The Diaspora Jews of Kaifeng, China

Tuesday, May 25, 2021
Historical and monumental evidence of more than transient Jewish presence in China dates to the tenth century as Persian Jewish traders followed the Silk Road into China, establishing trading posts and settlements. Their longest-lived community was in Kaifeng on the Yellow River, the imperial capital during the Song Dynasty. The Jews in this community originally spoke Judeo-Persian and evidence from their manuscripts suggests that elements of that language were retained in liturgical contexts into the 17th century.

Christian missionary activity brought news of the Chinese Jews to the West, first from Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest who maintained an active missionary presence in China in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and later from the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. A delegation of missionaries from that Society visited the impoverished Jews of Kaifeng in 1850 and arranged for the removal and preservation of their manuscripts in Shanghai in 1851. Taking their agreement as a formal purchase, all of the manuscripts were moved to the Society’s London headquarters. In 1924 Hebrew Union College Librarian Adolph S. Oko arranged to purchase the collection, and since then the fifty-nine manuscripts have been held in Cincinnati.

The manuscripts all date to the 17th century and consist of materials held by the synagogue for ritual use. Written on thin rice paper, and bound either as codices or in accordion format, they comprise liturgies and individual weekly Torah portions. Given the regular flooding of the Yellow River, many of the texts evidence recopying where water had washed the ink away. Written in Chinese square Hebrew script, the pointing of the texts is inconsistent, an indication of some attenuation of knowledge of the rules of Hebrew grammar. Judeo-Persian words and phrases appear sporadically and are used predominantly for headings and liturgical directions.

While very few descendants of those original Chinese-Jewish communities remain in China today, their texts and monuments offer testimony to both the perseverance of tradition among Jews around the world and the cultural creativity of Jewish communities in diaspora.

Contributed by Jordan Finkin, Rare Book Librarian

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