Members of a centuries-old Chinese community that traces its ancestry to Jews gathered on Sunday night in Kaifeng to mark the start of the Hanukkah festival by lighting the traditional menorah.
A few dozen members of the community attended the event together with representative from Shavei Israel, an organization that aims to build ties between Israel, established Jewish communities, and far-flung groups that claim Jewish descent.
“The Chinese Jews take their inspiration from the Maccabees,” said Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund, referring to the Jewish heroes of the Hanukkah story. “Even in far-off Kaifeng, the light of Jewish survival continues to burn brightly. Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people.”
Scholars believe the Kaifeng Jewish community was founded in the 8th or 9th century by Persian and Iraqi Jewish traders along the Silk Road. At its height, during the Ming Dynasty, from the 14th to 17th centuries, it numbered some 5,000 strong, with a synagogue, rabbi, educational institutions and a cemetery.
Over time, intermarriage and conversion to both Islam and Christianity weakened the community, and by the mid-19th century the formal group had largely disappeared, although descendants of the Jewish families, identifiable by surnames granted in the middle ages, retained some Jewish identity and customs.
Today the community is estimated to number around 1,000 people who identify as being of Jewish descent.
Freund noted that that even “after centuries of assimilation, a growing number of Kaifeng’s Jews have begun seeking to return to their roots and embrace their Jewish identity. They are trying to figure out why it’s important to be Jewish and we want to help them have a stronger Jewish identity.”
The eight-day-long Hanukkah festival commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple after its desecration by the Seleucid Greek king Antiochus in 167 BCE.