Yiddish in China

Kayfeng Jews.

For 166 years, beginning in 960 C.E., China was ruled by the emperors of the Song Dynasty from their capital at Kaifeng, a bustling metropolis straddling the legendary Silk Road that linked their sprawling domain to its trading partners in the West. And, it was sometime during this period that a group of Jews were invited for an audience with the emperor. Jews were not newcomers to China.  Some had lived under Chinese rule from sometime after 92 CE, during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE), when they resided in what at the time was called the Western Region (roughly Xinjiang Province today) in special enclaves that were set aside by the Chinese for foreigners. During the reign of Emperor Wen (518-604 CE) of the Sui Dynasty, large number of foreign traders and people of different creeds resided in Changan, then the capital of China. Chinese annals briefly mentioned the customs and rituals of some creeds, but otherwise they could hardly distinguish one from the other. Jewish settlers and a synagogue are mentioned by name in a Tang (618-906) poem and other records confirm Jewish settlers in the 7th century. A rather obscure poem by an unknown poet, who apparently wrote in the late Tang, described life in China, and mentioned that in Changan (Xian today) there were churches, temples, synagogues and mosques for … Muslims and Jews.

Kayfeng Jews.

In 1935-39 the Jews were allowed to leave Germany, provided they could get a country to recieve them. Many Jews wanted to leave Germany at the time, but could not find any country that would open its doors to them. Some of them discovered that China was an option and twenty thousand desperate refugees decided to go to Shanghai rather than to stay in Germany and German occupied countries.

The jewish refugees came with boats to Shanghai, where part of the city was an international area, filled with Western foreigners. By the time the Jewish refugees began to arrive, the Japanese occupied the part of Shanghai, which included the international area. The country of Japan was one of the Axis Powers which included Germany. Amazingly enough therefore the Jewish refugees were allowed to settle in Shanghai without incident. Moreover, the Japanese, who have criticized the treatment of Asians by the Germans, were now forced to deal with the Jewish refugees and to be consistent.

Jewish family.

Actually, there were already two different Jewish ensconced in groups and well established in Shanghai, the Jews from Baghdad who were businessmen and richer in these two groups, and Russian Jews. Each had their own society in the international area. When European Jews started to arrive in Shanghai, the Jews from Baghdad, who were Sephardic Jews, helped them and provided financial assistance and support to the Jewish refugees from Germany, Poland and Lithuania who spoke Yiddish with each other..

The refugees join together to form a community with cafes, schools, newspapers, theaters and sports and social clubs, creating a active community with an inspirering cultural life. The Jewish refugees where poor, but felt safe living among the Chinese people with their Japanese captors and they did not experience any anti-Semitism from their Asian neighbors. No matter how bad life got in Shanghai, where living conditions were deplorable, it was much worse in Europe for the Jews who stayed.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans entered the war, the Japanese went into the international area and interned the Americans and British, who were said to be enemy aliens. This included the Jews from Baghdad, who carried British passports. This put considerable strain on the Jewish refugees who were dependent on the largesse of  the Jews from Baghdad for their survival. Responsibility for the Jewish refugees, who now fell on the Russian Jewish community.

In 1943, the Japanese, issued a proclamation that all stateless refugees who came to Shanghai after 1937, were to be resettled in a separate area and have a curfew. This created actually a Yiddish ghetto for Jews, which they had previously lived side by side with the Chinese. But it was not like the European ghettos for Jews, the Germans had built. There were no walls that separate them from society as a whole.

Today there are around 10,000 Jews in the People’s Republic. A dairy in Beijing is now distributing kosher milk, which is both strict kosher and organic. At first glance, this seems ridiculous. In a country of 1.29999 billion people who aren’t Jewish –  and 10,000 who are. But the public distrust of the dairy industry because of the, batches of melamine-tainted baby formula sickened more than 300,000 Chinese babies in 2008. Some of the babies even died.
Studies of who is buying kosher food in the U.S. has revealed that in fact, a very significant number – up to 80 percent – of people who buy kosher products aren’t doing it for religious reasons. They’re doing it because they feel that kosher food is healthier, thanks to the strict supervision process.
So there’s actually a very good likelihood that kosher milk will sell in China, not just Jews.
Perhaps this is a bit odd, but if only 5 percent of China’s population could be convinced that kosher is better, that’s still 65 million people – think the entire population of France.


A New York Jew in China



A New York Jew in China

(Part 2 – Disappearing Languages)


Still under construction.

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