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.

Vancouver, BC. Jewish Museum, April events

The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia has April programs focusing on women’s history and Jewish summer camps, and has announced a new book and a new online archive for a local Jewish newspaper.

The Women’s History Fair will display more than 20 displays from museums, archives, historical societies, cultural groups, schools and more in cooperation with the Women’s History Network of British Columbia. Jewish women pioneers are part of the exhibit.

The exhibit takes place Saturday, April 10, from 1-4pm, at the Central Library, 350 West Georgia St. Admission is free. It is co-sponsored by the VPL Special Collections, Herstory Cafe and the Vancouver Courier.

Michael Schwartz will present a curator’s talk on the Home Away From Home exhibit which focuses on British Columbia’s Jewish summer camps, on Thursday, April 15, from 7-9pm. Admission is free.

The exhibit runs through October 7, and includes hundreds of photographs from Camp Miriam, Camp Hatikvah and Camp Solomon Schechter. Explore the camp histories and view interactive displays including camp alumni interviews, photographs and songs. Visit Sunday-Thursday, from 10am-5pm.

Since the 1930s, the children of the BC Jewish community have attended Jewish summer camps in BC and elsewhere. They have learned about Jewish history and ethics, the history and politics of Israel, and developed a strong sense of community. When asked about their experiences at camp, alumni often say that their dearest and longest lasting friendships began at the age of seven or eight, in their first days at camp. The exhibit explores such lasting impressions and features an array of photographs, artifacts and interactive displays. Jewish Camps featured in the exhibit include Camp Miriam, Camp Hatikvah, and Camp Solomon Schechter.

Schwartz was a Camp Miriam long-time staff member and served as executive director in 2006 and 2007, and as programming director in 2005. He earned an MA in History (University of Toronto) and worked as a researcher and coordinator at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.

The Jewish Western Bulletin which changed its name to the Jewish Independent in 2005, has been the British Columbia Jewish community’s newspaper since 1930. Currently, it is published 49 weeks of the year.

Originally labeled “The Organ of the Jewish Community Centre,” the Jewish Western Bulletin was first published as a newspaper October 9, 1930. It superseded the Jewish Centre News, a publication that had existed under a series of names since 1923. Issues of the Jewish Western Bulletin and its precursor publications dating from 1923 – 2004 have been digitized using OCR technology and are made available on the Multicultural Canada website.

The project was made possible through the financial support of the Irving K. Barber BC Digitization Program, Multicultural Canada, the National Archival Development Program (NADP), Simon Fraser University and the THEN/HiER History Education Network.

A new book on sale at the Museum is the 50-year history of Camp Solomon Schechter, by David Michael Smith.

Established in 1955 by Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and his colleague Rabbi Joseph Wagner, Camp Solomon Schechter aimed to fill a gap by providing the Jewish families of the Pacific Northwest with the region’s first kosher summer camp.

Its 156 glossy pages chronicles the history and life of camp with photos, illustrations and alumni experiences. The price is $10 (softcover), $12 (hardcover) plus S&H.

For more information, send an email, or view the Museum website.

Footnote: Free census access … for awhile! is making all of its US census documents accessible for free for a limited time.

No end date was announced, and the Interactive Census Collection is available to all after a simple registration.

According to, this collection provides a unique ability to connect people related to ancestors found on the historical documents. By clicking the “I’m Related” button for a name on the document will identify you as a descendant and also list others that have done the same.

Click here to get started, and you too may find a record bearing an ancestor’s name and your own personal connection to the past.

Interactive tools on Footnote allow viewers to enhance documents and add photos, stories, comments and other records.

Each contribution from a Footnote member means that people can find each other and connect to exchange information about their mutual ancestors.

Footnote CEO Russell Wilding says, “TV programs including ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on NBC and ‘Faces of America’ on PBS will surely increase the interest in family history in the United States.”

He believes that the interactive census collection is a great way to get started for newcomers to family history research.

If you haven’t checked out recently, there are now 63 million historical records, including military documents, historical newspapers, city directories and naturalization records.

Check out the census collection for free now – you just might find some interesting connections!

New York: Telling family secrets, March 21

Tracing the Tribe readers will note that I try to track the speaking engagements of Steve Luxenberg, author of the award-winning “Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret.”

Although some people think it may be strange that I do so, Steve’s book should be a must on everyone’s to-read list. If you haven’t read it, get yourself a copy. All genealogists and family history researchers should read it.

In addition to telling a compelling story, Steve’s use of all possible resources to solve his family mystery can provide clues and tips to all of us.

A Washington Post associated editor working on special projects, Steve will be speaking to the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York at 2pm on Sunday, March 21, at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.

