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Oy Vey: Being Jewish in China

Mar 29, 2013 By Ben Adelman , Comments (10)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Last Christmas a friend asked me how I would be spending the holiday, “as a Jew living in China”. I was able to reply wittily, “Same way I’d spend it in America: going out for Chinese food, am I right?!” My friend didn’t get the reference. See, it’s funny because American Jews stereotypically end up eating Chinese food on Christmas because all the other restaurants are closed. This would appear to be the only connection between Jewish and Chinese cultures. It isn’t, though.

Kaifeng Jews
Kaifeng Jews. Photo: silkroadstudies

The Jewish diaspora in China

Visitors to Kaifeng in Henan province will find the remnants of a synagogue, reportedly built in 1163 to support a community of Jews who migrated there from either Persia or India, and did so until it was destroyed by a flood in 1852. Generations of intermarriage and the advent of modern China have since made the descendants of the “Kaifeng Jews” all but indistinguishable from other Chinese in terms of appearance, but many say they can remember their grandparents abstaining from pork and wearing yalmulkes. A similarly isolated community also sprang up in Harbin when Jews fled Russia after the revolution of 1917, and in Shanghai as German Jews fled the Holocaust.

To Jews who have arrived via more modern means (i.e. on an airplane) for more modern reasons (i.e. to work or study in China) though, being Jewish here is mostly like being Jewish anywhere else. You can still go to Shabbat on Friday nights at the notoriously well-endowed Chabad Houses in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—where else in China can you drink real whiskey for free? And you can still get an easy kosher-ish meal at any number of halal restaurants thanks to a large Muslim minority.

Of course, those keeping strictly kosher would find average Chinese fare difficult to navigate without Western import stores and international Jewish organizations like Chabad and Kehillat that organize frequent events, meals, and general guides to Jewish life in China. Then again, with the booming market for kosher certification at Chinese manufacturing plants—a very profitable side gig for rabbis here—there’s a chance we’ll be seeing more certified kosher goods in Chinese stores in the future, though most of them are still mainly exported to the U.S. and other kosher markets.

Jewish in China

A model minority

One aspect of living here that stands out from life in more diverse communities, however, is how Jews are perceived by local Chinese. If you’re Jewish, then you already know where this is going. But if you’re not, try casually mentioning to your next Chinese acquaintance that you happen to be Jewish: yóutàirén (犹太人). If the next words out of your Chinese friend’s mouth aren’t something along the lines of either “Well, you must be pretty smart then!” (“那你应该很聪明吧!”), or “Jews are good at making money” (“犹太人很会赚钱”), then I will eat my hat. Seriously. I’ve heard all types of Chinese folks, from fruit sellers to college professors, compliment me on my genetically inherited intelligence and/or moneymaking prowess as if they just read it about in Popular Science.

What I find fascinating about the statement is not so much the stereotype itself but the bristly reaction it often provokes in unsuspecting Westerners. Well-meaning Chinese often issue the compliment without a second thought, the way we often do when forced to quickly say something nice about someone’s hometown (“Oh, Portland, I went there once; it was so beautiful!” or “OMG I love Korean food!”), yet somehow the suggestion that Jews are inherently clever, or worse, financially gifted, tends to rub us the wrong way. Probably because the same stereotype in Western history has been used for centuries to accuse Jews of manipulating the world’s capital resources at the expense of everyone else, and much suffering has been dealt as a result.

But in China, with its money-worshipping traditions and modern economic boom, the ability to handle money well is practically a virtue. That’s why we see books like Money-Making Secrets of the Jews: The World’s Smartest People Teach You How to Succeed in Chinese airport bookstores without a hint of jealous accusation. So while it’s still morally dubious to judge a stranger based purely on his/her ethnicity, it’s also worth remembering that a taxi-driver’s admiration of your Jewish economic sensibilities is probably not indicative of a slippery slope to Nazi Germany. That’s why I recommend responding to “You must be very smart” with “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, am I right?!” (Kudos to anyone that actually got that decade old cheesy American TV commercial reference).

Happy Passover!

Related links
Hanukkah in China
Adventures in China: Strange Expat Jobs
The Joke’s on You: Differences in American and Chinese Humor

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Keywords: Jewish in China Jew living in China

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10 Comments ( Add your comment )


Um, the Kaifeng Jews are not recognized by ANYONE. If they want to go to Israel, they have to go via Shuva Israel and they have to be RECONVERTED. They also don't have any of the Jewish genetic markers. Sorry.

Mar 30, 2013 20:39

There is an article about Jews in Shanghai (Jews from Poland)

Apr 01, 2013 18:08

Personally, I am half-Jewish and half-Mexican-American. I have no problem with most Chinese as long as I don't tell them about my ancestry. If I do, then there are some who believe that there must be something wrong with my thinking; which is fine and dandy - to each his own. However, when I tell other foreign teachers, who I have discovered in my 8 years in China are made up of a majority of secret Catholic nuns, priests, monks, etc. and other denominations, I am immediately classified as confrontational, having a weird point-of-view, and most likely not one of the best teachers that the Chinese should be hiring. I was once fired by one university, because one of my so-called "fellow Americans" claimed that I and the Jews are the ones responsible for 9/11! Obviously, because there were supposedly no Jews in the towers that day due to a forewarning. Of course, none of this is new to any one of us; it has been going on for thousands of years. Good luck for the future!

Apr 04, 2013 01:07

Sorry to hear that. Being an American myself I find it a little silly how people go one about how the jews did this and the jews did that. They did not put you on welfare and sit your lazy ass in front of the TV to watch the Price is Right on Tivo all day long.

Apr 04, 2013 01:27

FuturePrimitive: your "fellow Americans claimed...", so you were fired? From a university???? I don't think so. More likely, it is the enormous chip on your shoulder that is obviously causes you to blame everyone else for your own persecution complex. I work in a school with Muslims, Catholics, Christians, Agnostics, Atheists, Taoists, Buddhists, all teachers. We're in close quarters daily, and we've never had a problem with anything. So, perhaps you could stop being so persecuted and start forming meaningful relationships. Then your "fellow Americans" would support you instead of conspiring in dark pagodas to undermine you and cast you out into the cold cruel world. Unless, that is, you just happened to work with a fringe conspiracy-nut minority who were ganging up on you years after 9/11 happened. Yeah, that's it.

Apr 04, 2013 12:19

I wasn't referring to Xiamen, but YOU must be one of the losers there who thinks that they are too good to talk to others, because they are not meeting your Nazi white, Aryan supremacy policies! For your information, I have friends from all walks of life, all races, nationalities, religions, etc. I accept people for who they are, and when I read about someone anti-Semitic like yourself then I usually just ignore them, but YOU are such a moron, I'll make an exception in your case.

Apr 16, 2013 18:45

My upcoming article: 'Oh My God, Being non-Jewish in China. Oh My God.' I'm just going to put 'non-' in front of all of the Jewish terms. Same article.

Apr 04, 2013 12:21

Portland or Poland?

Apr 05, 2013 16:08

It's interesting that an Admin deleted a post on Jews under a false pretense. Falsely accusing the author of 'insulting all of China'. In fact, the comments were pro-China and critical of liars and troublemakers in China. Some of whom were Jews. Can anyone here explain why an Admin is lying to people and deleting pro-Chinese comments?

Apr 07, 2013 16:14

Chinese and Jews have a lot in common, and it reflects both in the peoples' ancient and modern history. One of my favorite examples is Chinese New Year and Passover (, but there are many more like the fact the PRC and Israel were born from within a conflict in 1948-1949.

Apr 14, 2014 09:51

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