Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Luke 21:24 says, "Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled." The great Diaspora of the Jews began in 71 AD when Jerusalem was "trodden down of the Gentiles," as described by the historian Josephus. The Jews were scattered to the ends of the earth, and have made their presence felt in every country where they have settled. Countries who welcomed them were blessed. There are more Jews in New York than there are in Israel. Countries who persecuted them were cursed. Germany was divided for 40 years after World War II.

Blessing or curse, they have managed, one way or another, to write their history on the pages of every nation's past. Few are unaware of the horrors of the holocaust. The Broadway musical, "Fiddler on the Roof" told the story of the Jews in Russia. Pick any country, and the history of that nation as been influenced, in some measure, by the Jews, and by the role that country has played as a host to the Diaspora.

They came to China during the Song Dynasty. They traveled over the Silk Road, and settled in Kaifeng, the ancient Song Dynasty capital. Yesterday, I took the train to Kaifeng to see if I could find them. Much has been written about the Kaifeng Jews, so I won't repeat it here. I only tell here my own effort to learn something of these people, and the role they played in China's history. I went first to the Kaifeng Museum, because I knew that this was the location of the Jewish History display, but when I got there, I didn't see anything that looked like a Jewish history display. I had some difficulty making them understand what I was looking for. Stupid me, I had not taken the trouble to learn how to say, "Jew" in Chinese. Fortunately, I had the Lonely Planet guidebook Rhea had sent me, and I was able to point out something in there that made them understand what I was looking for. They told me I would have to pay extra to see this. The first price they quoted me was 50 RMB. As the conversation progressed, the price came down. I ended up giving them 20 RMB. One of the curators took me to the third floor, and led me to a steel cage door. He pulled out a string of keys and opened the gate, leading me up a stairway to a small attic enclosure. For the life of me, I don't know why this display is sealed off from the public. One would think this would be a matter everyone should be interested in. But it is mostly pilgrims who come to see the three stone steles which record the destruction and reconstruction of the synagogue in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, which is ironic, because both the actual steles, and the rubbings taken from those steles which were taken out of China years ago, contain writings which are all in Chinese.

After leaving the museum, I hailed a taxi, and showed the cab driver the location on the map that the Lonely Planet identifies as the site where the Kaifeng synagogue used to be. This guy had no idea what a synagogue was, but he did know the city pretty well, so he took me to the point I had showed him on the map, and dropped me off in front of the Liu Shaoqi museum. Needless to say, Liu Shaoqi was not Jewish, so I was quite certain this museum would not have anything connected with what I was looking for. But I did not protest, because, while I am interested in the Kaifeng Jews, I am also interested in Liu Shaoqi. He was the president of China, and was highly regarded by the party as the man who, with Deng Xiaoping, helped the Chinese economy to recover from the disaster we know as the "Great Leap Forward." He was also hated by Mao because...well, because he was president of the country, and highly regarded by the party. Many in the West did not appreciate the extent to which Mao was slowly being sidelined in the early sixties because of his mismanagement of the economy. While Mao was being sidelined by the party, he was still viewed as an icon by the masses, and he used this to foment the widespread chaos we now call the Cultural Revolution. It was in the maelstrom of this chaos that Liu Shaoqi was removed from power, incarcerated, and allowed to die.

The tour guide at the museum did not speak English, but she did a very good job of showing me around the place where Liu Shaoqi spent the last month of his life, and when we were finished, I asked her where the synagogue was. Fortunately, being from the immediate area, she at least knew what I was talking about. She pointed to where she thought it was. Just as we were talking, a pedicab pulled up, and I asked the rickshaw driver if he knew how to get there. He obviously wanted business, so he said he knew how to get there. As the rickshaw driver and the museum guide were talking, another guy came up and pointed to a completely different location. Well, I was certainly not going to enter the conversation, because I had nothing to offer, and if you are ever in a position where you might have to find a location in a small, strange neighborhood, well, that is one time it is really handy to have the services of a bicycle rickshaw. So I let the three of them talk until they seemed to have come to a meeting of the minds, and then I hopped in the bicycle taxi and we took off.

