Moshe Yan, the new mashgiach at Fumio Grill and Sushi, can trace his roots back 700 years, just by walking into the community cemetery where he grew up, visiting the town’s Jewish museum, or looking through centuries of handwritten records.
“We call ourselves Yotai,” he said, referring to the Jewish community that has existed in the northeastern Chinese city of Kaifeng since the Song Dynasty (962-1279).
While many of those Jews have assimilated over the centuries or abandoned their Jewish roots under China’s communist government, Yan is among the few who explored and ultimately embraced Jewish tradition. With the help of rabbis and scholars who assisted him in his search, Yan arrived in the United States 12 years ago on a path to Jewish Orthodoxy.
Yan grew up in Kaifeng when Jews were a fading memory. There were synagogues there from 1163, when the first one was built, until 1860, when the third and last was destroyed. By then, through its isolation, the community had largely lost its ties to Judaism and Jewish practice, although the people continued to avoid eating pork.
From Yan’s perspective, it was the anti-religious policies of communism that dealt the final blow.
“We couldn’t practice our religion because of communism,” he told a visitor, sitting at a table at the restaurant where he started just one month ago. “There was no way to get a Jewish education.”
Yan, now 50, spoke with NJJN about his decision to leave behind extended family and a successful engineering career for an uncertain future in the United States in pursuit of his dream to study his religion.
In his broken English, he described how, around the age of 30, he realized he wanted to learn more about what it means to be Jewish.
“You have to know what’s for yourself,” he said. “Was being Jewish just a name that means you don’t eat pork, or something else? I began to consider what it means and I began to search.”
He knew there were rabbis in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and he contacted one of them. But the response was not what Yan had hoped. The rabbi, Yan asserted, “couldn’t talk to Chinese Jews; he had signed an agreement with the Chinese government.”
But that rabbi put Yan in touch with Xu Xin, a professor at Nanjing University and China’s leading Judaic scholar. Later, Yan was able to make contact with a Chabad rabbi in Hong Kong and eventually moved to Beijing, where he had American and French Jewish friends. That’s when his religious education really began.
“I began davening the first week,” he recalled. It wasn’t long before he realized he wanted to come to New Jersey to study at the Rabbinical College of America, the Chabad-run seminary in Morristown.
Applying for a visa, it was his knowledge of the Sh’ma that confirmed his story with the visa officer. Once enrolled at RCA, Yan began to learn Torah, Halacha, and Talmud, all in English.
“I read Talmud and Gemara with the English and the Hebrew. I still have some problem with Hebrew,” he acknowledged. “I can understand English but talking is quite a bit harder.”
He eyes flash as he describes his former daily routine. “It was very exciting to come to the RCA! Every day we were learning. For eight hours we studied from early morning until late at night. I was so much older when I started and I want to learn. I wish I was still learning with the rabbis all day long.
“But I get to learn on Shabbos,” he said.
Yan’s new life as a religious Jew came at a steep price. He divorced his wife, who was not Jewish, in 2004. He has little contact with their son, also not Jewish, even though they all live in Highland Park, albeit on opposite sides of town. His son, 22, is studying at Rutgers University while his ex-wife, a physician, goes back and forth between the United States and China. Yan had to formally convert to Judaism, since the Chinese Jewish community follows a patrilineal rather than matrilineal descent model. He said he was “happy” to do it.
As an engineer in China he had “a good job and an easy life,” he said. “Here, it is not so easy. There I had an apartment, family, I worked at a government-owned company. I have no worry. Now, I have to make a living.”
Lacking the right credentials and only moderate command of the English language, he works below his ability. He managed to work for a short time in Cleveland, with a company designing solar panels, until the business failed.
He worked for a time as a mashgiach for the Star K supervision agency as well as for Sushi Mitsuyan in Teaneck before coming to Fumio.
To satisfy his intellectual needs beyond the Jewish world, he said, he spends plenty of time conducting his own experiments. He holds two patents, both relating to capturing alternative energy, and continues his scientific work in his spare time.
Asked how Chinese and Jewish cultures intersect or overlap, he said, “There are many similarities. Jews focus on study, so do Chinese. We all think when we learn, we will get a better job and more income. And both consider how to do the right thing.
“But in China it’s a broad philosophy with no real way to enact it, mostly referring to Confucianism. Judaism is more practice- oriented; it’s here’s the Halacha, one-two-three.”
He proudly mentioned that the Kaifeng community, which he numbers at roughly 1,000 families, recently sent 15 children to Israel to study, something possible only since China and Israel established ties. But sadly, he said, for Kaifeng’s Jews, it is still basically “no pork, no shrimp, no Jewish education.”