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Chinese cook obsessed with Jewish coins

After 10 years of research, Xu Long has published his thick book, 'Money of Ancient Judea and Israel.' And in studying Jewish history, he found many similarities to his own culture.

June 02, 2011|By Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times
  • Xu Long toured Israel after the publication of his book about ancient Jewish coins. His stops included the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Xu Long toured Israel after the publication of his book about ancient Jewish… (Xu Long )

Reporting from Beijing — At his day job, Xu Long works endless hours in the sweltering kitchen of the Great Hall of the People, China's equivalent of the Capitol building. But for the last decade, when Xu, head chef of Western cuisine, chopped onions or grilled steaks for the Chinese leadership, his mind often drifted to his personal passion: money. Or, more specifically, ancient Jewish coins.

In December, the 47-year-old chef published a 575-page tome, "Money of Ancient Judea and Israel," the culmination of 10 painstaking years of research. Xu said he spent every spare moment working on the book.

"I couldn't stop thinking about Jewish coins," he said. "When my friends would go out for a drink or go for a run, I would study coins and write."

Originally, he wrote only a few articles for Chinese numismatic publications, but they quickly snowballed into one of the most comprehensive histories of ancient Jewish and Israeli coinage anywhere.

"I don't think in any other language there's such a large book as his," said Haim Gitler, president of the Israel Numismatic Society. "And a book like this can be a trigger to encourage collaboration between Israel and China."

Despite the book's importance, during the decade he spent working on it, Xu was frequently beset by doubt and a lack of funding. He had to find outside investors and spend his own money on his project. His most contemplative moments were in the kitchen.

"I would be cooking and think, 'I'm not a numismatist, I'm not a Jewish studies professor, I'm a chef. What am I doing with my life?'" he recalled.

Yet he managed to raise more than $30,000 for the first printing of 1,200 copies — although with the price set at a relatively high 498 yuan, or about $77, it's doubtful the book will become a bestseller.

Xu's interest in coin collecting began while he was cooking for Chinese bureaucrats at the Great Hall of the People. Foreign Ministry officials would give him their spare change from trips overseas, and Xu would study each piece and dream of traveling abroad.

"When I first started collecting, almost no one could leave China. These foreign coins and bills were a way for me to experience other countries," he said.

Xu started focusing on ancient Jewish and Israeli coins 16 years ago by chance. He wanted to study French but couldn't find a language partner. Frustrated and desperate, Xu approached a foreigner on the street in Beijing and got lucky; the man he met was a French-Israeli, Albert Kalifa, studying Chinese medicine.

Xu and Kalifa quickly became friends, but it wasn't until Kalifa gave him a few Israeli shekels that Xu's curiosity turned to Jewish culture.

"I had never met a Jew before. I just knew they were smart and [Karl] Marx was Jewish," he said.

Once he learned more about Jewish history, Xu felt a deep connection and saw many similarities with his own culture, drawing connections between two ancient societies that have kept traditions alive for more than 5,000 years.

As part of cultural events marking 20 years of formal diplomatic relations between Israel and China, Xu is planning to host an exhibit of Israeli and ancient Jewish coins next year. He has not requested specific items from Israel, but curators at the Israel Museum said they are anticipating his letter.

Xu said his next book will be more in line with his day job — the history of herbs used in cooking.

Haas is a news assistant in The Times' Beijing bureau. Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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