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China Judaic Studies Association 
Promoting Judaic Studies in China

West-to-East Trip Report


Edward L. Koven

Over 140 international Jewish travelers experienced magnificent Japanese and Chinese sights and gained many insights regarding the history, the present state of, and Jewish roots in Japan and China. Visiting Kaifeng, embarking on the first Kosher Yangtze River cruise, exploring the Forbidden City, and climbing the Great Wall were some of the China highlights. Lectures, discussions, and religious services were integrated into the entire trip. For many the pre-trip knowledge of the Jews of China was limited to their primary religious schoolbook about the Jews around the world or nothing at all. We learned from our Far East Jewish travel experience that we are living in a small world after all which is getting smaller each day in our jet age.

The July 2-20, 2000 journey entitled "Pepper, Silk and Yanktze 2000" was the 20th group to China and Japan led by New York Rabbi Marvin Tokayer. The group was comprised of travelers from Australia, Canada, England, France, Holland, Israel, and the United States. Rabbi Martin Tokayer

American members of the group came from 13 states – Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. They ranged in age from 23 to 88. Michael Kong of Lotus Tours in New York made the unique and intricate travel arrangements for the trip.

The trip had a distinct Jewish focus. All meals were either kosher or vegetarian. Religious services were held three times a day. The two Shabbats in Beijing and on the Yangtze River were devoted to prayer, lectures, and discussions about Jewish-Chinese topics. The Torah service on the Yangtze was conducted at two levels – before and after the 150 foot drop at the Gezhouba Dam. Rabbi Tokayer’s primary Sabbath message was that Jews with different beliefs have many more similarities than differences.

The group benefitted tremendously by Rabbi Tokayer’s expertise regarding the Jewish presence in the Far East. Prior to the trip, the Rabbi distributed his book, The Fugu Plan, an account of how about 1,500 to 2,000 Jews were able to escape from the European holocaust from Lithuania through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok and by steamer to Japan in late 1940 and early 1941 with most eventually spending the war in Shanghai. Rabbi Tokayer served as an Air Force Chaplain in Japan for two years and for a period of time was stationed in Japan as the only Rabbi in the Far East. His extensive knowledge of the Jewish relations with Japan and China and his personal relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish experts in this distant part of the world facilitated providing members of the group with meaningful insights. Most hotels during our stay had a large red banner welcoming Rabbi Tokayer on his 20th anniversary trip.

Only 79 of the group participated in the three-day whirlwind visit to Japan. While we were struck by the cleanliness, organization, neatness, and politeness of the Japanese, we noted that a country smaller in area than California has relatively little space for its 125 million citizens.

After convening in Osaka, the Japan group went to Kyoto – a city of 1,600 temples and 400 Shinto shrines. We visited a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine and garden, the original Shogun’s palace, and the home/museum of a leading calligrapher of Japan who believed he was a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel. During a visit to the "Well of Israel," Rabbi Tokayer set forth some of the signs of Japanese linkage to Israel. He noted that the Hebrew and Japanese have 12 common alphabet letters, Shinto priests wear the tallit and tefillin, both blow a shofar, and neither eats shellfish. Across from the well was a Semitic looking mask which is taken down one day a year which corresponds to our Yom Kippur. That evening we were the guests at Beit Shalom, the home of a Japanese Christian group who dedicated themselves to seeking friendship with Jews. There we were entertained by a young persons’choir singing Jewish songs.

From Kyoto we traveled by bus to Kobe, the temporary home of the Holocaust refugees that were the subject of The Fugu Plan. One member of our group fled Germany in 1940, took the Trans-Siberia Railroad across Russia to Harbin, traveled through North Korea, took a boat from Pusan, South Korea to Kobe, and with visa in hand shortly thereafter sailed to the United States. Rabbi Tokayer spoke of the role of Kobe in saving the refugees.

One of the Japanese highlights was the taking of the high-speed bullet train at 3 p.m. from Kobe to Tokyo, an envy of every American railroad buff. A secondary railroad fan highlight was the logistics in arranging for the 79 Japan travelers with carry-on luggage to get on the bullet train before the doors automatically closed in 90 seconds. Although the skies were hazy, at 5:21 p.m. all heads turned to the west side of the train to see the enormous and overpowering outline of Mt. Fuji.

After arriving in Tokyo, we had dinner at the Jewish Center, Rabbi Tokayer’s former synagogue. The next day we went to a Shinto Shrine where the priests wear fringed shawls and conduct a service with some features similar to the Jewish Pidyon Haben. We also viewed the Imperial Palace in Tokyo from the outside.

