When Chinese people use “Jew” as a metaphor for wealth or success, it is not meant as a slur: With little if no history of persecution or hatred of Jews, the Chinese have instead developed “an interest in, respect for, and appreciation of the Jewish people, their historical significance, and the positive impacts of Judaism on the world.”
Such attitudes, said Chinese scholar Dr. Lihong Song, are based on what they perceive as the Jews’ demonstrated influence and ingenuity throughout history.
“For a society focused on economic growth and technological advancement, the Chinese regard Jews as a model of success,” said Song, speaking at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains on March 7. “The Chinese acknowledge the Jews’ exceptional contribution to world civilizations and are interested in studying Jewish culture in order to better understand their own transformation.”
An instructor from Nanjing University’s Department of Religious Studies and a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Song spoke as part of the JCC’s fourth annual University Lecture Series.
According to Song, the Jewish presence in China can be traced back as early as 960, when a Jewish community — likely originating from either Iran, India, or Yemen — established a settlement in China’s important trade city of Kaifeng. While the Kaifeng Jews succeeded as merchants and developed a distinctly Jewish culture, evidence shows that they were also fully assimilated, carrying out the binding of women’s feet and other Chinese cultural practices of the day.
Today, said Song, 126 residents of Kaifeng trace their lineage to this historic Jewish community; several have even made aliya and are currently studying for the rabbinate.
After 1933, some 17,000 German and Austrian Jews trickled into China, followed by another large influx of Jews after Kristallnacht in 1938, establishing a Jewish enclave in Shanghai during and after World War II. Synagogues, cemeteries, and other historic Jewish sites in Shanghai have been meticulously restored, including The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue and the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which reopened in 2008 to host the first Jewish wedding in a Shanghai synagogue in 60 years. Shanghai’s current population of 5,000 Jews includes three Chabad rabbis.
Today, Song said, “after many years of upheaval, China is reopening to many foreign influences and turning westward. Understanding the Jews is key to helping the Chinese understand themselves and enhance their position on the international scene.”
The student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 helped inspire an openness to beliefs other than the “secular” religion of Marxism, he said. “Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Catholicism have been revitalized, and there’s a growing quest for spirituality in China,” Song said. He cited as evidence a recent rise in the number of religion departments established in universities across China. Nanjing University is believed to house the largest Judaica library in Asia (except Israel, of course) — it has 18,000 volumes — as well as a graduate program with a major in Jewish studies. “Our institution promotes understanding between Chinese and Jewish people, and we welcome Jews to China to see the many distinguished landmarks of Jewish faith,” he said.
Renee and David Golush of Westfield, who visited The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum during a 2009 trip to Shanghai, praised Song. “It’s such an interesting juxtaposition to have a young scholar from China be so knowledgeable about this unique topic,” Renee said.
“We try to bring provocative topics, intellectual conversation, and stimulating debates presented on a college level to our members through partnerships with such schools as Princeton, NYU, and the University of Pennsylvania,” said JCC volunteer and lay leader Larry Pargot.