From Kaifeng to the Kotel: a Chinese Rabbi in the Making

Yaakov Wang (center) at morning prayers

by Michael Freund

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.

Yaakov Wang (on left) working on kibbutz

Upon arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport, Yaakov could barely contain his emotion. “I am very excited to be here in the Holy Land,” he said, adding, “This is something that my ancestors dreamed about for generations, and now, thank G-d, I have finally made it.”

From the airport, the group went straight to the Western Wall, where they recited the “Shehehiyanu” blessing with great feeling, and then burst into a chorus of traditional Jewish songs.

For the first six months after his arrival, Yaakov studied Hebrew at a religious kibbutz in Israel’s Beit Shean valley, before going to yeshiva to deepen his Jewish knowledge and prepare to undergo a formal process of conversion.

He dove into his studies with alacrity, thirsty to acquaint himself with the ways of his ancestors.

As a youth growing up in Kaifeng, Yaakov had a strong if somewhat vague sense of his Jewish heritage. Whenever he joined friends for dinner, he recalls, he was the only one who did not order pork, which is no small matter in a country where that particular non-kosher dish is a cultural and culinary norm. But for Yaakov, it was one of the only ways he knew to express his attachment to being Jewish.

Yaakov is especially passionate about mastering Hebrew, in part thanks to the influence of his grandfather. “He knew Jews had their own language,” he explains, “but he didn’t know the language itself.”

Despite their isolation, the Jews in Kaifeng were reminded of their heritage daily: until recently, their internal documents listed their ethnic identity as “Jewish.”

In middle school, when Yaakov’s fellow students found out he was Jewish, they would comment, “now I know why you are cleverer than me,” he recalls with a wry smile.

His connection with his roots is even more pronounced: his Chinese surname is “Yage” which derives from the Biblical patriarch “Yaakov.”

Since his arrival in Israel, Yaakov has immersed himself in his studies. He particularly enjoys the Bible.

“I like learning about the Parsha (the weekly Torah portion) so that I can better understand what is being read in synagogue on Shabbat,” he says.

In addition to study, Yaakov and the other Kaifeng descendants have also found time to tour the country, taking trips to old Jaffa, going hiking in the Gilboa mountains, visiting Theodor Herzl’s tomb and praying several times at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. “When we were close to the Kotel, I felt in my heart that we shouldn’t speak loud,” he says. “We need the quiet to think about our life and our connection with G-d.”

Once he completes his conversion, Yaakov plans to study towards rabbinical ordination. And while he is aware that this would make him the first native Chinese rabbi in two centuries, his focus is less on making history and more on helping others.

“I want to help other Kaifeng Jews to learn more about our heritage,” he says modestly. “They deserve a chance to become more knowledgeable Jews. That is what our ancestors would have wanted.”

Every day, three times a day, Yaakov attends services in synagogue, saying that he prays that the remaining Jewish descendants still in Kaifeng will be able to return to the Jewish people and make aliyah “as soon as possible.”

And if that day should indeed come to pass, Yaakov Wang, perhaps bearing the title “rabbi”, will be there to welcome them home.

Michael Freund is the Chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.