The guy took me to the place which he said was the former location of the synagogue, and I got out of the cab. As we were talking with some of the local people, an old lady happened to walk by. She heard what we were saying, and motioned for me to follow her. She led me down a narrow lane, and up to a small dwelling, which appeared to be her home. It was clear that she had not been expecting visitors, so I was a little hesitant to impose, but my curiosity got the best of me. As we crossed the threshold, she pointed up to a narrow plaque on the doorpost. There I saw the unmistakable script which identified this home as the residence of a Kaifeng Jew. I can't tell you what it said, because I don't read Hebrew, but I was struck by the contrast between this unlikely Hebrew plaque, and the environment in which it had been placed, which, in every other respect, looked like a very traditional Chinese home, situated in a traditional Chinese hutong.

I cannot imagine a more stark picture of God's preservation of the Jews, then standing in the home of this aging Kaifeng Jewess, reading a Hebrew plaque that had no doubt been handed down to her from her forbearers. Later, as I was sitting in an "Italian" coffee bar, eating my lasagna, and listening to Jerry Lee Lewis singing, "Great Balls of Fire," I pondered the irony of what I had seen. We're not talking about two or three generations here. We're talking about an unbroken chain of religious heritage, handed down from one generation to another for a thousand years, with little or no outside connection. It's really quite astounding when you think about it.

I met a guy from Russia at the coffee bar. He had been living in Kaifeng for a year, studying Chinese, and was preparing to return to Russia. I would expect to meet many more like him in the years to come. Recent events in Russia, where Putin has declared that the fall of the former Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century," have made potential outside investors more than a little jittery. China has done a much better job of assuring investors that their property will be respected, and this contrast has not escaped the notice of ambitious Russian young people.

After lunch, I still had plenty of time before my return to Zhengzhou, so I took a taxi to the local CITS office (government travel service). The security guard told me that the lady who runs the place was not back from lunch yet, so I sat in the guard shack with him, watching a very old American movie, which was dubbed in Chinese. Shortly before 2 o'clock, the lady came riding back to work on her bicycle, and I asked for her advice. She did not speak much English, but she was very friendly and very helpful. I had been contemplating a visit to the "Iron Pagoda," which she also recommended. She told me which bus to get, and insisted on walking me to the bus stop, so she could make sure I got on the right bus.

The "Iron Pagoda" is not actually made of iron, but it does have a metallic appearance, because of the baked ceramic finish applied to the bricks. But for me, the most interesting thing about the Iron Pagoda is that you can actually climb to the top of it. Of course you can't travel around China much without seeing a pagoda here and there, but I had never scaled one before, so I paid my 10 yuan, stooped to pass through the mouse-hole entrance, and began my ascent. I don't really like to be locked in small, closed spaces. It is an eerie feeling climbing the nine-hundred-year old stair case which winds around the outside wall of the pagoda between two heavy, impenetrable brick walls. There is no way but up. No light, other than the light that filtered through the bars of the windows which came along every so often. I'd hate to do this at night. And The staircase is very narrow; there is only room for one person at a time. When I met some people coming down, they slid into one of the window wells, and waited for me to pass. After the first short flight of stairs, there is no railing of any kind. Nothing to hold on to. Of course, the passage way is so narrow that there is no where to fall, either, unless you fall backwards, which is too terrible to think about, because the stairs are steep.

Every time I came to a window, I stopped and looked out. I ask myself now why anyone would want to climb 13 stories up a narrow stairway from which there is no escape. I guess that is it...because the view from those prison fortress windows is something that you could not possibly experience any other way. But nothing is more amazing than the sure endurance of this structure through floods, storms, and every other possible disaster for over 950 years. It was here through all the wars of the Americas. In fact, it was already very old when the Pilgrims landed. It was standing here minding its own business when Columbus discovered America. Reminds me of the Kaifeng Jews, whose longevity it ironically parallels.

Later, as I was waiting for my train at the train station, a rickshaw driver came up and started talking with me. I was impressed by his surprisingly fluent English. I asked him where he had learned English, since he was a rickshaw driver, and obviously had not been to university. He told me that he had learned "New Concept" English in the Army. He invited me to wait for my train in his rickshaw. As we were talking, some other rickshaw drivers started to gather around. I don't know what they were more curious about, the foreigner sitting there, or the rickshaw driver who was speaking a level of English far above their own. The rickshaw driver asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him I was. He told me that he was a Christian, too. I told him of my interest in the Kaifeng Jews. He said, "Only one old woman still believes the religion of Israel." This seemed unlikely to me. Could it be that I had met the one remaining Jew in all of Kaifeng? I am skeptical. I would think there would be at least a handful of living descendents of the original Kaifeng Jews.

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