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Jews in Old China : STUDIES BY CHINESE SCHOLARS, translated, compiled and edited by Sidney Shapiro (Hippocrene: $15.95; 188 pp., illustrated)

April 21, 1985|HERB HAIN | Hain is an editor of Home magazine. and

"You've been living in China for more than 30 years," visitors would tell lawyer-translator Sidney Shapiro, "and you're Jewish, so you must know all about the Chinese Jews. What's their story?"

Shapiro didn't know, but he decided to find out. He dug up all the material on the subject that he could find--it wasn't much--and persuaded a number of noted Chinese scholars to contribute their own articles. Then he translated, condensed, edited and commented upon all of that; unfortunately, he did not tie the material together. Much of the information appears over and over, and on many points, there is disagreement among the scholars. So what else is new?

This is a post-mortem exercise. Today, the Jewish community in China is nonexistent. In the 1980s, all of China showed only 140 "former" Jewish families, including a Buddhist monk. And though Jewish communities did exist in a number of other Chinese cities, including Beijing, this book deals almost exclusively with the Jews of Kaifeng, for several hundred years the capital of China and its most important center of commerce.

The scholars disagree on when Jews first came to China, but most evidence seems to point to about 200 BC. Marco Polo mentions having seen Jews there, and we know that the Kaifeng synagogue was built in the 12th Century. There is less argument on the routes these Jews took to get to China. A 1487 reference to Jews having brought "bales of cotton cloth as tribute" points to sea commerce. Others came via the great silk route via Persia or India.

In their adopted country, the Jews were known as the followers of the "sinew-plucking religion" because to make meat kosher, the sciatic nerve has to be removed. They were also known as the Blue-Hat Muslims, in contrast to the real Muslims, who were the White-Hat Muslims. Ironically, since Jews and Muslims had similar customs and religions, many ancient sources draw little distinction between them. In fact, in the 19th Century, the few remaining Jews had to go to a mosque if they wanted to pray.

The book delves into family names, occupations and biblical references, but its most fascinating aspect has to do with the decline and death of that once vibrant community. Why, some of the authors asked, did Judaism fade away in China?

And here the question becomes the answer. China, with its history of religious and ethnic tolerance, welcomed Jews and did not discriminate against them. And because they were accepted, the Jews, in turn, accepted--first the host language, later on customs, then women in marriage, finally the Confucian religion. It is this startling observation that ultimately rescues a poorly organized book. It will also give Jews all over the world a hard bagel to chew on.

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