Wednesday, November 13, 2019

China, Japan, and the Jews: Reflections on my visit ,October- November 2019

China, Japan, and the Jews: Reflections on my visit ,October- November 2019

A.      General Impression.

Admittedly, since I only spent a week in both countries, this must be a superficial overlook. However, I did have a chance for some open conversation with well-informed locals.

I could see a great dynamism in both China and Japan. China, despite a supposed slowing general rate of growth, and Japan, with a sluggish economy, looked very robust. I had the clear sense that if all the East Asian nations worked together, they would be on top of the world, and the US and Europe would be their lunch.
Huawei Showroom in Shanghai. Huawei is the leader in 5G technology.

The Ginza, Tokyo’s prime shopping venue, puts Rodeo Drive in its back pocket. Their prime shoppers—Chinese tourists.

It was easy to discern political limitations in China. To surf the web,  I could either go through highly filtered Baidu and shopped on Alibaba, or, as I did, have a VPN ( Virtual Private Network) setup on my smartphone in advance, that enabled me to surf the web on Google and Facebook and handle email from servers outside China.

There is heightened security everywhere, far beyond what would be needed to combat terrorism. On our tour bus, there were three cameras visible, one facing the driver, one facing the guide, and one facing the passengers. It is well known that the Chinese government has implemented behavioral controls on social media, with points and demerits for approved and disapproved behavior. This is but a modern variation on history; the Chinese rule has, from antiquity, been top-down. That said and done, people moved about and acted freely, and we weren’t worried about theft or robbery, as the cameras did a very good job of preventing criminal behavior.

A State- sponsored Buddhist Shrine. Religions may operate freely, if the leadership passes government OK (nix for Falun Gong or Tibetan Lama- Buddhism).

For a state that labels itself “ Communist”, it is closer to free-market economy( where people pay out of pocket for medical procedures , even with state health coverage, as well as out of pocket for education if  they want better for their child), but free only to the point that it serves the nation ( what is called ,the ”corporate state”).

For two opposing perspectives on the future of China:

Japan was a study in contrast, a capitalist society with a free health system. Personal control is very tight, but it is social control imposed by culture and tradition, not by government. It is exceptionally clean and the people exceptionally helpful. The land of advanced robotics is also a very traditional land; ancestral piety, the visiting of shrines and prayers to the ancestors, is a critical element in their society. While formal religion is very fluid, whereby animism, Shintoism and Buddhism weave in and out of each other ( and a Christian wedding ceremony is very “ in” today), it is a religious society in the sense of following ancient customs. We visited beautiful shrines on a national holiday ( a cultural awareness holiday). The shrines were packed with families, in best dress, suits, kimonos and robes, offering prayers to the ancestors for blessing.

Interesting similar customs: Our Shiva period of mourning of seven days is bested by the Japanese mourning period of seven times seven days. We wash our hands (Natilat yadayim ) before meals and after attending the cemetery; they wash hands and mouth before they pray at the shrine.

Netilat yadayim

Children in their festive finest

Other thoughts:

Both societies are socially homogeneous; cultural or racial diversity is not their concern! Neither actively encourages immigration, unless it is from neighboring, ethnically similar Koreas or Vietnam, for example. What about refugee asylum? Japan accepts about 20 out of close to 20,000 asylum seekers every year! Both countries are facing a population implosion, though, and opening doors for new young workers may be unavoidable.

Both have made such colossal strides on the world scene. China had labored under Manchurian oppression, then under English and French manipulation through opium, then Japanese oppression, and then under their own huge move backwards of the “Cultural Revolution” . China opened again to the west in the 1970’s, and is today the 2nd largest world economy. Japan had intentionally shut itself off from outside contact for 200 years and only opened up reluctantly under the threat of American cannons in the 1850’s. Within 50 years, Japan had defeated Imperial Russia, with 80 years, sank the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and then, despite the devastation of its infrastructure, roared back to become the world’s 3rd largest economy. This tremendous progress has replicated itself in  similar cultures in South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, all of which lack an abundance of natural resources.

One can not but contrast this to the current failure of the Arab states, blessed with tremendous petroleum resources, in close contact with western technology over the past centuries, yet still mired in poverty, dictatorship and internecine bloodshed. Of course, as the President of Malaysia explains, it is the fault of the Jews, who “rule this world by proxy.”

B.      While Jews were under the thumb of Christian and Moslem rulers in Europe and the Middle east, we fared much better in the Far East, unburdened by the prejudices planted by religious scriptures.

