Inside Israel 3:44 AM
Middle East 5:13 AM 12/4/2013
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Tamar & Tovia Dynamite
I am off to China for a week, where I will visit with descendants of the Jewish community of the city of Kaifeng (see the article below for more information about the unique story of China's Jews).
I won't be posting again until May 27th, so please make sure to check back in next week.
A Jewish Spark Rekindled in China
Though he is only in his twenties, Shi Lei of Kaifeng, China, is laboring hard to reclaim centuries of Jewish tradition and heritage, much of which has all but faded away in his native land.
A descendant of a once prosperous and thriving Jewish community located on the south bank of China's Yellow River, Shi Lei (pronounced Sher Lay) spent the past two years in Israel, studying at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv and at a Jerusalem yeshiva.
He is heir to a proud legacy that was handed down from father to son over the generations. His ancestors were Chinese Jews, part of a community that enjoyed nearly a millennium of peaceful relations with their Chinese neighbors.
“My ancestors came to Kaifeng, China about 1000 years ago,” Shi Lei says. “In 1163, the Jews in my city bought a piece of land in a downtown area in Kaifeng and set up a synagogue, which stood in place for about 700 years, before it fell into ruin.”
China provided its Jews with a welcome and comfortable home, free of many of the insecurities that plagued Jewish communities elsewhere in the diaspora. There are no known recorded incidents of anti-Semitism in China, and the Jews were free to engage in trades and the professions.
At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Kaifeng Jewry numbered about 5,000 people. Concerned, perhaps, about their community’s sense of collective memory, the Jews of Kaifeng decided to erect steles (stone monuments), on which they inscribed the history of their sojourn in China. Two of the steles, which were erected in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1669, now sit in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, a lasting testimony to the Jewish life that once thrived there.
According to Dr. Wendy Abraham, a leading scholar on the history of Kaifeng Jewry, many Chinese Jews had risen to high ranks in the Chinese civil service system by the 17th century. But by the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had all but erased the Chinese Jews’ practice and knowledge of Judaism. After the last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, Kaifeng’s Jewish community all but disbanded.
Nowadays, there is no community in Kaifeng per se, just a few hundred individuals who identify themselves as descendants of the city’s Jewish community. “There is no rabbi, no synagogue. There is nothing left, only memory. Only memory,” says Shi Lei.
And it was a compelling desire to investigate that memory that led Shi Lei to come to Israel.
As a child, Shi Lei remembers his father and other family members telling him that he is of Jewish descent. “My father told me: ‘you are Jewish’, but I didn’t know the meaning behind this word. What is a Jew? What is Judaism? I didn’t know so much. All I knew was the word ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’”, he says.
Shi Lei’s grandfather would recount to him the distant memories he still preserved of Jewish practice. “When my grandfather was a kid, maybe when he was 8 years old or so, he saw the celebration of the Passover,” says Shi Lei. “His father, my grandfather’s father, used a traditional Chinese writing brush to dip in chicken’s blood mixed with water. After dipping, he would dip this on the doorpost of his home.” The ritual echoes the Biblical command given by G-d to the Children of Israel prior to the exodus from Egypt.
Other vague memories of Jewish customs were also passed down. “My grandfather, when he was a kid, he saw some kipahs, or yarmulkes, which were put in the medicine chest of his mother. But my grandfather doesn’t know when,” says Shi Lei. But even these remnants of Jewish ritual have been lost with the passage of time: “Now, so many things just disappeared. We don’t know why, they just disappeared — yarmulkes, but also the celebration of the Passover. We don’t do it anymore now,” Shi Lei says somewhat wistfully.
As he grew older, Shi Lei read everything he could find about Jewish history and culture, slowly expanding his knowledge base about his ancestors’ way of life. “As my knowledge about this was growing, I gradually, little by little, more and more, I had the strong wish that I want to study Judaism and Jewish history.”
