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Globalization, Translation and Transmission: Sino-Judaic Cultural Identity in Kaifeng, China

Moshe Y. Bernstein

Around the tenth century Jewish merchants from Central Asia arrived in Kaifeng. Welcomed by the Emperor, they integrated into China’s economy, society and culture. They intermarried with their hosts, following patrilocal custom with Chinese wives adopting their husbands’ Jewish traditions. In 1163 they built a synagogue, where the group, numbering 5,000 at its apex in the sixteenth century, continued to conduct Jewish rituals for seven centuries. Despite the loss of this building in 1849 by flooding, the families and clans of Jewish descent continued to recall their ancestral identity and preserved a few basic customs. In 1978 with the "opening-up" of China, foreign visitors to Kaifeng generated both a renewed interest in the group and a communal revival of its Jewish identification. This cultural revival has created both opportunities and risks, due largely to an ambivalent Chinese policy denying ethnic status to the Kaifeng Jews while allowing them limited cultural expression. This book explores how a small minority was able to transmit its blend of Sino-Judaic culture over the centuries and how their descendants are striving to revitalise that cultural heritage today.

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In 1984, twenty-five years prior to my first encounter with the Jews of Kaifeng, the issue of conflicting translations of identity manifested itself through an unfortunate incident. In that year the Israeli government, in conjunction with a number of other international agencies, organised Operation Moses, the covert evacuation of more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, known as the Beta Israel, from their refuge in famine-stricken Sudan. I was then a full-time student in a rabbinic academy for married men of the Zans-Klausenburg Hassidic group located in the Old City of Safed in the Upper Galilee. As an American-born latecomer to orthodoxy, with a longstanding interest in the African diaspora and cultural diversity, I was intrigued at the arrival in Israel of Jews from Africa. That enthusiasm, however, was not shared by my rabbinic colleagues, all of whom hailed from more insular haredi (ultra-Orthodox) households and took a more circumspect view of the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to grant the Ethiopians Israeli citizenship under the Right of Return.

When I learnt that a group of these new immigrants had been transferred to a tentative absorption centre in Safed, I was keen to volunteer my family as a host to support the recent arrivals’ acclimation to their new environment. To that end, cognizant of the divergent view in the haredi world, I first consulted with the Rosh Kollel, the academy’s dean, to seek his permission to make contact with the group. The latter listened cautiously to my request but...

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