Tuesday, August 16, 2011

WSJ on Kaifeng Jews (and a Messianic Jew!)

A fascinating article by Bob Davis appeared in today's Wall Street Journal about the group known as the Kaifeng Jews and the challenges they face identifying with a community they've been estranged from and learning traditions long-forgotten.  The subtitle says it all: "Divided and Diminished: In Eyes of Judaism as Well as Beijing, Tiny Kaifeng Community Isn't Quite Kosher."  A few quotes:
The Kaifeng Jewish population is thought to have peaked at around 5,000, but by the early 1900s, none could read Hebrew and the community's Torah scrolls were sold to collectors. Jews were called "the Muslims with the blue caps," referring to the color of the yarmulkes some still wore.

"In our family, we didn't eat pork, that's for sure," says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, "but we didn't know what to do with those things."

I didn't expect to discover a reference to a Messianic Jew, but lo and behold:
These days, many in Kaifeng turn to Timothy Lerner, who calls himself a "messianic Jew"—meaning he was born Jewish but believes in Christ as the Messiah—to learn Hebrew and Jewish customs. Mr. Lerner acknowledges that his visa was revoked by the Chinese government in 2006 for evangelizing, but says he doesn't try to convince anyone to follow his religious beliefs. He says he set up the "Kaifeng Israel School" to help Kaifeng Jews "learn the Jewish lifestyle" and move to Israel, where about a dozen of them have taken up residence, thanks largely to funds from Shavei Israel, an Israeli group.

1 comment:

mymorningmeditations.com said...

In a halalach sense, they probably aren't considered Jewish anymore, which is why Nina Wang underwent an Orthodox conversion, but the historical significance of the Kaifeng Jews is certainly compelling. It's also interesting to note that Mr. Lerner's involvement is not without controversy, according to this quote:

Others in the Jewish community are suspicious. Shi Lei, one of the first Kaifeng Jews to study in Israel, blames Mr. Lerner for "creating factions" in the tiny community with his school, though Mr. Lerner says Mr. Shi misunderstands his efforts.

On the other hand, Lerner is probably the only Jew in that part of the world who would actively reach out to this community. The quote from Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing, certainly supports this.

-James