The entire 140-person group then gathered in Beijing. Several of our group who had previously visited China pointed out the major changes they observed in Beijing and other large cities of China in the past five to 15 years. The modernization and enormous construction projects were immediately apparent to everyone beginning with the ride from the airport in Beijing with constant reminders until we left Shanghai. The Westernization of China was apparent everyone, but most evident in the large cities with the cars, skyscrapers, and McDonald’s restaurants. The meaning of the term "global economy" is apparent after a few minutes in Beijing. Many travelers were stunned by the throngs of people in the cities. Another commented that when he visited China nine years ago he was treated as a stranger, but now Americans were not strangers as evidenced by the fact that most Chinese museum exhibit descriptions were written in two languages – Chinese and English. Another traveler said she felt as if she were the object of friendly curiosity. Except for a picture in Tienneman Square, evidence of Mao Tse-tung and the 1966 to 1976 cultural revolution was missing. Many of our group commented on the friendliness of the Chinese people which was evident from the moment we arrived at our hotel in Beijing displaying a large "Welcome to our Jewish Friends" banner.

Westernization has brought the automobile to China, but not without the resulting heavy pollution and traffic congestion problems. The pollution was so bad that a well-traveled jogger in our group for the first time in his 22 years of running was required to wear a mask while exercising in Beijing.

The Chinese segment of the trip started in Beijing with visits to the enormous Tienneman Square, site of the 1989 protests, and the Forbidden City, the home of 24 emperors for 500 years. This is where Jewish students took their final exams which led to Jews leaving their communities, entering the civil service, and eventually assimilating with the Chinese.

The group observed the first Sabbath in Beijing. Rabbi Tokayer talked about the largely unknown Jewish experience in China. Our group was privileged to hear from two China experts in the afternoon. Israel Epstein, an 85-year old author and Chinese citizen who was raised and educated in China, articulately and energetically answered questions about China for 90 minutes and gave each family a copy of one of his books. Professor Xu Xin, an author who made available his book "Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng," discussed the strong evidence of early life of the Jews in China going back over 1,000 years.

A trip to China would not be complete without a visit to the pandas at the Beijing zoo. The pandas lived up to our expectations.

The high point for many of the group was the visit to and climb up the Great Wall. Although the 26-foot tall Wonder of the World is 2,500 miles long, none of the group climbed the steep steps more than a mile. More photos may have been taken at the Great Wall than at any other site on the trip. After leaving the Great Wall, the group visited the Sacred Way, a path leading to the Ming Tombs with famous stone statues of larger than life animals and legendary animals. We ate at a Buddhist restaurant with a Chinese Klezmer band providing the inspiration for spirited Israeli dancing by many of the women in our group.

Kaifeng is the best known of the ancient Chinese Jewish centers. Due to a limited number of train sleeper accommodations, only 49 of our group were able to visit Kaifeng. The remainder spent an extra day in Beijing visiting the Temple of Heaven and attending a Chinese opera. The lucky Kaifeng 49 flew to Zhengzhou on the way to Kaifeng.

The day in Kaifeng was an extremely emotional experience for most of the 49 travelers. We traveled from Zhengzhou with a 22 year-old Kaifeng young Chinese man of Jewish origin and his father. We saw strong evidence that Jews had traveled the Silk Road and had been in China for over 1,000 years. Visits to the Guild Hall, one of the few buildings to survive Mao’s cultural revolution, the Kaifeng Museum which featured two steeles tablets and rubbings of a third telling of Jewish life in the 14th and 15th Centuries, a walk down "Teaching Torah Lane South" in the old Jewish area, a visit to the home of two Chinese of Jewish origin, seeing a Chinese-Jewish exhibit at Riverside Park, and dining with 12 Chinese of Jewish origin were the highlights of the Kaifeng experience.

The lunch visit with the 12 Chinese of Jewish origin who were primarily teachers, students, and engineers was an emotional experience bringing tears and near tears to many eyes. Rabbi Tokayer told them that as "our cousins and family they are very dear to us." We shook hands and embraced our newly discovered cousins. The photographs taken during this "family" reunion of "cousins" will be treasures for the Kaifeng 49. Many of the group hope to continue communications with our newly found cousins.

After driving back to Zhengzhou, the Kaifeng group took an old pre-World War II vintage overnight train to Xian, China’s capital for 13 dynasties and over 1,000 years. The three sleeper railroad cars, reportedly the only available sleeper cars in China, had small compartments with upper and lower berths for four passengers, but space constraints limited occupancy to just two. The last portion of the overnight bumpy 10-hour ride provided an insightful view of rural and agricultural China. The Chinese train ride was in sharp contrast to the Japanese bullet-train experience.

Xian is known for its Terra Cotta – warriors, chariots, and officers ranging in height from 5’9" to over 6’ that were initially discovered by a farmer digging a well and accidentally finding a huge underground tomb. The Terra Cotta was termed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" by former President Richard M. Nixon.

