdescendants still in Kaifeng will be ableto return to the Jewish people and makealiyah “as soon as possible.”
And if that day should indeed come topass, Yaakov Wang, perhaps bearingthe title “rabbi”, will be there to welcomethem home.
The writer, Michael Freund, is a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and serves as the Chairman of Shavei Israel (www. shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based organization that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.