by Sophie Lavine
In the spring of 2013, our family of four broke from our usual Passover routine and spent the holiday in Beijing, China–not the most obvious place to have a seder, but due to my father’s business needs abroad this was our family’s gathering place that year.
Passover, the eight-day festival that retells the story of the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt, is a holiday that Jews around the world have celebrated for centuries at family seders. My family has always had seder in my great aunt and uncle’s home in Yardley, PA, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, with our extended family. It is an annual occasion for catching up, singing and reminiscing about our Jewish heritage through the holiday’s generational traditions. It is one of my favorite holidays.
Traveling in China, a country engulfed in a cuisine of pork, rice and dumplings, was challenging as a kosher-observant Jew, and I anticipated finding a seder in this foreign country would be impossible. However, after a quick online search, my family was pleased to find a seder to attend, hosted by the Chabad of Beijing, and learned the fascinating history of Jews in China and the history of today’s inclusive Jewish community in Beijing.
Though many do not know it, there is a long history of Jews in China. Jews have been present in the country as far back as 92 CE during the Han Dynasty. For the next 500 years, Jews lived in port cities, integrated themselves into Chinese society, and lost their Jewish connection.
New evidence of Jewish observance was discovered during China’s Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE). A Hebrew scripted page of Selichot, prayers for forgiveness, dating from the 8th or 9th century, was discovered in caves at Dunhuang, a Buddhist site near the Taklamakan Desert. In addition, a poem was found that mentioned synagogues and mosques for Jews and Muslims in the Imperial city of Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty. These records proved the Jewish presence in the country, though no Jewish community was recognized until the time of the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 CE).
When the Song Dynasty reopened China’s gates to foreign immigrants, following years of unrest and corrupt leadership, Persian Jews traveled the Silk Road and brought cotton to the Chinese emperor. These travelers established themselves in Kaifeng, the Song Dynasty’s imperial city.
In 1163, the Kaifeng Jewish community built their first synagogue. Approximately 300 years later they engraved into stone the date of the synagogue’s construction and a quote from the emperor acknowledging the Jews’ entry in China. The quote read, “You returned to my China. Honor and observe the customs of your ancestors.” This was the emperor’s way of welcoming the Jews into his country and supporting Jewish observance in China. The Kaifeng Jews continued to thrive through the next five centuries, with evidence of the total population ranging from a few thousand to at most 5,000.
Much like China itself, the Kaifeng Jewish community remained isolated from the world. In 1605, Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit Priest, visited China in search of Christianity, and discovered the existence of the Jewish community.
Shortly after western civilization’s discovery of the Kaifeng Jewish community, the Yellow River flood of 1642 destroyed the synagogue and a large number of the people were lost. The Kaifeng Jewry began to dissolve. Brothers Zhao Yingcheng and Zhao Yingdou rebuilt the synagogue, but they struggled to rebuild the community. Knowledge of Hebrew language, Jewish tradition and culture began to disintegrate. In the early 1800’s, the last Rabbi in Kaifeng died and approximately 50 years later the synagogue was torn down, and Torahs and manuscripts were sold, ending this era for the Jews of Kaifeng.
However, today in Kaifeng the seven Jewish last names given by the emperor when the Jews first arrived in China, including Shi, Ai, Gao, Jin, Zhang, Zhao, and Li still remain. Also, a small group still identifies themselves as Jews and continues to follow the Jewish practice of not eating pork.
The modern-day Jewish community of Beijing was established in 1979. At that time, when the United States and China had settled their diplomatic relations, Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg from Long Island, NY traveled to Beijing. They hosted an inaugural seder, followed by high holiday services that fall, leading up to the formation of Kehillat Beijing. This was the first modern-day synagogue in Beijing. With China’s restoration of international relations, and therefore a growing expat community, Kehillat Beijing began to develop.
In 2001, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich established the first Beijing Chabad house, followed shortly thereafter by a second house. Together, Kehillat Beijing and Chabad support today’s 2,000 Jews living in Beijing and another 2,000 to 3,000 traveling through Beijing each year.
“We are such a far out city that’s not traditionally known for having a Jewish community. We just take advantage of the city and what Beijing has to offer. A year or two before I got to Beijing, a woman had her bat mitzvah on the Great Wall [of China].” says Jake Laband, a leader within Kehillat Beijing, whom I spoke with recently.
“I found my Jewish identity here in China. I was raised Jewish and had a bar mitzvah and did all that in the United States. Here in China, [Judaism] has become more a part of my identity.” Laband says.
My family and I were welcomed into the Beijing Jewish community that night, as we entered the Renaissance Beijing Hotel ballroom for our seder. Among the more than 200 people in attendance, there were Chabad families, young students, expats, an El Al flight crew and travelers all crowded around tables in the ballroom, just as my family always did around my aunt and uncle’s long dining room table in Pennsylvania.
It was truly incredible to see everyone gathered in this unfamiliar foreign city, yet so at home together in this ballroom.
Just as my great-uncle did at home, as he sat at the head of our seder table, Rabbi Freundlich stood in the front of the room and welcomed everyone. Beginning with the order of the seder, we sang (kadesh, urchatz, karpas, yachatz, etc.) from the familiar haggadah in front of me. Although the food was slightly different based on what could be found in China, the seder plate in the middle of the table gave me a sense of familiarity.
The seder continued, with a traditional alignment of songs, and prayers, as well as jokes and stories. The Four Questions were sung both in Hebrew and Chinese, and the 10 plagues were reenacted using small toys and costumes.
The food was primarily shipped to China and Chabad at the hotel oversaw preparation. The matzah was brown and round, white fish stood in for gefilte fish, the matzah balls were heavy and thick, and the roasted chicken and vegetables were traditional. Although it was different from my usual Passover meal including gefilte fish and my Bubbie’s famous Passover noodles, just being a part of that community for a night, and experiencing Passover in another country, only made me realize how much I loved the holiday. It was a truly beautiful experience of Jews gathering from all corners of the world to celebrate and recall the story of Passover. As we sang through the night, we were reminded of the long history of the Passover story, the legacy of Jews in China, and the traditions that the entire Jewish world embraces each year.
On that same night, friends and families in Pennsylvania, Israel, Europe and elsewhere around the world gathered to retell the Passover story. This is truly the essence of what makes our Jewish world unique and keeps our culture strong and alive from generation to generation.