The dynasty displays in the Xian Museum portrayed a comprehensive picture of the history of China. The art and sculpture section of the Tang Dynasty display of 1300 years ago reinforces other evidence indicating that our Jewish ancestors came to China in the 7th or 8th Century. That evening we attended a colorful Tang Dynasty music and dance performance.

We flew from Xian to Chongqing to board our four-day 841 miles cruise down the Yangtze River on the Victoria 5. The cruise provided breathtaking sights through the heart of China including the Three Gorges, the lesser Gorges on a motorized sampan, a chair lift in Fengdu, and going through the Geyhouba Dam locks. Comments regarding the Three Gorges ranged from "awesome" to "breathtaking" to "spectacular." Something close to the following document signed by most passengers will be submitted to The Guinness Book of Records:

First Kosher Yangtze River Cruise
We, the undersigned, were passengers on the first Kosher Yangtze River cruise that provided fully supervised freshly cooked Kosher food and religious prayers (minyan) three times daily for 143 international Jewish travelers – from Australia, Canada, England, France, Holland, Israel and the United States - on the Victoria 5 sailing from Chongqing, China on July 13 and arriving 841 miles downstream on July 16, 2000.

The biggest cuisine surprise on the cruise was gefilte fish. Passengers also experienced the first Torah service conducted at two different levels – the first part was conducted prior to entering the Grehouba Dam locks, we recessed to go through the locks, land the torah service was concluded after the ship was lowered 150 feet in the locks. We traveled between 40 and 45 miles down the Yangtze River during the Sabbath service. Professor Pan Guang gave a Sabbath lecture on "The Jews of Shanghai" and made available his book by that title. There was a lecture and discussion about the $36 billion controversial Yangtze River dam project. Between one and two million Chinese will be relocated by this huge project because much of the land along a more than 300-mile stretch of the Yangtze will be submerged by 2009 to prevent greater damage from Yangtze floods. Some members of our group expressed concerns about the environmental and other problems caused by that mammoth project.

Because of injuries sustained by a member of our group in a fall on the Victoria 5 which required hospital attention, we speeded into Wuhan, a city of eight million not well known to our passengers. One of our physicians who accompanied the patient to the hospital was impressed with the Chinese medical facility.

As a result of reading the section in The Fugu Plan pertaining to the relocation of the European Jews from Kobe to Shanghai, most of our group had some background about the approximately 18,000 to 20,000 Jewish holocaust refugees who spent World War II in Shanghai. . According to Rabbi Tokayer, a little known fact is that the city of Shanghai offered the passengers of the ship St. Louis refuge in Shanghai, but the passengers voted instead to return to Germany. About 99% of the holocaust refugees in Shanghai survived. Walking through the old Jewish quarter of Shanghai, visiting the Ohel Moshe synagogue which is now a museum, and the Ohel Rachel Synagogue were memorable experiences. Our Shanghai dinner in the former home of Sir Victor Sassoon at the Peace Hotel, attended by the Vice Counsel of Israel to Shanghai, the U.S. Counsel to Shanghai, and the Vice President of the Jewish Community of Shanghai, provided a breathtaking evening view of the Bund, the waterfront where the Jewish refugees got off the boat in Shanghai and one of the few remaining historic architectural sections of old Shanghai. A walk along the lit up Bund at night captured the essence of old Shanghai. Across the street from our hotel was a park where the residents of Shanghai came early in the morning to do Tai Chi as well as Western line and ballroom dancing.

Hong Kong was the last stop on our journey. After a breathtakingly steep tram ride to Victoria Peak and a sampan ride in Hong Kong waters, shopping became the major priority. Although we ate at the Jewish Community Center, we did not have much contact with the Hong Kong Jewish community.

Most members of our group found this 14-18 day journey to be an outstanding educational experience. Travel in the Far East is never perfect, but this trip thanks to Michael Kong and Rabbi Tokayer was as close to perfection as one could realistically imagine with regard to hotels, food, and transportation. Descriptions of this memorable journey included "intense," amazement at "the Jewish contributions to the world," never been "so caught up emotionally and educationally," and "the most educational trip I have had in 50 years."

Rabbi Tokayer provided much of the historic and Jewish background through frequent and extensive briefings which were supplemented by guest speakers and friendly guides. The weather could not have been better for July. We discovered our "cousins" in Kaifeng and many of us found new friends among the approximately 140 travelers on the trip. We learned that China, an overpopulated country of 1.3 billion now attempting to limit the size of families generally to one child, has taken off economically like a rocket. And most importantly we became aware of an often-overlooked fact – there is a significant Jewish history and relationship with both Japan and China. These countries appear to be and have been some of the Jewish people’s best friends. The Jewish role in the Far East is no longer a secret to the 143 Jewish travelers who convened from around the world for this fascinating educational experience. Such experiences and insights will undoubtedly be passed on to those leaders and members of our Jewish communities who were not on this most educational trip.