Kaifeng: Shi Lei’s US lecture tour begins

Shi Lei, a descendant of one of the original Kaifeng Jewish families, is now on a US speaking tour sponsored by Kulanu..

Tracing the Tribe encourages readers who live in or near the communities where he will speak to attend the program.

Wooden model, Kaifeng Synagogue
Beit Hatefutsot-Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv

He’s already spoken in Maryland and he’ll also be in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, Ontario, California, Georgia and New Jersey.

In his talk, Shi Lei discusses the history of this unique community, presents a slideshow and information on his community’s origins, how they preserved their identity under near-impossible circumstances and centuries of isolation isolated from the mainstream Jewish world.

Above right is the wooden model of the ancient Kaifeng Synagogue at Beit Hatefutsoth-Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv.

He discusses Jewish traditions preserved through the centuries. It’s not all about the past, as he talks about the young people of his community and their desire to learn more about their origins; 18 are now studying in Israel and several have made aliyah.

A graduate of China’s Henan University, Shi Lei studied Jewish history and religion at Israel’s Bar Ilan University (2001-2002) and spent two more years at Jerusalem’s Machon Meir Yeshiva. He now works as a national tour guide, providing private and group tours to Jewish sites in China. The New York Times Travel Section recently called him “licensed, charming and experienced.”

For more information, click here or here or view Kulanu’s slide show on the history of the Kaifeng Jews.

The remainder of Shi Lei’s tour includes:

Visit the links above for more information on Kulanu, its activities and to donate to the organization in support of those activities.

Monday, May 3, 7.30pm
Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, Marblehead, Massachusetts

Tuesday, May 4 8pm
Beth Hillel Cong. Bnai Emunah, Wilmette, Illinois

Wednesday,May 5, 7.30pm
Congregation Agudath Jacob, Waco, Texas

Friday, May 7, 6.15pm
Congregation B’nai Zion, El Paso, Texas

Monday, May 10, 7.30pm
JCC/Ansche Chesed, New York City

Wednesday, May 12, 7pm
Temple Isaiah, Lexington, Massachusetts

Thursday, May 13, afternoon
Taping, Israel Today TV interview, Toronto, Canada

Thursday, May 13, 7pm
Darchei Noam, Toronto, Canada

Monday, May 17, 7pm
Temple Adat Shalom, Poway, California

Tuesday, May 18, 3pm
Taping, Jewish Life TV interview, Encino, California

Tuesday, May 18, 8pm
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Pasadena, California

Wednesday, May 19, 6pm
Tustin, California

Friday, May 21, 7pm
Saturday, May 22, 10am
Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia

Sunday, May 23, 10.30am
Temple Beth Tikvah, Wayne, New Jersey

Hong Kong: ‘Asian Jewish Life,’ spring issue online

On my recent Hong Kong visit, I met with editor-in-chief Erica Lyons of “Asian Jewish Life: A Journal of Spirit, Society and Culture.”

The new AJL spring 2010 issue is now online with stories covering India, Shanghai, Cambodia, foodies, book reviews, film and more.

“Asian Jewish Life is a contemporary journal of Jewish diaspora life throughout Asia. As Jews in Asia we are but a tiny minority unified by tradition, a love for Israel, common contemporary concerns and shared values. While Asian Jewish Life is a common media forum designed to share regional Jewish thoughts, ideas and culture and promote unity, it also celebrates our individuality and our diverse backgrounds and customs.”

Here’s the table of contents (read each online or download the PDF at the link above):

— Inbox: Your letters
— Letter from the Editor
— India Journal- Life with the Bene Ephraim (Bonita Nathan Sussman and Gerald Sussman)
— Eating Kosher Dog Meat: Jewish in Guiyang (Susan Blumberg-Kason)
— Through the Eyes of ZAKA (Jana Daniels)
— Interview: Ambassador Yaron Mayer

— Replanting Roots in Shanghai: Architect Haim Dotan’s journey (Erica Lyons)
— A Palate Grows in Brooklyn: Birth of a foodie (Sandi Butchkiss)
— Poetry by Rachel DeWoskin
— The Death Penalty: What Asia can learn from Judaism (Michael H. Fox)
— Learning to Speak: A cross-cultural love story (Tracy Slater)
— Book Reviews (Susan Blumberg-Kason)
— Places I Love
— Expat Diary: Raising a Jewish Child in Cambodia (Craig Gerard)
— Film in Focus

Each article provides a diverse look into life in Asia, with a Jewish “hook.” Tracing the Tribe will always remember the line “tenderloin of my heart,” from Tracy Slater’s “Learning to Speak.”

Readers and writers with Jewish Asian experiences are invited to submit articles; click here for more information.

If you enjoyed this issue (the winter issue is also online), let Erica know, and tell her you learned about AJL at Tracing the Tribe. Feedback is always welcome.

A great issue, Erica!

Shanghai: Saving the stones

As is too often the case, Jewish gravestones are used for other purposes by people who live where Jewish populations no longer care for and maintain cemeteries.

Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal, who arrived in Shanghai nine years ago, is the Jewish tombstone collector of the city, according to a CNNGO.com story.

