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Lock, Stock, and History

The Jews of Ancient China —- The Kaifeng Jews

The destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD created a wave of Jewish diaspora as Jewish rebels were sold into slavery or exiled to locations all over the Roman Empire.  However the spread of Jewish peoples expanded beyond the borders of the Roman world, as Jewish genes can be found all over Europe, Africa, and Asia.  One far flung Jewish community can be found in China, one of the most extreme examples of Jewish immigration in the ancient world.

After the Jewish revolt against Rome many thousands of Jews headed east to enjoy the wealth and riches of the Silk Road to Asia.  Jewish merchant communities sprang up all over Persia, Afghanistan, and Northern India.  One Jewish group traveled as far as Henan Province (Eastern China) and settled in the cosmopolitan city of Kaifeng between 600 – 900 AD.  By the year 1100 the Jews of Kaifeng had established a large and healthy community with a synagogue, communal kitchen, kosher slaughterhouse, ritual bath, and Sukkah (special building used to celebrate the festival of Sukkot).  During the Ming Dynasty the Kaifeng Jews took Chinese surnames which corresponded with the meanings of their original Jewish names.  One Kaifeng Jew, Zhao Yingcheng (Moshe Ben Abram) made his mark in Chinese history by being named the Director of the Ministry of Justice by the Emperor in the mid 1600’s. The religious traditions of the Kaifeng Jews remained the same through most of their history, corresponding exactly to the religious practices of Jews in the west.  However, in the 1860’s the community would be uprooted due to the chaos caused by the Taiping Rebellion.  The synagogue was destroyed and much of the ancient practices of the Kaifeng Jews were lost or forgotten.  The war caused a mini-diaspora of Chinese Jews as they sought refuge all over China.  After the war many Jews returned to Kaifeng to rebuild their community.  The modern Kaifeng Jews live a small community with a rebuilt synagogue.  Today 1,000 Jews still maintain a prosperous community in Kaifeng.

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