The Jewish religion is no stranger to exile: Jews have been wandering for eons; they're a people defined by diaspora. With that in mind, it should surprise no one to know that a handful who made their way along the Silk Road from Persia settled in the central Chinese city of Kaifeng nearly 1,000 years ago. Though a remnant of assimilated descendants still live there, aware of their distant heritage yet mostly ignorant of its customs, Kaifeng's Jewish community continues to intrigue practicing Jews around the world.
In the interest of appeasing their curiosity, the California-based Sino-Judaic Institute researched and compiled a traveling, non-religious history exhibit, a collection of nearly sixty photographs and accompanying narratives that fill in the cracks left gaping by Kaifeng's last Jewish denizens, whose understanding of Judaism is preserved only in handed-down shards. That exhibit, The Jews of Kaifeng: The History of a Chinese Jewish Community, can be seen beginning today at the University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies, Ben Cherrington Hall, 2201 South Gaylord Street, where it will stay up through January 29, under the sponsorship of DU's Center for China-United States Cooperation and Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East. Admission is free.
Rena Krasno of the Sino-Judaic Institute, herself a Shanghai-born Jew (that branch of Chinese Jewry, one quickly learns, is a whole different story; raised in Shanghai's foreign concession before and during WW II, Krasno had an upbringing that was anything but assimilated, says there are some 200 Jewish descendants today in Kaifeng, none of whom read Hebrew. Few recognize even a symbol as universally Jewish as the Star of David, yet they still call themselves Jews and retain pride in doing so. "They fought to keep their identity," Krasno says, "but China is the type of country that absorbs and swallows everyone." Nonetheless, the history left behind is absorbing in its own right.