30 Sep A Chinese Jewish New Year
Dipping an apple in a bowl of honey and blowing the shofar are two of the most iconic images of the Jewish New Year. But those customs are nothing short of miraculous when they take place so far from Israel or other large Diaspora Jewish communities that they are literally on the other side of the world.
Take a look at the pictures here and you’ll see the familiar fruits, the unforgettable curl of the ram’s horn, and the Hebrew words Shana Tova – Happy New Year – written on the whiteboard in the background. But the faces may be less familiar.
That’s because this Rosh Hashana gathering took place in Kaifeng, China, where the small Jewish community celebrated the coming of the New Year with the same vigor as Jews in Jerusalem, New York or Paris.
Jews are believed to have first settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th century, arriving there from Persia and Iraq as they made their way eastward along the Silk Route. In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But, by the mid-1800s, assimilation had taken a heavy toll and the Chinese Jews’ knowledge and practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community 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.
All of which makes the dogged perseverance by several hundred Kaifeng Jews to maintain their Jewish identity that much more remarkable.
Over the years, Shavei Israel has been assisting the community in their thirst for tradition. We have sent emissaries and teachers to Kaifeng; helped open a center and a new synagogue just off the historic “Study of Torah Lane”; sponsored the first ever community-wide traditional Passover Seder led by a Chinese Jewish immigrant to Israel (including a Haggadah we translated into Chinese); set up Torah classes in person and via Skype; and even brought a number of Kaifeng Jews like Yaakov Wang on aliyah to Israel (with more to come soon – watch this space for details).
Shavei Israel is also translating portions of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau’s book “Practical Judaism” into Chinese. And next week will see the annual construction of Kaifeng’s communal sukkah for the holiday of Sukkot. Your support for our activities in China is always welcome: please visit our support page where you can make your donation securely.
So, when is a shofar not just a shofar? When it survives to be blown, loud and clear, with Jewish pride and joy, even in a location as remote as Kaifeng!
Here are a few more pictures from this year’s pre-Rosh Hashana celebration in China. Blowing the shofar in the picture above are Jao Chao (left, in the dark shirt) and Li Bo (right, in the white shirt).