Discovering Jewish Community in China

“What does Jewish Peoplehood mean to you?”

This was the question posed to the JDC Entwine Insider trip I recently travelled with to China. We sat down around several pieces of paper with quotes to discuss the idea of “Jewish Peoplehood”. My instinctive reaction was that claiming “Jewish Peoplehood” was a radical proposal implying some sort of global identity and unifying bond between all Jews. In Israel, identifying as a Jew is fraught with complications and sub-identities, and the stories I hear from other JSC’s also make me think that what is Jewish community and how people construct their identities as Jews is wildly different in different areas. Imagine my surprise hearing that almost everyone else in the group felt that “Jewish Peoplehood” was so obvious it was redundant. Though China is an unlikely place to discover a new definition of what makes a vibrant Jewish community, that is what I did there.

A typical day's dinner of Chinese food piled on a Lazy Susan

A typical day’s dinner of Chinese food piled on a Lazy Susan

I went to China to take a break from life in Israel, sightsee and experience some Chinese culture (I’m sorry to report that I don’t like authentic Chinese food any more than I like the American take-out version). But I also went on this JDC Entwine Insider trip to learn about the Jewish history in Shanghai and to learn about current Jewish life in both Shanghai and Beijing.

The Bund today, looking different than how my family would have seen it in the 19th century

The Bund today, looking different than how my family would have seen it in the 19th century


I have a personal connection to the Jewish history of Shanghai- my dad’s family was there for the better part of a century and were members of the elite Sephardi community. On a personal level, it was incredible to be in the place that I had heard stories about growing up. The Jewish community of Shanghai arrived beginning in the 1860’s mostly from Baghdad, though my dad’s family came from France. They came to capitalize on the Chinese desire for Western luxury goods and opium. Though they lived a lavish lifestyle in Shanghai, the community was not nearly the size of the communities they had left in Europe and the Middle East; almost out of thin air, in less than a decade, the Jews of China recreated what they considered the fundamentals of communal life. They established a few synagogues and schools and made a social life in places like a Jewish club and the racetrack. The Sephardi Jews of Shanghai became fixtures on the social scene and legends of the community; 150 years later, one American Jewish volunteer living in Israel went to China on a trip and walked the same streets as her great-great-grandparents. Jewish people love to discuss and rehash our history, and for the first time I was able to connect to a part of my Jewish history that seemed so farfetched I wasn’t sure I should believe it. Though I’m not sure this is “Jewish Peoplehood” in the most general sense, in Shanghai I was able to connect to some of my people. L’dor v’dor.

About 80 years after the Sephardi Jews arrived in Shanghai, WWII broke out and some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Europe arrived in Shanghai. For those who don’t know about Laura Margolis, Google her now. Ms. Margolis was a powerful, determined and independent woman at a time when those were not values typically ascribed to women. Ms. Margolis almost single-handedly ran JDC’s arm in China, providing aid to more 20,000 Jews who arrived in Shanghai during WWII fleeing Nazi persecution. Through the heroic actions of one Chinese ambassador in Vienna and one woman in Shanghai, the Sephardi community were motivated to donate some money to their “fellow Jews”, whose lives were saved in the most unlikely of places. The lives of these two Jewish communities in Shanghai couldn’t have looked more different—a few hundred extraordinarily wealthy Sephardim who socialized at the race club versus tens of thousands of Ashkenazi refugees who left behind everything they had in Europe and eked out an existence in the Hongkou ghetto of Shangai, dependent on the JDC and the charity of the Jews on the other side of town for food. And thus, my second encounter with Jewish peoplehood in China: two communities with nothing in common except the name of their religion, tied together in China because one of the communities was in need and the other had the ability to give.

Inside today's Honkou neighborhood

Inside today’s Honkou neighborhood

The vast majority of Jews in China left in the late 1940’s, but today there is a resurgence of Jewish life thanks to the arrival of entrepreneurs and government employees who come to China for a few years before going back to their home countries. The defining feature of the Jewish communities in China now is their transience. The challenge is obvious- how do you create a community amongst people who are always in flux? Chabad obviously has set up roots in several Chinese cities. But there is also what can only be described as a “vibrant” social community including the JDC, Moishe House, liberal prayer groups and happy hours. Halfway across the world, while trying their luck in an emerging market, Jews find other Jews and create for themselves opportunities to be fulfilled in Judaism in whatever way works best for them.


Outside the Sephardi Ohel Rachel synagogue after the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony

Outside the Sephardi Ohel Rachel synagogue after the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony

Which brings me back to the original question: is Jewish peoplehood a radical concept or a characteristic so inherent to Judaism that it doesn’t need to be mentioned? Can it be both? It is certainly improbable and almost surreal to attend a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony with the Israeli consulate in a synagogue in Shanghai built by Baghdadi Jews who paid for the building on the profits of the opium trade. But it was also obvious for the simple fact that we said it was. All the different Jewish communities referenced in the previous sentence decided to throw in their lot together and proclaim that they are one people, the Jewish people. So, naturally, when a small delegation of The People show up, even under unlikely circumstances, it stands to reason that we should do something together.

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