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Jews of the East

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Whether the first Jews arrived in the Far East as early as 100 B. C. or not before 200 B. C., it is certain at least that more than seventeen hundred years ago the Jews came from Antioch across Central Asia by long and arduous caravan routes, bringing cotton from Egypt and returning with glass, paper and the richest of clothes and silks. Such voyages of commerce generally lasted about four years. It is, therefore, easily understandable that the Jewish merchants of those days often traveled through the different cities along the trail, such as Khotan, Samarkand and Sianfu.

These Jews undoubtedly maintained contact with the Jews of Western Asia and Southeastern Europe; that is, with the main stream of Jewish civilization. Jewish colonies soon appeared in the principal trading cities. The center of Jewish life in China was at Kaifang, near the Yellow River, and gradually the Jewish immigrants from Western Asia became biologically and intellectually assimilated with the Chinese. Today the Jewish colonies in Kaifang and elsewhere in China proper no longer exist. In Kansa and Sinkiang, however,—in Chinese Turkestan—the Jews still remain a flourishing element. Those Jews of Northwest China are in every respect like other Chinese of that region, even their beards are of that peculiar copper hue common.


Among the Moslems of Kansu I was fortunate enough to meet one of these Turkestan Jewish traders, a native of Khotan, in Calcutta. His Chinese name was Wong (Prince) and this, he said, was the family name taken by the Levites when they settled in China. In Hebrew his name was David Levy. He could speak Mandarin, Turkish and some Russian, and he was able to read Hebrew. He was seventy years old but looked as virile as a man of forty. In his part of the world, he said, men lived long because they lived mainly on goats’ milk. In Shanghai he performed the almost incredible task of learning to speak a better than “pidgin” English in three months. For a time he acted as assistant Shamas to the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, then he began trading wool and finally was sent into the interior of China by the Society for the Rescue of Chinese Jews, with whose members he corresponded frequently.

Then suddenly he disappeared. Unless he died or was killed by soldiers (he was always in war territory), he is undoubtedly somewhere in Honan Kansu with Marshal Feng Yu – hsiang’s Northwestern Army. For David Levy was an amazingly versatile gentleman who could be all things to all men and incidentally manage to collect money in the process. He told me he had raised a large sum in Chinese currency for the establishment of a synagogue and Hebrew school, and that his principal donor was the Tuchanun of Charhar, General Ma-Fu-hsiang, a military man of considerable importance, whose father is said to have been a Jew, but whose mother was a Moslem.


More recently, Jews from Mesopotamia have come to India and established an exceedingly prosperous community in Bombay and Calcutta. Most of these Jews were employed by the Sassons—themselves Baghdad Jews who had become important traders in India and China. Baghdad Jews are very devout and religious; even the younger generation adheres closely to the faith of his fathers. In the cities where anti-Semitism is hardly known they have retained all the characteristics of an Asiatic Jewish community. They are splendid communal workers and contribute freely to general, as well as Jewish, funds. Almost without exception they are Zionists.

The Baghdad Jews born under the British flag in India are British subjects; others hailing from Arabia and Mesopotamia are Turkish. Some Baghdad Jews have now become French proteges. One of them, whom I met, became a Spanish subject on the ground that his ancestors were in Spain before the expulsion in 1492. The Baghdad Jews have erected two synagogues, one of which is an architectural gem. In both instances the synagogues were presented by men of wealth, the Ohel Rachel by the Sassoons and the Beth Ahron by Salomon Hardoon, one of the richest men in China.

Still later, during the Russo-Japanese War, further migration took place and a small number of Jews came to Shanghai, Tientsin and Calcutta from Harbin and cities in Siberia.

Between the Russo-Japanese War and the World War, the Ashkenazic community was gradually increased by additions of Jews from the United States, France, Great Britain and other Western European countries, who brought with them the Jewish culture of the West. But it was not until after the Communists had taken control of Siberia that a large community of European Jews settled in Shanghai, Calcutta and Bombay. Most of these Jews were refugees from Siberia fleeing from Bolshevist oppression. Some had money but most of them were penniless. Today they are a prosperous community and have organized relief societies, Yiddish dramatic societies, Zionist clubs and similar Jewish cultural and philanthropic groups and have established themselves as a functioning part of world Jewry.

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