Until the late 19th century, the Chinese city of Kaifeng was home to an active and dedicated Jewish community that had been there for hundreds of years. The Jews that formed the Kaifeng community are believed to have arrived as merchants on the Silk Road trading route, perhaps as early as the tenth century.
The Jewish merchants were welcomed by the Song Dynasty and settled in the capital city (Kaifeng). They were free to practice their religion and seem to have become a unique part of Kaifeng society.
Located on the flood plain of the Yellow River, Kaifeng underwent numerous conquests. When the city fell to the invading Jin Dynasty in 1127, many of these Jews fled with the Imperial family to Hangzhou. However, a core community remained in Kaifeng to rebuild, and by 1163 they were enough of a presence to built themselves a synagogue. In 1232 the Mongols overtook the city, and in 1368 the Ming Dynasty took control of Kaifeng. Through all of these changes in control, the Jewish community remained. Several times they requested and received permission to either rebuild or expand the synagogue, the latest rebuilding taking place in 1663.
With little pressure to convert, the Kaifeng Jews were able to maintain their culture, and it is believed that they maintained a relatively high level of observance. It is known that they maintained the rules of kashrut because the Chinese referred to them as “The Sect that Plucks out the Sinews.”
The changing dynamics of the city as it flooded or was conquered, as well as China’s isolationist policies, slowly lead to the decline of the community. The last rabbi of Kaifeng died in 1810 and a flood destroyed the synagogue in 1860. By then, however, the community had lost its ability to read Hebrew and had even sold off their Torah scrolls.
Much of what is known about the ancient community comes from steles, an upright stone slab bearing an inscription, that survived from the years 1489, 1512, and 1663.
Many residents of modern day Kaifeng are aware of their biological connection to the ancient Jewish community, and there is an active movement to reignite the community. Because the community married into the general populace, those choosing to return to their roots are undergoing conversions and several locals have moved to Israel.
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