In July 2000, Shi Lei met Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of Great Neck, New York, who was leading a study and tour group to China, as he has done on many occasions over the past two decades. Rabbi Tokayer, a former Chief Rabbi of Japan and author of some 28 books on Jews and the Far East, was deeply impressed with Shi Lei and his sincerity about exploring his heritage.
Rabbi Tokayer had always been troubled by the demise of the Kaifeng Jewish community in the 19th century, saying, “No one went to help them, and we let them disappear. This bothers me to this very day.” His meeting with Shi Lei, then, was especially fortuitous. “Suddenly,” he says, “I meet a recent college graduate in China, who knows English well and is a direct descendant of the original Jewish families. He is very proud of his ancestry and anxious to learn.” After Shi Lei served as a guide for Rabbi Tokayer’s tour group in Kaifeng, the participants became enamored with the young Chinese scholar. After consulting with Shi Lei and his family, Rabbi Tokayer contacted Bar-Ilan University and arranged for him to enroll in the one-year program.
Shi Lei was excited at the prospect of learning about Jewish traditions and culture. “After I knew that I am Jewish and that my ancestral land is Israel,” he says, “I had a strong wish to go to Israel to study. Rabbi Tokayer contacted Bar-Ilan University and the university promised to give me a full scholarship because I do not have any personal funds.”
As the first descendant of Kaifeng Jewry to come to Israel to study, Shi Lei often encountered a great deal of curiosity and interest in his background. When he told people in Israel of his Jewish ancestry, he says, “the first reaction of some is surprise, surprise, surprise, after which they always ask me many questions about the Jews, about the history of the Jews in China.”
He is grateful to the Chinese government, which allowed him to study in Israel, and says that relations between China and the Jewish state are friendly.
Shi Lei encourages American Jews and Israelis to visit China, and to learn more about the history of Kaifeng’s Jewish community. Such visits, he says, are “really very helpful to Jewish descendants in Kaifeng, because they can tell us more about Jewish history and traditions. Most of us know nothing about Judaism or Jewish history.” In the past, visitors have sent Jewish books and other materials to Jews in Kaifeng, all of which have helped them to deepen their knowledge of their roots.
When asked about the number of Jewish descendants in Kaifeng, Shi Lei says, “To tell the truth, I don’t know how many people in Kaifeng identify themselves as Jewish. About ten years ago, the former curator of Kaifeng’s Municipal Museum, Wang Yisha, conducted an investigation of this issue. At that time, over 300 identified themselves as Jewish.”
All of the Jewish descendants belong to one of seven clans, each identifiable by its surname. Legend has it that during the Song dynasty over a thousand years ago, a Chinese emperor, unable to pronounce the Jews’ Hebrew-sounding names, bestowed his surname and the surnames of six of his ministers on the Chinese Jews. These seven names — Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin and Shi — were used by Kaifeng’s Jews throughout the centuries, and it is to the Shi clan that Shi Lei traces his own roots.
But even among those who do preserve the memory of their Jewish heritage, there is no active communal life. “Every Jewish family in Kaifeng,” says Shi Lei, “every family is an orphan, an island in a lake, so this family has no connection with that family and they don’t know each other.” “When the new year in China comes, some other people from the Shi clan, they come to my grandparents home and visit my grandparents so that at that time we can meet each other. So you can see it is only about individuals.”
Nevertheless, Shi Lei has gotten to know some of the other Jewish descendants in the city. “As the foreign visitors came to visit us often, it grew necessary to choose some representatives from every family, who would sit together and talk to each other and meet with the visiting groups. So through this, we get to know more and more Jewish descendants in the city.”
Despite these positive developments, it would be wrong to speak of a revival of the Kaifeng Jewish community. Too many years have passed, too much has been lost, to try and rebuild a Jewish communal framework in the city.
The site of the former Kaifeng synagogue now serves as a hospital. It adjoins Jiao Jing Lane, which is Chinese for Teaching Scripture Lane, which passes through what was once the Jewish district of Kaifeng. Though the synagogue had been renovated and rebuilt a dozen times in the centuries after its establishment, by the 1860s it was no more. In 1866, a Reverend W.A.P. Martin visited Kaifeng and wrote that the only thing left of the once beautiful synagogue was a single, solitary stone.
