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China Judaic Studies Association 
Promoting Judaic Studies in China


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 Jews.

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 students.

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: green sweatsuits.

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.