Cover Story / The Jews of China
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Reviving Jewish life in China

By Douglas M. Bloomfield

SHANGHAI, CHINA -- Jewish life in China dates back more than a millennium, but virtually disappeared following World War II. Today, there is a unique revival underway.

This port city, China's historic window on the world, has a tradition of welcoming foreigners. It was a safe haven for more than 20,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe a century after the first Jewish merchants settled here from Baghdad.

But the first Jews came to China in the eighth or ninth century, most likely from Persia, traveling along the ancient Silk Road that crossed the mountains and deserts of Asia, ending in Xian, then the largest city in the world and the capital of China for 11 dynasties.

They were probably silk merchants, and they settled in the city of Kaifeng along the Yellow River in east central China during the Tang Dynasty. Marco Polo wrote about meeting them there in 1286.

In China they found acceptance and were not persecuted for their beliefs as elsewhere. The community survived 10 centuries but appears to have fully assimilated by the late 19th century, according to Prof. Xu Xin of the Center for Judaic Studies at Nanjing University. Some say their descendants still exist, known as "the people who don't eat pork."

Today a new influx of merchants is reestablishing Jewish life to China. There are also teachers and students, diplomats and expert consultants, entrepreneurs and traders. Very few are immigrants; most are expatriates who do not plan to remain permanently.

One who is making this her home, however, is Elyse Silverberg, who runs a well-established marketing and consulting firm in Beijing. She has been here 18 years and has the Chinese equivalent of a green card, making her a legal immigrant.

The leader of the Beijing community, she organizes regular religious services at the Capital Club, a 50-story office building overlooking the city. The Chinese chef, she reports, has made an effort to learn Jewish cooking.

"We're a transient community," she said. "You get close but for a short, intense period. A core group has been here at least five years."

Jews began returning to China with the country's opening to Western business and investment following the dark years of the Cultural Revolution and what was most appropriately called "the great leap backwards."

She is uncertain how many Jews are living in Beijing today but estimates there about 100; Americans are the largest group, and others are from Canada, France, Russia, Australia and South America.

There apparently has never been a Jewish community in Beijing, so it was a milestone when last year Silverberg's son, Ari Lee, celebrated what may be the first bar mitzvah in the city's history. Officiating at the service was cantor Robyn Helzner of Washington, D.C. During annual trips to Beijing over the past three years she also has participated in the community's regular Shabbat services.

"Elyse and her friends have put enormous energy into keeping this community going," Helzner said. "Traditions can find a way to be passed down even under the most adverse conditions. There is no rabbi, no cantor, no synagogue, the things we take for granted. But people want to be together; they have a sense of roots, shared values, life style, religion, community, heritage."

Israelis tend not to participate with diaspora Jews, Silverberg said, and the Israeli Embassy "shows no interest at all." She said that is "upsetting" and "a mistake" because "such an important relationship is handled so badly" and because Beijing's Jews have knowledge and contacts that would be valuable to the Israelis but are ignored.

IN SHANGHAI, where Jews first settled 150 years ago, a relative newcomer is trying to revive Jewish life in this city of intense economic activity and opportunity.

Seth Kaplan, a 31-year-old New Jersey native who came to China two years ago to work for Compac computers, calls it "the most important and most western city in China, on the country's cutting edge."

"I came to China to do my own business. I spent six months thinking and six months putting my plan together. Now I am about to sign the first joint venture to open a for-profit university," he said. It will be in Ningbo, a city south of Shanghai, and will grant degrees from overseas institutions, he explained, because public universities are overcrowded.

There are about 200 Jews in Shanghai from at least 10 different countries, he said, and few if any expect to make it their permanent home. But more are coming than leaving, and he anticipates the population will grow about 50% a year, along with business opportunities. Relations with the Israeli consulate here are closer than between the embassy in Beijing and local Jews.

"About 100 Jewish souls get together for the holidays. We had two Pesach seders this year. Kosher meat was flown in from Australia, matzo was provided by the Israeli consul general and wine came from the United States," Kaplan said.

"The community observes all holidays and is in the process of creating a Beit Midrash/community center where we can hold regular weekly services, locate a library and install a kosher kitchen. We hope to have a rabbi permanently based here within a year," Kaplan said.

There are no operating synagogues in China; only two of the seven that once served the Shanghai community in the first half of this century still stand, but they have been taken over by government and are used to house various agencies.

A major friction point between the Chinese government and many religions, including Christians and Muslims, is their practice of proselytizing, Kaplan said, but because Jews have no interest in gaining local converts, and because there are so few of them, the Jewish community is risk-free for the Chinese.

Kaplan, 31, speaks fluent Chinese with a New York accent; he says New York and Shanghai are a lot alike: "they're both fast-paced, you can feel the energy on the street, and we're all obnoxious."

He considers himself "semi-observant," is a vegetarian when he can't get kosher meat from Hong Kong, and says the biggest drawback of being a bachelor in Shanghai is meeting eligible Jewish women.

The shammos of Shanghai

At 77, Wang Fa Liang still has a lot of bounce in his step and effervesces with enthusiasm for his neighborhood. But then it's not just any neighborhood in this bustling and teeming city of 13 million.

He has lived in the neighborhood all his life and delights in showing visitors around the streets and alleys, oblivious to the buses, bicycles, taxis and pedestrians that seem to be going in all directions at once.