Scattered in cauliflower patches, or sunken, mud-covered, in riverbanks, or sometimes used as washing slabs by villagers around the city, are the gravestones of old Jewish settlers of Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, the gravestones were uprooted, smashed and scattered throughout the region. The cemeteries have long been paved over, with no recognition of the bodies buried underneath. The stones that remain are like historical islands, isolated and disconnected from their past.

For Israeli photo-journalist and documentary maker Dvir Bar-Gal, a first encounter with a headstone in a Shanghai antique store has become a decade-long quest to discover their origins. And what started as a journalistic project quickly turned into a personal mission. “I got more connected emotionally,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy involved every time we flip over the stones and read the mud-covered inscriptions.”

Bar-Gal’s quest, now called the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project, has seen him journey to numerous rural villages around Shanghai. There, he’d find old tombstones in fields, along rivers, or used as construction blocks for pathways and walls. His plan is to discover and restore as many stones he can and then display them, as a shrine to this nearly lost aspect of Shanghai’s Jewish history.

Stones have been recovered by the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Project from bike path bridges, fields and riverbeds. Bar-Gal interviews local residents and tries to put the puzzle pieces together.

Bar-Gal says there may have been some 3,700 Jews buried in the city, but couldn’t find gravestones or cemeteries other than the pieces he discovers. He’s found some 85 stones over the past 10 years. He’s contacted families of the deceased and asked architects to design a permanent home.

A few years ago, American Lily Klebanoff Blake joined Bar-Gal and they went to the rural location where he found her grandmother’s stone in a riverbed.

“It was still covered in mud but I felt compelled to show my respect for my grandmother by washing the mud off the gravestone,” she says. “Touching the gravestone, I felt an uncanny connection to my grandmother, who died when I was four years old.”

The recovered stones remain in a few places: a storage space, a Buddhist cemetery and the journalist’s own gallery.

He has a network of people who let him know when stones are found. In March, a neighbor told him some stones were found in a western suburb and he found two new ones.

His inspiration comes from days like that, and he’s working on various projects: a documentary (not yet funded), a book about Shanghai’s Jewish history, and as a tour guide and photographer.

Yanhua Zhang, research director for a non-profit heritage conservation group, believes that a permanent home for the stones can help people trace their family history, and would raise awareness of the former Jewish ghetto.

Read the complete story at the link above.

Shanghai: A Jewish walking tour

Today must be Shanghai day!

Tracing the Tribe has covered gravestones, a film and now a Jewish walking tour of the city.

Take a look at this interesting city tour, covering seven Jewish-relevant sites, complete with a nice map.

For more, contact guide Patrick Cranley from Historic Shanghai.

The sites detailed, with photos, include:

— An estate built in 1925 by a British Jewish trader, Ray Joseph.

— The building where author Rena Krasno (1923-2009) lived with her parents, who came to Shanghai from Russia in the early 1920s. Her father was editor of “Our Life,” a tri-lingual Jewish magazine; her uncle Gabriel Rabinowitz designed Ohel Moshe synagogue (now a museum commemorating Shanghai’s Jewish refugees).

— The villa home to one of the most prominent Sephardic families, the Ezras, who owned several properties including the Astor House Hotel.

— A luxurious apartment building (1936) built by and named for Ray and Hannah Joseph.

— The Shanghai Conservatory of Music was the former Shanghai Jewish Club. Behind it is a German-style villa under renovation. It was the old clubhouse for a Zionist youth group, Betar.

— In back of the Fudan University Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital is the original B’nai Brith Polyclinic building (1934), know in the 1940s as the Shanghai Jewish Hospital.

— The Ezra family built (1934) an upscale residential community in Xinkang Huayuan.

See the complete article at the link above and see the photos.

Israel: "Shanghai Ghetto" film, April 14

The next meeting of the Israel Genealogical Society (IGS/JFRA) branch in Ra’anana will feature a screening of the “Shanghai Ghetto” documentary, which demonstrates the life of Jewish refugees who spent the war years in that city.

The screening is the branch’s program for Holocaust Remembrance Evening on Wednesday, April 14, at 7.30pm. The meeting is at Beit Fisher, 5 Klausner St. (near Ahuza).

Following the film, there will be a discussion and Q&A with Harold Janklowicz, who was in Shanghai from the age of 8, with his mother. They sailed from Berlin to the relative safety of China.

Although they were away from the horrors of Europe, the Shanghai Ghetto offered other hardships including primitive living conditions, food shortages, malnutrition, illnesses and bad treatment by Japanese occupying forces.

After the war in Europe ended, bombing by American warplanes missed their radio station target and bombed the ghetto instead, killing hundreds of civilians and 40 of the Jewish refugees.

Fee: IGS/JFRA members: free; others, NIS 20.

China: A visit to Kaifeng

The one thing I really wanted to do, on my recent visit to Hong Kong, was arrange a visit to Kaifeng. It was impossible this time, but will be number one on my next visit – whenever that will be.

Matthew Fishbane recently visited the city and recounted his experience in the New York Times Travel Section, “China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave.” He also provides details for making a successful trip, mentions two guides and offers an interesting look.

