Laytner to speak about “The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng”

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Rabbi Anson Laytner will speak about “The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng,” an online exhibit, at the October 1 event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton and the Jewish Community Center. For more information, see the article Federation, JCC to hold lecture on "The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng".

Rabbi Anson Laytner’s interest in the subject came about by a happy accident. “As an undergraduate at York University in Toronto, I was wandering in the stacks of the East Asia library and came across a big, fat book that was simply titled ‘Chinese Jews,’” he said in an e-mail interview. “I was dumbstruck at the idea that there could be Jews in China and, after studying in China in 1973-74, I became committed to the idea of helping the Jewish descendants living in Kaifeng.” 

Laytner notes that not everyone would consider this community Jewish in the traditional sense. “There are no halachic Jews living in China today other than the non-Chinese ex-pat Jewish communities on the coast and in Beijing,” he added. “However, there are about 1,000 Jewish descendants living in Kaifeng, many of whom strongly identify as Jews. In addition, there may be another thousand or so living elsewhere in China.” 

What he considers particularly interesting is how this community has managed to retain its identity. “These people identify both as Chinese and as Jews, but up until the 1980s they had almost no contact with the rest of the Jewish world,” he said. “Since China opened up, many foreign Jews have visited Kaifeng and introduced the Jewish descendants to the larger Jewish world and especially Israel. Today, there is a Jewish community in Kaifeng that is struggling to survive despite governmental suppression of non-authorized religious activity by Chinese citizens, including Judaism.”

Laytner believes the Jews of Kaifeng can serve as an inspiration to the rest of the Jewish world. “I am impressed by several things about this community,” he noted. “First, like Jews everywhere, they adapted to their host society and adopted many of its customs, foods and ideas into their Jewish culture. Theirs was a unique Chinese-Jewish synthesis. Second, this community was isolated from world Jewry for about 200 years, during which time their knowledge and practice of Judaism greatly diminished. Nonetheless, when Jewish identity was all they had to pass along from one generation to the next, they did so and clung tenaciously to their Jewish identity until such time as we in the West were able to reconnect with them in the 1980s. Their struggle to survive as Jews is not so much a cautionary tale of assimilation as it is an inspiring story of survival.”

Although Laytner has previously published works about Chinese Jews, his most recent book,”The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God,” focuses on another topic: Jewish teachings about suffering. “The inspiration for this book was the years of cancers and deaths that members of my family experienced,” he said. “Our experience of suffering led me to reflect on Judaism’s teachings on the subject and to an exploration of the various rationalizations for suffering that our religions have offered. (They all suck!) This in turn led me to explore the kind of God behind some of these rationalizations, the problem regarding prayer and the concept of revelation. In the end, my new understanding of suffering and my appreciation for that which we call God both respects Jewish tradition and honors my experience of tragedy. I honestly believe it could be spiritually helpful to people dealing with issues of suffering, grief and loss.”