Now, nearly a century and a half later, even that stone is gone.
Or is it?
Interestingly, when I asked Shi Lei the meaning of his name in Chinese, he told me that, roughly translated, it means a “strong stone.” I could not help but be moved by the symbolism.
For though Jewish life in Kaifeng, like the synagogue it once supported, is long gone, a single stone, one made of flesh and blood, still stands, proudly clinging to the heritage of his ancestors and grappling to reclaim it.
That stone, of course, is Shi Lei. And, as his name implies, he is a rock of strength and determination.
You can tell a lot about your foes not only by how they treat the living, but also by their attitude towards the dead.Recent media attention regarding the fate of the Jewish cemetery in Gush Katif, and the Government's plan to uproot it for fear the Palestinians will desecrate it, serve as a telling reminder of the true nature of our prospective "partners in peace".
As I note in the article below from the Jerusalem Post, this should be considered the "cemetery test" of peace - namely, that if your foe can not even muster the basic human decency to respect the dead, then chances are you won't be able to make peace with him any time soon.
The “Cemetery Test” of Peace
The “Cemetery Test” of Peace
By Michael Freund
According to a recent Maariv report, the army has secretly established a special reserve unit tasked with exhuming the 47 Jewish graves located in the Gush Katif cemetery as part of preparations for the planned withdrawal from Gaza this summer. The unit, which will reportedly operate under the direct authority of the Defense Ministry, was slated to begin functioning shortly after Independence Day, when it will start to train for its grisly and macabre task.
Among those buried in the cemetery that is slated for destruction are soldiers who died while serving the country and civilians who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.
This was perhaps one of the most chilling news items that I can recall reading in a long, long time.
The very idea that a Jewish army – our army! – would be ordered to establish such a unit, with the express purpose of demolishing a Jewish cemetery and digging up Jewish graves for purposes of relocating them, should send a chill down our collective spines.
Is this what Israel has come to?
The government's argument, of course, is that it has no choice in the matter in light of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's insistence on leaving Gaza. Yonatan Bassi, head of the Disengagement Authority, said last month that "no graves can be left in enemy territory."
Bassi hardly needed to spell out why – after all, if a Jewish cemetery were to remain in Gaza after an Israeli retreat, one can only imagine how the Palestinians would behave toward the site.
Anyone remember what they did to Joseph's Tomb in Nablus (Shechem) in the autumn of 2000, when a frenzied Palestinian mob set the site on fire and tore down the building which housed it brick by brick? Jewish prayer books and other religious articles left behind by the retreating Israeli army were set alight by the crowd, which danced and celebrated their desecration of a sacred Jewish site.
It seems safe to assume that after an Israeli departure from Gaza, the Palestinians would demonstrate a similar level of "respect" for the Jews who are buried there as well.
Clearly, the government is aware of this problem, which is why it is so anxious to remove the Jewish graves from Gush Katif. While Sharon has said that "No graves will be moved without full cooperation from the families," he also insisted that "We must try to convince those who object, and explain the importance of this move."
But what seems to escape the prime minister is what this situation says about our ostensible Palestinian partners. They won't let us live in peace, and they won't let our dead rest in peace either.
If Israel finds itself confronting a foe that is incapable of showing even a modicum of respect for the dead, is it really wise to strengthen that foe still further by handing over more territory to his control?
Call it "the cemetery test" – namely, if your opponent cannot muster the basic amount of decency necessary to refrain from desecrating a burial ground, for G-d's sake, then chances are you won't be able to make peace with him any time soon.
Since the Palestinians don't come close to passing this test, it should be obvious that it is not in Israel's interest to embolden them further by uprooting the residents of Gush Katif – living and dead – and fleeing the scene.
In Hebrew, the term used for cemetery is beit almin, which is taken from the Aramaic and translates literally as "everlasting home." This is no coincidence. Once a person has been buried, it is only in the most extreme of circumstances that his or her eternal rest should ever be disturbed.
