From the Newsletter of the China Judaic Studies
Assoc., Beverly Friend, editor.
April 1996 Tour of Jewish Sites of China, with Xu Xin
Reprinted from the Stark Jewish News, Canton Ohio, June, 1996.
By Bilha Ron
How did Sam and I and Ellie and Alan Breitbart find ourselves on the
long flight to China? It all started with Professor Xu Xin, the Director
of the Judaic Studies Association in China, who came to speak in Canton
last year and was a guest in our home.
Two weeks of travel, fully escorted by Xu Xin and his lovely wife, were
an exciting adventure into the past and present of China.
We walked from dawn to dusk, climbed hundreds of steps to temples and
pagodas, met with scholars of Jewish Studies and also met the remnant of
The first stop was the modern city of Shanghai. We observed the relationships
between the old and new, rich and poor and East and West in this land of
dramatic contrasts. Communism versus Capitalism and Atheism versus Buddhism
pull the people in opposite directions.
In the old Jewish Quarter we learned that during its heyday the Jewish
community included up to 20,000 refugees who found haven from the Russian
Revolution and Nazi atrocities. We walked the narrow streets visiting the
synagogue which has been turned into a museum. The Jews left Shanghai as
soon as the city was opened after World War II and searched for freedom
in the West and in Israel. The people in Shanghai remember the Jews with
positive remarks for their contributions to the growth of the city in building
and philanthropy. We also met a group of Chinese scholars who have been
teaching Jewish history, Hebrew, Israel and the Middle East to Chinese
From the booming city of Shanghai we flew to Nanjing on the banks of
the Yangzi River and the home of Professor Xu Xin.
The Professor proudly introduced us to faculty and students at Nanjing
University. A rainy day offered the unusual sight of thousands of people
bicycling with their heads and bodies covered in plastic reflecting all
the colors of the rainbow. What a strange and beautiful vision! Quietly
and peacefully people move from place to place and their needs are so minimal.
The children are clean and beautifully dressed in their school uniforms:
The visit to Beijing, the present capital of the People’s Republic of
China, included a climb to the Great Wall, built over 2,000 years ago and
4,000 miles long. The sight was magnificent and the flow of tourists from
all over the world, as well as China, is captivating. Shopping is a great
pleasure, and we were going wild!
We visited the Forbidden City, a home for past emperors, empresses,
eunuchs and concubines. Tienanmen Square is flowing with visitors. We also
saw a convoy of limousines with Israeli flags transporting official visitors
of the Israeli Judicial delegation to the People’s Hall. And we were there!
We paid a visit to a hospital of Chinese medicine. The doctors checked
us out and provided herbal medicines. Alan Breitbart, the most adventurous,
volunteered to be a patient and received special treatment.
Kaifeng by the Yellow River was next.. This remote city, not often visited
by Western tourists, was the capital city of Hunan during three dynasties
and was the site of the ancient Jewish community. We walked the narrow
streets and saw the crumbling dwellings where they used to live. An old
Chinese Jewish lady invited us to her very poor home to meet her grandchild,
who dreams of going to Israel. We met the delegation of this community
who are all Chinese-looking. Although they remember very little of being
Jewish, they continue to relate to their children the tales of past generations.
The nearly total assimilation of this community offered a warning and a
lesson to us of what can happen when Jews easily adapt to societies that
receive them without prejudice or persecution. In keeping with the Confucian
doctrines, the Chinese treated the Jews with respect. The Jews, in turn,
became prosperous and successful as doctors, farmers and scholars. Over
the past 100 years, intermarriage has caused a loss of their identity and
the once beautiful synagogue has been damaged by flooding of the Yellow
River. Today, there may be 200 Jews left in Kaifeng — all intermarried.
From Kaifeng we traveled nine hours by train to Xian. Along the way,
it was most interesting to observe the green fields of wheat and rice,
cultivated by the hands of thousands of farm workers. We saw many cave
dwellings. Xu said that inside the caves the homes are lovely and nicely
decorated, warm in winter and cool in summer. Xian, the beautiful and ancient
capital city, is the place where an amazing 2000 life-sized terra-cotta
soldiers were discovered. From Xian we flew to Hong Kong.
Some general observations: The walls of Communism are falling down;
the dollar bill is crumbling the system which kept control on the huge
country with a population of 1.2 billion people; the guides in each city
we visited were talking freely and even were critical of the system (that
reminded me of our visit to eastern Berlin weeks before the Wall crumbled
there); the wind of freedom is blowing as evidenced by opening relationships
to the West — enterprise zones are forming partnerships with Western companies;
the growing privatization — economic modernization and investments are
promoted by the government with frenzy; farming is still the predominate
employer; 60% of the work force is producing 30% of the gross national
product; private enterprise has introduced both inflation and unprecedented
consumer choices; skyscrapers and lavish hotels stand beside hovels without
sanitation; markets are plentiful with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables,
meats, poultry, fish and spices; people are not hungry and are not sleeping
in the streets and the children, seen in their uniforms, are well-kept,
clean and most friendly to us.
The official agenda stresses the past history of imperial glory, victories
and vast palaces and ignores completely the accomplishments of Communism.
In Kaifeng, we saw a parade of open trucks full of armed soldiers. On
each truck stood several prisoners, handcuffed, shaven and wearing prison
garb. People told us that they were being led to the center of town for
execution by shooting. The expressions of these prisoners I shall never
forget. I learned that China had executed several hundred people that month.
We saw some of them and captured them on video camera — a very sad sight.
What about the Jews of China? There are no vital Jewish communities
in China today. The Jews of Shanghai have left for the West, the Jews of
Kaifeng have assimilated and the Jews of Beijing are organized as a small
prosperous Western enclave with some connection to the Israeli Embassy.
What is hopeful and significant is the work of Professor Xu Xin, who is
building a positive environment for Jewish Studies. We even saw classes
of students studying in Hebrew. Scholars working to expose the Chinese
to Jewish culture in order to develop stronger relations with Israel, publish
translations and new material so Chinese intellectuals will appreciate
the contribution of Judaism to the Western world.