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Emory Graduate Student Pursues Research in East Asia


This article is written by Yuan Zeng Ashley Tan, a History PhD and Jewish Studies Graduate Certificate student at Emory University and a Brickman-Levin Fellow of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. Ashley is also a Young NUS Fellow of the National University of Singapore and a Yenching Scholar of the Yenching Academy of Peking University.

Born to Bruneian and Singaporean parents, I rarely came into contact with Jewish history and culture while growing up. Singapore has a strong but small Jewish community that has existed for around two centuries, there are commonly supposed to be no Jewish communities in Brunei. Yet somehow, I have always had an inexplicable interest in Jewish history and this became apparent when I visited the last remaining synagogue in Myanmar, eleven years ago in Yangon. Tucked away in a nondescript corner with barely anyone inside at all, I explored the synagogue’s fascinating history through the information boards there and wondered why I had never heard of it. The same applied to the Jewish communities in other parts of Southeast and East Asia: why had I not heard more about them? That is when I started voraciously researching about these communities and aspired to visit them.

Three years later, I got a scholarship to study abroad at Tel Aviv University in Israel and that was where I truly started delving into Jewish history and culture, learning Hebrew, and making close Jewish friends. My question about why is it that I have not heard more about the different Southeast and East Asian Jewish communities persisted because there is just so much less material published about them than other Jewish communities. Therefore, one goal of mine was to find out more about these Asian Jewish communities and hopefully bring new knowledge about them to light while pursuing a PhD. This came true seven years later at Emory where I am deeply grateful to the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies for awarding me a grant to pursue my research interests.

With the help from the Tam Institute’s research grants, I have had the chance to visit and conduct research on a number of different Jewish communities in East and Southeast Asia. The community that I will be focusing on in this article is one that is relatively more well-known but has largely faded into obscurity in recent years: the Kaifeng Jews. Although I have seen mentions of this community in passing when I read scholarship about Jewish history or when I visited different Jewish museums, detailed information about this community, especially regarding its recent history, is quite scanty. This puzzled me as the Kaifeng Jewish community is one of the oldest Jewish communities in Asia, dating back at least to the Song dynasty that existed around 1000 years ago when Kaifeng was the imperial capital, so I knew I had to go see it for myself.

As a historian, I was extremely excited to visit this imperial capital with a Jewish quarter for the very first time but alas, the magnificence and splendor of Kaifeng that one sees in paintings from the Song dynasty is no more. I arrived in the freezing winter excited to see the Kaifeng Jewish stelae in the Kaifeng Museum, the exhibits about Kaifeng Jewish history that used to exist, and most of all, the Kaifeng Jewish quarter, but not a single person that I spoke to at the start of my trip was willing to talk to me about these or even acknowledged the presence of any of these. At the Kaifeng Museum, I asked multiple museum staff about where I could find the Kaifeng Jewish stelae that used to be exhibited there as they are centuries old and describe the history of the Kaifeng Jewish community but all I got in response was “I don’t know” or “you shouldn’t be asking about this”. Baffled but not disheartened, I spoke to a number of locals that were not museum staff and they confirmed that the stelae and exhibits used to exist but no one can see them now and no one knows where they have gone. One local finally took me aside and told me that the Kaifeng Jews are now a taboo topic and no one has talked about them for the past seven years, when some members of the Kaifeng Jewish community petitioned to make aliyah, or migrate to Israel. This petition was not received well at all by some sectors of society. The same local also told me that Jews no longer live in the old Jewish quarter. I was determined to investigate further.

I went to what little remains of the Jewish quarter the next morning, which interestingly is still called nan jiaojing hutong in Chinese which roughly translates as The Southern Alley of Tanakh Teaching. The only remnant of the Jewish synagogue that used to be there, a water well, had recently been completely covered up by a new hospital. As I walk around The Southern Alley of Tanakh Teaching, signs around me emphasize how China recognizes five main religions in the country: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity, and yes, you probably noticed: no Judaism. I was hopeful that I would maybe bump into someone who knew a member of the Kaifeng Jewish community, or even better, someone from the community itself. Alas, almost everyone I met in the Jewish quarter insisted that the community had moved away from the quarter and that there are barely any Kaifeng Jews left anymore. One woman was adamant that an elderly Kaifeng Jewish man who passed away a few years ago was the last member of the community. Whether any of this is true will require a much longer stay and much more interviewing, but this did not seem feasible given the tension in the air every time the community was mentioned.

Multiple sources suggest that the Kaifeng Jewish community still exists albeit in small numbers. Although I was not able to speak with any member of the community in person this trip, it is certain that the Kaifeng Jews have existed for centuries and records of their history as well as images of the community and the aforementioned stelae must surely exist and await scholarly scrutiny. I am not disheartened and I hope to be able to go back one day to speak with the remaining members of the community because there is so much more that we do not know about their fascinating and important history and culture that I hope to document before it is too late and before it is lost forever.

Published 6/18/24