Judaism has long placed enormous importance on the need to respect the dead. It is time that our government – a Jewish government – did the same.
Can bad reporting be bad for your health?
Anyone wondering whether this is the case need look no further than Newsweek magazine, where a combination of lousy judgment and even lousier journalism, led to death, destruction and injury.
In a May 9 report, the once-venerable news magazine reported that US personnel at the Guantanomo Bay detention center had flushed a Koran down the toilet. The report was based on a single anonymous source who couldn’t personally verify the incident, but thought he might have seen it mentioned in a classified document of some sort.
The result was not long in coming. As Reuters described it:
The report sparked violent protests across the Muslim world -- from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan, Indonesia and Gaza. In the past week the reported desecration was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League.
Moreover, in one fell swoop, Newsweek handed Islamist extremists new ammunition with which to stir up yet more anti-American and anti-Western sentiment.
After issuing a half-hearted apology on Sunday, the magazine came under intense criticism, and finally retracted the story on Monday.
This whole episode should serve as a lesson to journalists everywhere – it is a reminder of the incredible responsibility they bear to report the truth and to weigh the consequences of their actions.
Too often, and especially when it comes to Israel, journalists pounce on a story because it suits their political beliefs, inevitably tossing facts to the wind and causing inestimable harm to innocent people. And then they rarely, if ever, acknowledge their mistakes.
Sure, Newsweek did apologize – but that is the exception which proves the rule. After all, how many times do major news outlets admit the errors of their ways? And even when they do, does it have any noticeable long-term effect on the substance of their reporting?
It would be nice to think that “NewsweekGate” will lead to a change in how journalists do their jobs – especially those covering the Middle East. Nice, but also most unlikely.
After George W. Bush’s recent hand-holding session with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, it seemed as if US-Saudi relations were back on track.
In a front-page article, the Washington Post reveals that most of the suicide bombers in Iraq hail from – you guessed it – Saudi Arabia.
The report notes that two counter-terrorism experts conducted independent research, scouring jihadist websites and collecting information regarding the identities of those carrying out lethal attacks against US forces in Iraq. The first researcher, Reuven Paz, published a report in March which revealed that of the 154 Arabs killed in Iraq in the previous six months in jihadist attacks, some 61 percent were Saudi Arabians.
An American researcher, Evan F. Kohlmann, put together a list of more than 235 names of jihadists who have died in Iraq since last summer, and he found that more than 50 percent were Saudi.
In recent years, the desert kingdom has spent untold millions on PR campaigns in the US, trying to improve its sullied image as home to 15 of the 19 hijackers who took part in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But for all the smoke the Saudis have been trying to blow in Americans’ eyes, the truth remains as clear as it was four years ago: Saudi Arabia is an enemy of the West, and it is time for America to start treating it as such.
Israel’s High Court yesterday was the scene of an unintentionally revealing admission by a representative of Ariel Sharon’s government.
The Court convened to examine the issue of whether the 30 synagogues still standing in Gaza should be destroyed, as Sharon would like to do, despite opposition by Israel’s Chief Rabbis and other prominent people.
During the hearing, Chief Justice Aharon Barak asked the state attorney why no agreement was reached with the Palestinians regarding the need to protect the synagogues, to which the state representative replied:
“Even if the Palestinian Authority would take it on itself (to guard the synagogues), it couldn’t live up to such a commitment”.
Hmmmm. Now that’s an interesting argument, if only because it points to the utter absurdity of the Government’s position. For while Sharon is willing to admit that the Palestinians are incapable of protecting synagogues in Gaza – he was only too happy to turn over the entire Strip to Palestinian control in the hopes that they will control rocket attacks against Israel.
Logical? Hardly. If the Palestinians can not be relied upon to live up to their word, then why on earth was Sharon willing to hand them more territory?
And if they can not be trusted to respect the right of a Jewish house of worship to exist in their midst, then why does anyone think they will ever truly respect the right of a Jewish state to do so?
The government’s follies grow stranger by the day.