Our connection is far older and deeper than the fabled Chinese fare for Jews at Christmas time.
A significant and important Jewish connection with China goes back to the early Middle Ages, along the fabled “ Silk Route”. As major members of the trade group labelled “Radhanites”, they brought European goods to China, and Chinese secrets to the West.

During the early middle ages, the Radhanites functioned as neutral go-betweens, keeping open the lines of communication and trade between the lands of the old Roman Empire and the Far East. As a result of the revenue they brought, Jewish merchants enjoyed significant privileges under the early Carolingians in France and throughout the Muslim world. Radhanites were among the first to establish a trade network that stretched from Western Europe to Eastern Asia.[10] More remarkable still, they engaged in this trade regularly and over an extended period of time, centuries before Marco Polo and ibn Battuta brought their tales of travel in the Orient to the Christians and the Muslims, respectively. “(

Jews were involved in the trading of knowledge between the East and West as well.
Trade routes of the Radhanites;;f=15;t=004874;go=older

It was not just merchandise that Jews brought back with them. Ashkenazic Jews brought back a bit of Chinese genetic composition as well.

“ The existence of some eastern Eurasian haplotypes in eastern Ashkenazi Jews supports an East Asian genetic contribution, likely from Chinese. Further evidence indicates that this connection can be attributed to a gene flow event that occurred less than 1.4 kilo-years ago (kya), which falls within the time frame of the Silk Road scenario and fits well with historical records and archaeological discoveries. This observed genetic contribution from Chinese to Ashkenazi Jews demonstrates that the historical exchange between Ashkenazim and the Far East was not confined to the cultural sphere but also extended to an exchange of genes.”(

Maybe this explains the Jewish predilection for Chinese fare!

In time, a significant number of Jews settled in the capital of China, during the Song dynasty, Kaifeng. Formerly P'ien-liang, it is now the capital of Honan province, central China. Jews arrived in Kaifeng probably before 1127 from India or Persia. They were an ethnic unit of approximately 1,000 in all. It is believed that their daily language was New Persian and presumably they were experts in the production of cotton fabrics, in dyeing them, or printing patterns on them. This industry was well developed in India, but China with its rapidly increasing population was just introducing cotton, in order to meet the acute silk shortage. The first Kaifeng synagogue was constructed in 1163. It was restored in 1279 and after being destroyed in a disastrous flood was rebuilt again through the efforts of *Chao Ying-ch'en, a mandarin of Jewish descent, in 1653, when the sacred scrolls were also restored. Thereafter the community fell into rapid decay, most likely as a result of its complete isolation from other centers of Jewish life. By the middle of the 19th century the Jews of Kaifeng preserved only a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism and only the ruins of the former synagogue were left.. At the end of World War II, about 200 or 250 traceable descendants of the original Kaifeng Jewish community still survived. (

Image: Li Kuang, Defender of city, c. 1600’s.  Many centuries later, another Jewish general would serve the Chinese people, Gen Ma Kun ( Moishe Cohen) or “ Two Gun Cohen, aide de camp to President Sun Yat Sen .

Chinese Haggadah 16th 17 th cent

C.      Jewish Refugees in the Shanghai Ghetto, Japan, and the role of a President of Hollywood Temple Beth El in Rescue

My brother and sister in law, Dror & Helene Zadok,  are friends with the Chinese Consul in Houston and the Shanghai Cultural Representative, who arranged a welcome at the Museum of the Shanghai Ghetto by the director (we were interviewed by museum staff as well). We were accompanied by “James” , who had visited Israel ,and  was personally fascinated by all things Jewish. He walked us through the sides streets of the original ghetto in the Hongkou district ( The old apartments, tiny and cramped, are still lived in use today; one tiny room encompasses kitchen, dining, living and bedroom ).

Modern era Jews had settled in China at the end of 19th and early 20th Century from Tsarist Russia. The Tsar was supportive of this, as it moved Jews away from Russia proper, a long-standing Tsarist goal.  With rise of Nazism, larger numbers came to Shanghai, which had been a foreign enclave of French and English in China.

“ Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, was an area of approximately one square mile in the Hongkew district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai (the southern Hongkou and southwestern Yangpu districts of modern Shanghai). The area included the community around the Ohel Moshe Synagogue but about 23,000 of the city's Jewish refugees were restricted or relocated to the area from 1941 to 1945 by the Proclamation Concerning Restriction of Residence and Business of Stateless Refugees. It was one of the poorest and most crowded areas of the city. Local Jewish families and American Jewish charities aided them with shelter, food, and clothing.[1] The Japanese authorities increasingly stepped up restrictions, but the ghetto was not walled, and the local Chinese residents, whose living conditions were often as bad, did not leave

Entrance to the Museum 

A friend of ours was born there; a previous member of HTBE, our chief usher, as well as a member of another previous congregation where I had served had lived there during the time of the Holocaust.
A wall of refugees name. Shown are the names of my friend's parents, Rogozinski ( now Rogson). They were relatives of another previous member of HTBE.

Parokhet, Ark Cover, a tribute to the people of Hangkou

Ohel Moshe Synagogue

The story of the Ghetto

Typical living quarters

The Ghetto street scene today

Our guide, James

Life is still active in the Ghetto, minus the Jews

A monument located in a park used by the Ghetto residents

Monument to the refugees

What is the connection between Hollywood Temple Beth El and the Refugees of the Ghetto?

Anatole Ponve, a Jewish refugee from Russia, settled in Kobe, Japan in the  early 20th century. He opened a chain of import-export businesses throughout Far East-one in Harbin, China, led the Jewish community of Kob e. He was in LA at the outbreak of WWII and couldn’t return then, but both before and after war, he led efforts to get Jews out of Germany and German-occupied lands  and then, get those refugees out of  China and resettled. After the war, he returned to Tokyo we he  led the  Jewish community and obtained funds for synagogue. It is reported that he pulled together a minyan  for visiting actor, Edward G Robinson, who at one time, was a President of HTBE

Ponve later moved  back to LA  and became President of HTBE! His documents have been archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Leaders of the Kobe Jewish community. Ponve is 3rd from left

Excerpt from " The Fugu Plan" about Ponve and Hollywood Temple Beth El

Which brings us to Jews and Japan

D. Jews. Japan. And the Fugu Plan.

The Japanese believed Nazi propaganda about Jews but they believed the Nazis conclusion was wrong. Jews were like the Fugu fish, a deadly poisonous food, but, if prepared correctly by the chef, a great delicacy. We were wanted as allies, not as enemies. They therefore actively encouraged Jews to migrate to Manchuria !

There is a fascination with all things Jewish in the Far East.

In Korea, the education system has issued its Korean version of the Talmud, a short compilation of Talmudic passages, so that children can learn how to debate topics as do the Jews.

In Kyoto, at the grounds of the old Emperor’s palace, we met  Kenji, who had lived in Israel, spoke and wrote Hebrew, and has a consulting firm with the Hebrew name of “ Ariel”. He connected us with the Christian community of Beit Shalom. We were not able to meet with them on this trip, but hope to do so if we go back. They are known for graciously hosting visiting Jewish groups.

This church goes back many years. It is rooted in the idea that, in some way, Japan is bound up with the restoration of Israel. The founder established three core principals:
1.   To pray for the restoration of the nation of Israel;
2.   To pray for the spiritual renewal of Israel, which is the condition for the return of Christ;
3.   To pray for the peace of Jerusalem, which is the key to the peace of the world; and
To pray for the coming of the Messiah of Peace.[8]

Many years ago, I was a student intern for the noted philosopher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I  had the opportunity then to meet the son of the founder of the Makuya movement who was studying Jewish theology at my alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Makuya" is the Japanese equivalent for the Hebrew word משכן  mishkan, which refers to the Holy Tabernacle, the portable shrine where God and man encounter (Exodus 29:42–43). This name aptly captures the basic religious orientation of the Makuyas, who emphasize the significance of the personal, ineffable encounter with the divine presence in everyday life. This experience, according to them, must not, and indeed cannot, be substituted by a dogmatic belief in creeds or a stabilization of a religious institution; hence, the idea of the "portable" shrine, the Holy Tabernacle.

Makuya is a group of fervent lovers of Israel and Jewish people. It sends young members to a number of kibbutzim in Israel, and makes pilgrimages to Jerusalem. "(

Two years ago, in Jerusalem, I was fascinated to watch a Japanese choir sing in perfect Hebrew at a public performance. During that same visit, I attended a festival in honor of Jerusalem sponsored by a Korean pro-Israel group.

Middle-eastern Islamic and European Christian civilizations have proven to be very problematic for Jews. Maybe its time to focus our sights, from California, due West.

1 comment:

  1. The other sources state the Ashkenazi got a bits of the East Asian DNA at the time of Genghis Khan conquest. A little before the Silk Road route was established.