Judaic Center in China
US & Britain
China Judaic Studies Association
Promoting Judaic Studies in China
West-to-East Trip Report
A CHINA-JAPAN TRIP WITH A JEWISH FOCUS
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.
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 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
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
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
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
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.