A year ago they were living by the bank of China’s Yellow River. Now, the seven yarmulke-and-tzitzit-clad young men, sitting in central Jerusalem and chatting about their lives, are Israel’s keenest yeshiva students.It is the end of July, the day after the Fast of Av, when every yeshiva halts for summer break – but this group won’t stop.
They come from a community that has fascinated Jews for centuries – China’s Kaifeng Jewish community. Jews are said to have settled in China in the eighth or ninth century. It is believed that at one point, there were as many as 5,000 Jews in Kaifeng; however the community disintegrated in the mid-19th century, with the death of its last rabbi, and those members that hadn’t done so already intermarried and dropped most aspects of religious observance.
The seven men in Jerusalem are descendants of this community in which families retained a sense of Jewish identity and, in some cases, in a manner reminiscent of the Marranos of Spain and Portugal, clung to some disjointed traditions.
They have already earned their place in history, as the first group of Kaifeng men to ever study at an Israeli yeshiva. But they want to convert to Judaism as soon as possible and, under the Law of Return, exchange their visitor visas for aliyah visas and make their move to Israel permanent. Their study program is preparing them for conversion tests.
“Here is my home,” said Li Fei, 22, describing how he felt on the day of the group’s arrival last October, when he visited the Western Wall.
Kaifeng’s Jews are said to have been merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Road and established themselves in the city with the blessing of the Chinese emperor.
Read the full report in The Forward.