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Special to the JTA First Seder in China Since 1949

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What may have been the first Passover Seder in China since 1949 was held recently by 32 Jewish men, women and children from more than a dozen countries in a banquet hall in the Tung Fang Hotel, in Canton, China.

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Victor DeLoya, a New York businessman who speaks eight languages including Chinese, said the event took place April 21, the first night of Passover, with the reciting of the traditional Haggadah, the singing of Hebrew songs, the dancing of the hora, and the eating of matzoh and other Passover foods. “It was all spontaneous,” said DeLoya who conducted the ceremony in the Sephardic minhag (custom) and who to improvise with various food products to create the proper Passover dishes.

This year, Passover occurred during the Canton Spring Fair, a trade show of Chinese products and goods at which businessmen and traders from all over the world are invited. Many nationalities are represented at this international gathering and Jews were among the business delegations from Venezuela, Mexico, Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Morocco, Canada, the U.S. and Hong Kong.

By chance, DeLoya had been to Israel before arriving in China and as president of the Moroccan Jewish Organization and a member of the executive board of the American Sephardi Federation, he met with various Sephardic leaders, including the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Rabbi Gad Navon, who gave DeLoya a Haggadah and prayer book.

COLLECTIVE EFFORT TO HOLD SEDER

When he arrived in Canton, DeLoya told the JTA that he noticed that many of his fellow co-religionists “were restless,” and a number indicated that they would like to celebrate Passover. Armed with one Haggadah, and with the help of Alvin Florea, a buyer and a leader of the Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, as well as with the aid of the American Liaison Representative’s office and officials from the Canadian Consulate where there are several Jews employed, the seder was planned.

Knowing many officers of the fair, DeLoya obtained date paste for the haroseth (the date paste with matzoh and wine made the haroseth). A can of grape juice was acquired as well. And then, a stroke of luck. visiting Canadian tourists had a Haggadah and a box of matzoh and the seder was on.

Word must have spread throughout Canton that a seder was being held, for DeLoya related that a woman of Chinese origin from Hong Kong heard about the seder and produced a bottle of Carmel wine and two packages of matzoh.

DeLoya, himself quite a diplomat and businessman, negotiated the meal with the Chinese caterers in the hotel, and he instructed them to use the Moslem kitchen, since the latter would not have certain meat products. He wrote and planned the menu which consisted of fish, chicken rice (Sephardim are permitted to eat rice on Passover), steamed vegetables and hard boiled eggs.

As the seder began, the men covered their heads with hats, handkerchiefs on with kipot (yarmulkas). As DeLoya, who received his religious education in Morocco, chanted the prayers, the Haggadah was passed from person to person. A young girl from Caracas, Venezuela recited the Four Questions. The tunes of Passover songs filled the banquet room. “It was an emotional event,” DeLoya said, “for we felt the ages of history were binding us and that night we were reciting the prayers that once were repeated by thousands of Jews of China.”

POSITIVE REACTION BY CHINESE OFFICIALS

DeLoya said that officials of the National Committee for U.S.-China Trade, who heard about the seder, voiced their pleasure at the holding of the holiday celebration. He said he was called in the next day by a Chinese government official who complimented him on initiating a specific religious ceremony. The reaction of the Chinese official was positive, DeLoya asserted. The Sephardi leader said he felt that the seder in the People’s Republic of China has served as a precedent for future events to meet the religious needs of Jewish businessmen and tourists in that country.

The presence of Jews in China goes back almost 1900 years. It is reported that in the First Century C.E. groups of Jews, probably remnants of the tribes of Israel, came to China from the Near East by way of Persia. Later, the almost legendary Marco Polo visited China and reported on the Jewish community there.

Jewish life under the Mongols resembled the great development of the Jews in Spain under the Arabs. Jews never suffered persecution in China. Surrounded by millions of Chinese, many assimilated. By 1941, about 25,000 Jews were living in China. Included in that figure were early refugees from Nazism, many of whom lived in Shanghai. There were also about 5000 Russian Jews in Harbin.

After World War II, nearly all of the Jews left China. The strife of the civil war caused others to depart. There are virtually no Jews now in the People’s Republic of China.

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