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Eternal Light:: Chinese Jews of Kaifeng

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The Chosen

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The Kaifeng Jews are members of a small Jewish community in Kaifeng, in the Henan province of China who have assimilated into Chinese society while preserving some Jewish traditions and customs. Their origin in Kaifeng is a matter of debate.. Kaifeng, then the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, was a cosmopolitan city on a branch of the Silk Road. It is surmised that a small community of Jews, most likely from Persia or India, arrived either overland or by a sea route, and settled in the city.

In 1163 they built a synagogue surrounded by a study hall, a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, a kosher butchering facility, and a sukkah. The synagogue, known as Temple of Purity and Goodness, was destroyed by fire and floods, and restored several times. After an 1852 flood it remained in ruins.

It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews in China. The last census revealed about 400 official Jews in Kaifeng, now estimated at some 100 families totaling approximately 500 people. Up to 1,000 residents have ties to Jewish ancestry, though only 40 to 50 individuals partake in Jewish activities. Some descendants of Kaifeng's Jewish community say their parents and grandparents told them that they were Jewish and would one day "return to their land," others are only vaguely aware of their ancestry.

Kaifeng Jews intermarried with local Chinese, and are thus indistinguishable in appearance from their non-Jewish neighbors.The one trait that differentiated them from their neighbors was not eating pork.After contact with Jewish tourists, some have reconnected to mainstream Jewry.

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