Celebrating “The Asian Influence”

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – If asked about the relationship between Jewish and Chinese cultures, many American Jews would no doubt point to their “tradition” of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve. But the connection is far deeper and older, beginning more than 1,000 years ago and continuing to the present day.

That is the inspiration behind “The Asian Influence,” a lecture and concert program presented by teth El Temple on Sunday, Dec. 4 at Beth El Temple in West Hartford.


Cantor Joseph Ness

Beth El’s Cantor Joseph Ness conceived the program’s theme last spring, while serving as a judge for the 2015 Connecticut Young Artists Piano Competition. First prize was awarded to Seolyeong Jeong, a native of South Korea and a graduate student at the Yale School of Music. Ness hoped that Jeong would perform the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in the Beth El Temple concert a couple of months later, but the piece proved too long for the program. Instead, Jeong agreed to perform the Third Piano Concerto as part of “The Asian Influence.” Taiwan-born violinist Chi Li, a student at the New England Conservatory who has been performing worldwide since age 14, will perform the Violin Concerto in A Minor by Alexander Glazunov.

In planning the rest of the musical program, Ness wanted to highlight the ties between Asian and Jewish cultures. He invited his longtime friend and colleague, Chai-lun Yueh, to participate. A Grammy Award-nominated classically trained baritone, Yueh is the director of the Kang Hua Singers of Greater Hartford and the Connecticut Women’s Chorale. He and the Kang Hua Singers will perform four Chinese folksongs.

Ness brings together the Jewish and Chinese cultures in “The Golden Star,” an original work composed especially for the program. His inspiration comes from researching the Jewish community of Kaifeng in northeastern China, founded in the 10th century by Jewish traders traveling the Silk Road from India or Persia.

Welcomed by the Song Emperors, the community built a synagogue in 1163 and may have been 5,000 residents strong at its peak during the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th centuries). But the population waned and intermarried over the next 200 years. Fires and floods destroyed religious infrastructure. (The synagogue was rebuilt once, in the 17th century.) The last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, according to Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization active in Kaifeng. In the beginning of the 20th century, European Christian missionaries hoped to rekindle the community’s religious memory and also introduce the New Testament. But the Kaifeng descendants had little interest, apparently. “No spark of interest in their history and in the divine heritage of Israel could be aroused in them,” bemoaned one Anglican bishop. “They were Jews no longer.” China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s wiped out almost all signs of Jewish practice. There are now no more than 1,000 members of the Kaifeng community who identify as descendants of Jews.

The six short interludes, ranging from two to four minutes each, are written with a particular part of the Kaifeng experience in mind, some historical and others personal, and combine non-Western pentatonic scales with tones typical of Torah trope.

Opening the work, “The Search” and “The Silk Road” explore the inner search for identity by the Jews who would leave their homeland and their journey along the Silk Road to China. “Lullaby” portrays a Jewish mother and child among the blooming Chinese flowers in their new home, dreaming of the future. “Ancient Texts” incorporates Torah trope with the Chinese pentatonic scale. “Song of Thanks-Flood Acceptance” describes the destruction of the Kaifeng synagogue and the survival of the Jewish community. Ness calls the last movement, “Celebration of Life,” “a rough-and-tumble ‘Jewish hoedown’” that incorporates Chinese musical motifs.

Jews would relocate to China again, when Shanghai became home to 18,000 refugees fleeing the Nazis. The concert is preceded by a talk by Prof. Michael Lestz, a faculty-member of the history department at Trinity College in Hartford, where he also directs the O’Neill Asia Cum Laude Endowment.

Lestz holds a PhD in Chinese history from Yale University and his research is focused on Qing and 20th-century China. With Jonathan Spence, he is the co-author of The Search for Modern China: A Document Collection. He taught at Trinity and has often led undergraduate research programs in China. In spring 2014, he was Trinity College’s first exchange professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

In “And What Remains? The Jewish Refugees of Shanghai, 1938 to 1945,” Lestz will explore the struggle to survive in one cramped neighborhood during the war. Today, the Hongkou “ghetto,” where Jewish refugees were forced to settle by Shanghai’s Japanese occupiers, remains remarkably intact in the midst of a cityscape evolving at warp speed. Lestz will discuss efforts to preserve the neighborhood and reflects on the meaning of this episode in modern Chinese history.

“The Asian Influence” lecture and concert will be held Sunday, Dec. 4, 6 p.m., at Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. For tickets and information: betheltemplemusic.com / (860) 233-9696.

CAP: Pianist Seolyeong Jeong

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