The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

External view of a 105-year-old Jewish synagogue in Harbin, China / image courtesy of the Museum of Family History

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place every summer, bringing amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! Every year has a specific theme and in 2014 they’ve been focusing on China and Kenya.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of these nations. But allow me to expand on their efforts! For the last few years, inspired by our local Folklife tradition, I have researched and brought attention to the widely diverse world Jewish communities. Jewish culture has touched almost every region of the world, and of course vice versa. So let us begin.

The first substantial evidence of Jews making their way to China, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, occurred during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), as Jews from Persia settled in Kaifeng, although smaller pockets also lived in other cities. Primarily brought there by international trade and the expanding Silk Road, these Jewish settlers found religious tolerance in their new home, and ergo started to assimilate well to Chinese culture. The Song dynasty was overthrown by the Jin (1127-1233), but the Jews continued their religious life, and continued to pay homage to their old overseers.

The Mongols established the Yuan Dynasty, lasting until 1368, when Jews both benefited from being “foreigners” (the Mongols were also not Chinese and ergo promoted “foreign” groups such as themselves to government positions) but also a ban on Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter, based on xenophobia. Further Jews might have been brought to China at this point as slaves, and Jewish practice in Kaifeng diversified.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) brought the ethnic Han Chinese back to power, and life continued to improve for the Jews, both in religious practice, where they were allowed to rebuild and add to their synagogue (non-Jews also helped and were commemorated), and in public life. Though the community only spanned 5,000 members, many Jews rose prominently in government and other fields like the military and medicine. This provided some negative setbacks in that the Jewish community became so involved with Chinese civic life that devotion to their own religion and customs decreased. And in 1642, when the Dynasty broke the Yellow River Dams to squash a peasant rebellion, half of the 600,000 Kaifeng residents died; the synagogue and other Jewish artifacts were destroyed.

The Jewish community continued to decline under the Qing Dynasty (1642-1912), which was unfriendly to religious minorities and took away many of their rights to settle their own affairs, particularly as the Christian and Muslim populations grew. Many Chinese couldn’t differentiate between the Jews and the Muslims, leading Jews to hide their identities as Muslim rebellions were being brutally suppressed; also Christian missionary work was in full swing, and subsequently missionaries were banned from the country. Chinese Jews became more and more isolated as their government continued to close its borders, and evidence on the history of the Kaifeng Jews between 1725 and 1850 is limited. When a British counsel visited then, he reported that there were under 1,000 remaining Jews, and that they looked exactly like the Han Chinese. The community no longer knew Hebrew, or even the precise day of the Sabbath. They sold most of their holy books to the missionaries for meager prices.

Some customs remained, eg keeping Jewish burial grounds and ritual kosher slaughter, including a ban on pork. The Jews also started looking for people to translate their holy texts. Egyptian and Iraqi Jewish merchants who settled in Shanghai in the late 19th/early 20th century attempted to revive Jewish Kaifeng, unsuccessfully, and in 1914 the Jews sold off their synagogue to an Anglican bishop.

Other Jewish communities existed in Kiafeng, when the merchant trade brought Jews as early as the 8th century. They became the Pien-Liang Jews when allowed into that city in 960 CE, building the Purity and Truth synagogue and thriving until the 17th century with 5,000 members. Since then, it’s been in decline due to war, poverty and isolation, but in the modern age, they are trying to reconnect to the world Jewish community, though less than 100 individuals partake in Jewish activities.

Russian Jews moved to Harbin in the late 19th century, as encouraged by their government to build up population for the Russian railway into eastern Asia. Many Jews stayed, raising the population to 8,000 to 1908, due to rising antisemitism in Eastern Europe. Persecuted Ashkenazi Jews also flocked to Shanghai when it was opened to foreigners in 1842. But the majority of the Jews there were Sephardic—from Baghdad, Bombay and Cairo. The Jewish population reached 700, mostly merchants though some in medicine, teaching and diplomatic service. Shanghai’s Jewish population jumped severely, to 25,000, as the Lubavitch Hassidm and other ultra-Orthodox Jews fled in the wake of Hitler’s succession. When Japan captured Shanghai in 1947, however, the Jews were evicted to slums, suffered great economic loss, and many immigrated after the war.

Most of Beijing’s 2,000-strong Jewish community is very recent, secular and Orthodox, including North American Jewish immigrants in the 1970s, then European and USSR Jews in the 1980s. Religious life, from Orthodox to Reform, exists, bolstered by the presence of the Israeli embassy when China opened diplomatic ties in 1992. The Chabad movement has been able to work within the confines of the Chinese government to provide some religious school, a mikveh, and a ritual slaughterer who flies in every three months from South Africa.

The Hong Kong Jewish community is 5,000-strong, but also very transient. A Jewish Community Center, opened in 1995, serves as a hub; there are also Orthodox and Reform synagogues, a Chabad presence, and two Sephardic organizations, mostly comprised of Israelis.

Although most of the Jewish population now lives in Shanghai, there is a Jewish museum to commemorate the history in Kaifeng. Tel Aviv University established an Israel Studies Center at Jiao Tong University last year, and just last month Harbin re-opened one of it’s synagogues (no longer to be used as such, but boasting religious architectural design,) as seen in the image above.

Jews first came to Kenya in the early 20th century, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, when British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered part of the territory to Zionists as a possible home. Although controversial and ultimately rejected by the Seventh Zionist Congress, somewhere around 20 Jewish families moved to Nairobi and built a synagogue around 1913. More followed after the Shoah, swelling to 150 families in 1945.

Two years later the British set up a detention camp in Gilgil for Jewish Palestinian underground organizations, and the Kenyan Jewish community worked to improve their living conditions. The Jewish community reached a peak of 165 families in 1957; a new synagogue was built in 1955, and later the president of the Board for Kenya Jewry was elected mayor of Nairobi.

Today, approximately 400 Jews live in Kenya, mostly in Kenya’s capital city. Regular Shabbat and holiday services are held in the one national synagogue, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. (Website in English.) The majority of the Jewish community is Orthodox, and the community is led by an envoy for the Chabad movement. Kosher food is imported, but a community center hosts weekly educational and social events. Kenya and Israel also enjoy a diplomatic relationship.

With Kenya as the target of several terrorist attacks in the past few decades, this article chronicles the Westgate incident of 2013 from a Nairobi Jewish perspective.

Previous Festival Coverage on JewishDC

2013 / 2011 / 2010