Chinese Jews Subject of Presentation at Malibu Jewish Center

Chinese Jews?

Yes, indeed, said Ellie Somerfield, Malibu resident and historian, who spoke at the Malibu Jewish Center recently

A docent for the past 20 years at the Skirball Cultural Center, Somerfield holds a special interest in the Jews of China, due to her interest in Jewish history. She herself has gone to China to see what remained of a once prosperous Chinese Jewish settlement.

Her talk, attended by 30 or so Malibuites, centered on a group of Jews in a town called Kaifeng on the Yellow River between Peking and Shanghai. The Chinese Jewish community actually got started around 1,000 years ago when Jewish traders and adventurers came to China on the Spice Route.

“There is proof of a Jewish presence as early as the 8th Century,” said Somerfield.

Much of the information comes from documents written in Persian by Iraqi Jews.

“The Jewish tradesmen had outposts about six days travel apart from each other, so that every six days they could stay with Jewish people,” said Somerfield.

Marco Polo also wrote about meeting Jews in China in 1286, she said. The Kubla Khan also allowed the celebration of a Jewish holiday in China.

Somerfield said that the Jews left Persia to escape the crusaders. The Chinese welcomed them because the Jewish traders brought with them the tools and techniques to process cotton seed and make cloth.

“Silk was in short supply, so cotton was an alternative,” she said. “The Emperor let them set up factories to make cotton goods and print on cotton.”

In that one area, pointed out Somerfield, “There were seven clans of Jews. They changed their names to Chinese names assigned by the Emperor–the equivalents of traditional Jewish names like “Gold” and “Silver.”

“Levi became Lee,” she said.

At one point, after showing photos of a synagogue, and other Jewish buildings that once composed the Jewish enclave in Kaifeng, she joked “It was the Fairfax of China.”

Eventually the Jewish settlers in China lost touch with the “Jewry of the world,” said Somerfield, because the Chinese translations of the Torah were lost in fires and floods, and, for one 100-year period, China was cut off from the outside world. The last rabbi of the original group died before the American Civil War. The first known synagogue in China was in 1163 and the last one was destroyed in 1863.

Somerfield highlighted her presentation with pictures of Chinese Jews taken late in the last century–with pigtails, silk coats and Chinese features, they were indistinguishable from other Chinese. She then showed pictures taken in recent years of the descendants of the original Jewish settlers.

“The 20 families or so that have descended from this group call themselves Jewish on their passports, but have lost touch with everything that was in their roots, except not eating pork,” said Somerfield.

Somerfield speculated that the reason the Chinese liked the Jews is that the two groups had similar values, which she enumerated as: a strong moral and ethical code, a pursuit of learning, and a respect for family.

Eventually, the group of Jews that had come from the Middle East married Chinese, and gradually became totally assimilated, with only dim distant memories of their Jewish past.

Some of the artifacts from this period were saved by Canadians building a hospital where the Jewish area of China once was. Among the artifacts is a Torah in Chinese. Other information comes from the reports of a Jesuit missionary in China who regularly reported on the activities of the Jews to Rome.

There were two other Jewish immigrations to China, pointed out Somerfield. One was Russian Jews who left Russia after the Revolution to escape the mass killings of Jews. The second wave was 20,000 Jews from all over Europe who were able to gain entry just before W.W.II because China was the only country which did not require entrance visas.

Ingrid Blumenstein, age 71, of Westlake Village, was one of the “involuntary” Chinese residents during the war, and was invited to speak at the program as well.

Blumenstein told a harrowing story of her parents and their two young daughters–she being one of them–escaping Berlin at the last moment and taking the proverbial “slow boat to China.”

In China, said Blumenstein, the Jews were put up in camps, but, she said, “they were not like concentration camps. There was crowding and low quality food but no extermination program as in Germany.” “Things got worse when the Japanese took over the camps,” she said. Blumenstein spoke with revulsion as she described the Japanese commandant who humiliated and beat the Jewish settlers at every opportunity. Near the war’s end, the Americans came, at first bombing the camp incurring some fatalities, and she and the survivors were liberated.

Blumenstein moved to the U.S. in 1948.

“I can speak a little Chinese,” she said of her ordeal, “but I mostly spoke German because I lived in the camp for eight of the 10 years I was there.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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