Jewish Lawyer Found Chinese Families Similar to Jewish; Stayed in China 37 Years

Why would Sidney Shapiro, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, settle in China in 1947? And after living for 37 years in a country with virtually no Jews and nothing Jewish, why would he decide to write about the Jewish presence in ancient China?

Shapiro is in his hometown this month to promote his new book, “Jews in Old China,” just published by Hippocrene Books. Born in 1915, he graduated from St. John’s Law School in Brooklyn and practiced law in Manhattan for four years.

World War II marked the end of his law career and the beginning of his fascination with China. First through an Army Specialized Training Program at Cornell and later as a civilian at Columbia and Yale Universities, Shapiro became a student of Chinese. What was intended to be a short visit to China in 1947 turned into the beginning of a new life in a new world.

“I went out of curiosity and the longer I stayed, I felt in the midst of a great social experiment,” Shapiro told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He says he felt at home because he found the culture similar to his own Jewish background and family relationships comparable to Judaism. “The people were warm, friendly and concerned about me,” he says. “This is the way among the average Chinese.”

CHINESE VERSION OF BAGEL

Shapiro’s first visit to America was in 1971. He had married a Chinese writer and drama critic named Phoenix, and they now have a grown daughter and a grandchild.

Among the billion citizens of China, Shapiro is probably the only one who used the Yiddish word “ainicle” when referring to a grandchild. He also claims to make a Chinese version of a bagel.

Shapiro became a Chinese citizen in 1963 and says the United States revoked his American citizenship. He began working for China’s Foreign Language Press in 1950, doing final polished translating from Chinese to English. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, his wife was banished from Beijing to a commune for four years. Life was difficult at best for all intellectuals, including Shapiro.

“After the Cultural Revolution ended, it was time to overcome the prejudices against foreigners that had been generated by the Gang of Four,” Shapiro said. “I want to stress that the Chinese government and people have a continuing 2,000 year tradition of welcoming all people and warm feelings toward Jewish people the world over.”

STUDIED ANCIENT CHINESE JEWS

In 1979 the Chinese Communist Party decided it was essential to have the fullest cultural and academic exchange, Shapiro said. Shortly afterward, Jewish visitors to China began asking him about Jewish roots there. He did not know the answers, but decided to find out. “There is a circle of scholars in China who specialize in foreign religions and races,” he said. In 1982, through the Chinese Social Sciences Academy, he began studying China’s ancient Jews and collecting the essays of Chinese scholars on the subject.

Shapiro’s book is the first to tell the story from the perspective of Chinese historians. Other accounts in English, (which deal mainly with the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng in Henan Province) have been by Christian missionaries and Western Sinologists. He said the Chinese historians with whom he worked agreed with him that the history of Jews in China had been a “blank spot.” These historians had included Jewish history in China in larger works. But Shapiro’s compilation, which will also be published in Chinese in China, is the first time that all of the information on Jews of ancient China has been brought together in one book.

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