Steve’s mother was an only child. That’s what she told everyone, sometimes within minutes of meeting them.

When Steve heard that his mother had been hiding the existence of a sister, he was bewildered.

Through personal letters and photographs, official records and archival documents, as well as dozens of interviews, Steve revisits his mother’s world in the 1930s and 1940s in search of how and why the secret was born.

Employing his skills as a journalist, he pieces together the story of his mother’s motivations, his aunt’s unknown life, and the times in which they lived. His search takes him to imperial Russia and Depression-era Detroit, through the Holocaust in Ukraine and the Philippine war zone, and back to the places where his aunt languished in anonymity.

Steve has worked for more than 30 years as a newspaper editor and reporter, beginning at the Baltimore Sun. He joined the Washington Post in 1985 as deputy editor of the newspaper’s investigative/special projects staff, headed by assistant managing editor Bob Woodward. In 1991, he succeeded Woodward as head of the investigative staff.

His professional investigative journalism skills served him well when it came time to write the book.

Married with two children, Steve grew up in Detroit, where “Annie’s Ghosts” is centered.

If you haven’t read the book yet, a book-signing will follow his talk.

Australia: Oldest Jewish person turns 109

Tracing the Tribe notes the 109th birthday of the oldest Jewish person in Australia.

The Australian Jewish News reported that Mary Rothstein celebrated her birthday Sunday in a Jewish Care home for the aged in Melbourne. Among the guests were her daughter, Ruth Cavallaro, two grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Born in Russia on February 27, 1901, moved to the UK at 2, married Joe Rothstein in 1935 and migrated to Australia in 1958. She ran her own millinery business and made hats for the royal family before the move. In Australia, she worked at the famous Myer department store. She said she only lied about her age once to avoid a mandatory retirement at 65.

Rothstein can’t understand why she’s lived so long. “It doesn’t seem possible,” she told the paper.

Rosa Rein, who was the world’s oldest Jewish person, died in Switzerland at 112 in early February.

San Francisco: "Annie’s Ghost,’ March 4

Steve Luxenberg, author of the award-winning “Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret,” will speak at the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society on Thursday, March 4.

The program begins at 7.30pm at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis Street (free parking).

Don’t miss meeting Steve and hearing about how he uncovered the family secrets. As a good investigative journalist – he’s been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years – Steve’s quest utilizes the same skills that all genealogists should be using.

Tracing the Tribe couldn’t put the book down and read it at one sitting. It’s a must-read for everyone who knows there are secrets in his or her family.

Part memoir, part detective story, part history, Annie’s Ghosts untangles one family’s long-protected silence. Steve Luxenberg employed his skills as a journalist while struggling to maintain his empathy as a son to piece together the story of his aunt’s unknown life, his mother’s motivations, and the times in which they lived.

An investigation that began with a lifelong family secret turns into a journey through imperial Russia and Depression-era Detroit, the Holocaust in Ukraine and the Philippine war zone, and back to the hospitals where Annie and many others languished in anonymity.

Steve is an associate editor at The Washington Post and has worked for more than 30 years as a newspaper editor and reporter.

From 1996-2006, he was the editor of The Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section, and he currently focuses on special projects and in-depth reporting including the causes and consequences of the financial crisis.

For directions and more information on the SFBAJGS, click here.

Holocaust: Iranian Jewish filmmaker, ‘The Desperate’

An Iranian Jewish filmmaker has produced a Holocaust story, “The Desperate.”

The recently released film focuses on a Jewish surgeon, a concentration camp inmate, forced to perform emergency surgery on a Nazi general’s son.

Ben Hur Sepher is interviewed by Karmel Melamed, who writes the Iranian American Jews blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

The story and interview is quite interesting.

When we talk about cultural traditions in the Persian Jewish community, Sepher’s career is unusual.

Careers in the arts or entertainment were frowned upon. This may be an outgrowth of the popularity of Persian Jewish musicians in Shiraz and other cities whose work took them late at night into non-Jewish homes to entertain at parties and where there would be non-kosher food.

Young people – in the old days – who professed interest in such occupations were advised to get a real job.

Sepher is one of the rare ones who succeeded both in Iran and in the US for writing, directing and producing films. He trained at the Swedish Film Institute and worked at the Stockholm State Theatre for Ingmar Bergman. Additionally, he was the personal filmmaker for the Shah of Iran in pre-Revolutionary times.

Part of the Iranian Jewish diaspora in Los Angeles, which arrived some 30 years ago, Sepher directs television programs and short films in Hollywood.

To read the story, see the interview and the film’s trailer, click here.