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Reviewed by:
  • The Jews of China
  • Maram Epstein (bio)
Jonathan Goldstein , editor. The Jews of China. Volume 1, Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Armonk and London: M. E. Sharpe, 1999. xxiv, 308 pp. Hardcover $69.95, ISBN 0-7656-0104-4. Paperback $29.95, ISBN 0-7656-0104-4.

When I was reading The Jews of China at the Detroit airport, a businessman interrupted me excitedly, asking: "Were there really Jews in China?" Thanks to the first couple of essays in this anthology, I was able to assure him not only that the first Jews arrived in China as early as the ninth century, likely by way of the Silk Route, but that they stayed and formed a community in Kaifeng, which maintained a temple until 1860, when the structure was destroyed in a flood. He left, satisfied and pleased with his new knowledge, while I kept hoping that these essays would shed light on one of the most compelling questions about the highly assimilated community in Kaifeng, namely, what exactly their Jewish identity meant to them.

Before turning to what the various contributors have to say about this, let me give a sense of the breadth of the essays in this interdisciplinary volume. The first five contributions focus on the "Kaifeng Experience," and the following section contains three essays that compare the Jews of Kaifeng with the Cochin and coastal Bene Israel communities in India. Linking all these essays is their common interest in analyzing how these established Jewish communities balanced the need to assimilate to the larger culture while maintaining a sense of Jewish particularism. The rest of the anthology is made up of nine essays on sojourning Jews of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who settled for shorter or longer periods in Baghdad, Calcutta, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Harbin. These essays take up such disparate topics as the role of Jews in developing the economies and expatriate communities of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bombay, and Baghdad; Jewish refugees who settled in Harbin and Shanghai; and two essays on the influence of Jewish musicians on the musical scene of Shanghai. Particularly interesting is the connection drawn by two contributors between Jewish businesses and the opium [End Page 453] trade. (See Joan G. Roland's essay, "The Baghdadi Jews in India and China in the Nineteenth Century" [pp. 144-146], and Chiara Betta's study of the Shanghai business magnate Silas Aaron Hardoon, Shanghai's largest landowner by the time of his death in 1931, who financed his acquisition and development of Shanghai real estate through the sale of opium [pp. 218-219].)

Overall, these essays are straightforward historical narratives of various individuals or groups from a Jewish, rather than a sinological, perspective. Few of these businessmen or refugees interacted in any meaningful way with the larger non-Jewish culture, with the exception of Hardoon, who married a Chinese woman and became a patron of traditional Chinese arts and education. Exemplifying the Jewish tendency to remain separate from the larger culture are the refugees from World War II studied by Vera Schwarcz. In an act of cultural self-preservation, these men and women constructed an entirely self-enclosed Jewish community in Shanghai that supported a thriving yeshiva, Jewish religious and secular publishing concerns, and Yiddish theater. As one of Schwarcz' Austrian informants put it, "I became more Jewish in Shanghai" (p. 284).

Because the second half of the book is likely to be of lesser interest to those readers who are looking for specifically Chinese content, I will focus my comments on the Kaifeng material. Although there is little in these essays that is new, as Michael Pollak makes clear in his essay, "The Revelation of a Jewish Presence in Seventeenth-Century China: Its Impact on Western Messianic Thought," The Jews of China represents a useful intervention in the control and interpretation of the materials by Christian missionaries. As Pollak tells it, Matteo Ricci's 1605 announcement of a small Jewish community in Kaifeng was of interest to the Jesuit and Protestant Churches because of their assumption that the Torah scrolls held by this "lost tribe" were the true and original Jewish scriptures. There was a long-standing Christian belief...


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