During World War II his neighborhood was home to as many as 30,000 Jews, most of them refugees from Hitler's Europe. Officially the "designated area for stateless refugees," it was the Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai.

"I worked for a Jewish Cafe in Frenchtown, Didi's Cafe, and I made out the bills. The waiters were all White Russian Jews; two of them, their names were Stein and Friedman, introduced me to a Jewish family who were selling their house when they were leaving Shanghai in 1946. I've lived there ever since," Wang Fa said.

He is the living memory of the old ghetto, its "shammos" who looks after what was once the ghetto's synagogue, Ohel Moishe, at 62 Chang Yang Road.

Where Jewish children studied Hebrew on the first floor there is now a state-owned technical publishing company. Two rooms on the third floor that once housed the sanctuary are meeting rooms for government agencies but also memorials to the synagogue's past.

On the door frame is a mezuzah donated by the Colonia, NJ, Hadassah chapter in 1974 and pictures of distinguished visitors like former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and President Chiam Herzog. There is also a picture of the ghetto's most distinguished alumnus, Michael Blumenthal, who was secretary of the treasury in the Carter Administration and recently was named director of Berlin's Holocaust Museum.

The Shanghai Jewish community, dating to the 1840s, was created by Sephardi Jews with names like Sassoon, Kadoorie and Hardoon from places like Baghdad, Cairo, Bombay and Singapore. They built hugely successful business empires and many of the city's famous landmarks.

Early in the 20th century a new influx of Ashkenazi Jews came from Russia, fleeing pogroms and then the Communist Revolution.

"When I was young the bus drivers in Shanghai were about all Russian Jews; it was a British bus company. Other Jews worked on the railroad, kept stores, were furriers and some were street vendors," said Wang Fa.

On the eve of World War II there were about 10,000 Jews in Shanghai, mostly Russian, he said. The Sephardi community was small but wealthy, he added.

Many Russian Jews had first settled in Northeast China in cities like Harbin, Tianjin and Dalian, but moved to Shanghai after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the early 1930s.

There were seven synagogues in those days. Only two of the buildings remain -- Ohel Moishe, built in 1927, and Ohev Rachel, which was founded in 1920 by Sir Jacob Sassoon and is currently occupied by Shanghai's Education Commission. During that period there were some 50 Jewish newspapers and magazines published in at least nine languages; 30 continued publishing during the war years. The largest was the English-language Israel's Messenger, which was published next door to Ohel Moishe.

It was a vibrant community, the largest in the Far East, with cafes, bakeries, schools, theaters, clinics, political clubs, a hospital and cemeteries.

Jews fled to Shanghai throughout the 1930s because it was the one place that did not require a visa. Most came by ship from Italy and the early arrivals brought many valuables and belongings, but later ones fled with little more than a suitcase.

"So many came from Austria that some people called the ghetto 'Little Vienna.' The most popular place was a cafe by that name," said Wang Fa.

Although the Japanese took Shanghai in 1937, they did not take over the international areas until after the attack on Pearl Harbor and then, under pressure from their German allies, ordered the Jews into the ghetto, which was less than two miles square.

"The Gestapo sent spies here during the war," Wang Fa said. "They tried unsuccessfully to get the Japanese to participate in the Final Solution; instead, the Japanese set up this ghetto for refugees who had arrived since 1937, but really it was just for Jews.

"The Japanese didn't kill them, and they didn't help them. They did not treat immigrants so badly. The rich Jewish families in Shanghai gave money to the Japanese government; it's hard to say why, maybe for survival and protection, so the Japanese did not treat the Jews so badly as Hitler."

The American Joint Distribution Committee sent people who helped the Jewish refugees and set up their offices at Ohel Moishe in 1938.

"The Chinese and the Jews lived as good neighbors together during those difficult years. Many Chinese were helping the Jews. We sympathized with each other. We liked their long history and culture, and they liked ours," said Wang Fa.

"Many refugees died here," he said. In July 1945 the US Army Air Force attacked a nearby Japanese munitions depot and some bombs mistakenly hit the ghetto, killing 31 Jewish refugees.

Many of the refugees were doctors, professors, engineers and musicians, he said. There was a hospital in the ghetto that is today an apartment building with a small neighborhood health clinic attached. "We Chinese called it the refugee hospital. It was a maternity hospital, and wounded people from the air raids were brought here," he explained.

"Some of the Jewish engineers worked for the Japanese occupation authorities," said Wang Fa, and after the war many of the Jews worked for the US liberation forces and the US Air Force because of the English skills."

But with the end of the war, the Jewish community began to leave. Many went to Israel as well as North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Those who did not leave right after the occupation ended fled in the wake of the communist takeover and the cultural revolution.

But they haven't forgotten, and many still hold reunions here and in their new countries. During the 1994 reunion here, the city put up a memorial plaque, in Chinese, Hebrew and English, in the park that was once the center of the ghetto. Where Jewish children once played, elderly Chinese today gather to talk, do their tai chi exercises and play checkers and mah-jongg.

Wang Fa excitedly takes visitors through the park, past the Jewish theater, to the former hospital, he stops at what was once the Vienna Cafe to reminisce. He asks everyone to sign the guest book at Ohel Moishe and points out the names of dignitaries, alumni and tourists who have visited the old synagogue. He is delighted that the Shanghai Jews have not forgotten their former home and that so many others are discovering it.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is JWR's Washington correspondent.


© 1998, Douglas M. Bloomfield