A modern-day look at the Jews of China
By Cindy Mindell
Many U.S. travel agencies today offer heritage tours to countries where once-thriving Jewish communities were decimated by war or pogroms or emigration. The itinerary usually features bustling European cities, a shtetl (if it still exists), the great still-standing or refurbished synagogues of Budapest or Prague or Berlin, Jewish cultural festivals in Poland.
Beyond these obvious stops, Jewish travelers are also exploring their heritage in China, where the traces of two great waves of immigration, 15 centuries apart, can still be found.
Stanley Dalnekoff and Steve Xue will give the travel agent’s-eye-view on the Jews of China on Sunday, Jan. 26, as part of “A Taste of Honey,” an annual educational event sponsored by the Center for Jewish Life and Learning of the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven.
A retired travel agent and founder of New Haven Travel Service, Westville resident Dalnekoff had sent many clients to China but was not especially interested in the region until after he sold his travel business. He first learned about the Jews of China three years ago at the Westville Synagogue, when Vera Schwarcz, Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University, lectured on the history of the Jews of Kaifeng.
Formerly an official Chinese tour-guide, Steve Xue is CEO of East West Travel, a large travel bureau based in China that sends thousands of visitors to the U.S. every year. When the company decided to open a branch in the U.S. as a way to better serve its clients, Xue approached Dalnekoff through a mutual friend and the two recently set up an office in Woodbridge, where Xue and his family now live. Great Travel, LLC will organize tours of China for Americans, with itineraries for those who wish to explore the Jewish culture and history of China.
“Until recently, most Jewish travelers to China did not realize that there was a significant Jewish representation in the country over the years,” Dalnekoff says. “Nor did they realize just how welcoming the Chinese where to the persecuted Jews who had to leave Germany and other European countries just prior to the Second World War.” Remnants of the Jewish communal infrastructure created during that period are still in existence, Dalnekoff says, especially in Harbin Province and Shanghai.
“To me, the most interesting aspect of Jewish history in China relates to the Jews of Kaifeng,” Dalnekoff says. “Here we see a community being warmly received by the local emperor and the people generally. It is amazing to think that there are Chinese citizens in this area who are proud of their Jewish ancestry even although it is halachically questionable, due to the fact that they follow the Chinese practice of patrilineal descent rather than matrilineal descent.”
In recent years, many of these descendants have undergone full conversion in Israel and have either remained there or returned to their families in China, Dalnekoff says.
“There is affinity and respect for Jews among Chinese people and a tremendous lack of antisemitism in the country,” says Dalnekoff. “In my opinion, there are two reasons for this: firstly, Judaism and Confucianism have some common ideals which meant that religious conflict was avoided. The second reason, and this is my own personal feeling on the matter, is that the lack of Christianity in the country has also precluded the menace of antisemitism confronting these people.”
Xue adds that the Chinese government controls every aspect of life in Chinese society. “It is difficult for the people freely educate themselves about foreign cultures,” he says. “Indeed: many people are eager to learn about Jewish culture. The obstacle at present is that people are not encouraged to go to Israel to learn because the media conveys that Israel is a dangerous place. As Confucius said, ‘Seeing is believing; what you learn from traveling ten thousand miles is much more than from reading a ten thousand-page book.’ That leaves a lot for the Israeli government to explore. The Chinese government has a neutral position regarding Israel for purely political reasons. This situation will hopefully change in the future.”
Xue developed an interest in the Jews of China from the tours he created for foreign visitors. As a result, he has produced a film on Chinese Jewish history, parts of which he and Dalnekoff plan to incorporate into their Jan. 26 presentation.
“Where My Heart Is, My Homeland Is: The Jews of China” with Stanley Dalnekoff and Steve Xue: A Taste of Honey, Saturday, Jan. 26, 7-11 p.m., JCC of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge | Info/registration: www.jewishnewhaven.org