One guide mentioned in the story is Shi Lei, 31, who studied at Bar Ilan University in Israel. We met when he spoke to a Ra’anana branch meeting that attracted nearly 100 attendees.

Through a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits.

A mezuza at the doorway of Guo Yan’s house in Kaifeng, where traces of a thriving Jewish community remain.

The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.

Ms. Guo, who identifies herself as a Jew, says she hears it from scholars, visitors and Chinese people alike: “ ‘You Chinese Jews are very famous,’ they say. ‘But you are only in the history books.’“

That seemed a good enough reason to come looking, and I quickly found that I was hardly alone.

Ms. Guo and I were soon joined by a 36-year-old French traveler, Guillaume Audan, who called himself a “nonpracticing Jew” on a six-month world tour of “things not specifically Jewish.” Like me, he’d found Ms. Guo by recommendation, and made the detour to see what the rumored Kaifeng Jews were all about.

Earlier, Ms. Guo had brought us into a narrow courtyard at 21 Teaching Torah Lane — an alley once central to the city’s Jewish community, and still home to her 85-year-old grandmother, Zhao Cui, widow of a descendant of Chinese Jews. Her one-room house has been turned into a sort of dusty display case, with Mrs. Zhao as centerpiece. “Here are the Kaifeng Jews,” Ms. Guo said, a little defiantly. “We are they.”

Fishbane says, as does my own research over nearly two decades, that for 150 years following the death of the last rabbi, there was still a spirit:

Grandparents told their grandchildren, as Mrs. Zhao told Ms. Guo: “You are a Jew.” Without knowing why, families avoided pork. And at Passover, the old men baked unleavened cakes and dabbed rooster’s blood on their doorstep.

Read the complete story, at the link above, which tells of the visit to Mrs. Zhao, Judaica, and the 50 or so descendants of this ancient Jewish community as they are relearning their heritage. Fishbane also provides a good capsule history of Kaifeng as well. Their synagogue, damaged by floods, was never rebuilt.

And, if this story inspires you, view the details, resource books and possibilities of arranging such a visit to Kaifeng. Most visit only for a day as there are few sites to see that exist, and a visit relies on how the visitor and guide explain what once was.

If you do plan a trip, you might want to do it sooner than later. The street where Shi’s grandfather lived – where Shi keeps a one-room mini-museum of photographs, documents and donated objects – is scheduled for re-development. We all know what that means and Shi doesn’t know where the museum will move. Read the story for details on a Kaifeng visit planned for October 2010 by a group that specializes in such trips.

Melbourne: The conference opens

Although Melbourne suffered from a 100-year rain, with flooded streets, damaged and leaking roofs, hail (from marble-size to much larger!), nothing stopped these intrepid genealogists from arriving at the Beth Weizmann community building in Caulfield South.

Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus gave the keynote address and focused on “Jewish Genealogy: Past , Present and Future,” as she detailed the history and growth of Jewish genealogy in the US and worldwide.

After a coffee break, I was up next with our “Iberian Ashkenaz DNA Project: So You Think You’re Ashkenazi.” It generated many questions and people were talking to me all day about their family’s stories. The point was to raise awareness of the possibilities and it certainly seemed to do just that.

I hadn’t known previously, but I was to lead a Sephardic SIG group next, with another group of interested people with even more interesting stories to tell and questions to be answered.

Following lunch (complete with felafel, potato salad and the rest), I then presented “The New Technology Frontier: Social Networks and Blogging,” which also encouraged questions and comments, as I covered Facebook, Twitter, Blogging and genealogy social networking sites. Several people at the session and ater during the day mentioned that their trees had been hijacked at Geni.

There were several concurrent sessions. I attended Jenni Buch’s Belarus session and Peter Nash’s excellent “China: Resources for Family Research,” which offered some rather amazing sources discovered by Peter. Attending Peter’s talk was our new friend Helen Bekhor of Melbourne, whose Sephardic family – originally from Baghdad – was interned by the Japanese in Shanghai. Peter attended the Kadoorie School in Shanghai and it sounded like they knew some of the same people way back then. Rieke Nash’s session on JRI-Poland was next.

What I missed: Krystyna Duszniak’s “Unearthing the Polish Past by Necessity: The Historica Journey to a Poish Passport,” Todd Knowles’ “British Holldings of the Family History Library,” Daniela Torsh’s “Finding Hilda: An Austrian Genealogy Story,” and Prof. Martin Delatycki’s “Genetic Disease Among Jewish People.” There were also SIG groups on researching early Australia, German research, Hungary and the Netherlands.

In the evening, a reception was held at the nearby Glen Eira Town Hall, complete with wine, sushi and more. A moving address was given by the young mayor, Steven Tang, who described his trip back to Poland and search for his mother’s Jewish roots, as well as his father’s Chinese roots. Awards were given to hardworking society members.

The society lost some time ago one of its major movers and shakers – Les Oberman – a good friend of mine. A meeting room was dedicated with a plaque bearing his name.

Ziva Fain and I are now out the door to day two of the conference.

Photos and more will be posted tonight.