A home far away

Publication Date: Friday Sep 19, 1997

A home far away

JCC's Koret Gallery features exhibit documenting the history of Jews in China

by Jim Harrington

One of the lesser-known chapters in Jewish history is currently being told at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

The center is hosting "At the End of the Silk Road: The Jews of Kaifeng, China" at its Koret Art Gallery through Oct. 19. Through the use of photographs, memorabilia, artifacts and a video presentation, the exhibit tells the story of a large community of practicing Jews who lived peacefully for centuries in China.

The items in the exhibit were gathered by longtime Palo Alto resident Leo Gabow, as well as by members of Menlo Park's Sino-Judaic Institute that Gabow funded. Gabow was reportedly the first westerner since the founding of the People's Republic of China to photograph some of the Kaifeng artifacts that help trace back to its once thriving Jewish community.

"It's a historical, educational exhibit," said Nancy Gordon, director of the Koret Gallery. "It's here because it's a fascinating piece of Jewish history . . . "

In all likelihood, the Jews first came to Kaifeng, located in central China, by means of the legendary Silk Road--a trader route that extended from the west into China. The Jews probably came to Kaifeng as merchants centuries ago and settled in the then-bustling city. The Jews arrival came when Kaifeng was the capital of the northern Sung dynasty (960-1127), but pinning down a more specific timeframe than that is difficult.

"No one can say exactly when they arrived," Gordon said.

Whenever it was, the Jews apparently were welcomed. According to a stone inscription found at the site, the Jews arrived in Kaifeng with western cloth and were received by the emperor at his court. The emperor reportedly told them to be reverent and to preserve the customs of their ancestors.

Over the years, as Jewish men began marrying Chinese women, and the blood lines mixed; the physical differences between the two groups began to diminish. The Jews also did such things as wear their hair in the Chinese fashion and the women bound their feet in the Chinese way. Furthermore, the Jews joined the local work force, taking on the same duties and jobs as their native Chinese neighbors.

Still, these Chinese Jews also adhered to many of their own religious and social customs. The first synagogue was erected in 1163 and religious services were conducted. They also followed the Jewish dietary laws and spoke Hebrew.

The Koret's exhibit focuses on the heyday of the Chinese Jews in Kaifeng. It uses text and photographs to take gallery visitors to the small Jewish community that still exists in that city today.

After its stay at the Koret, the "At The End of the Silk Road: The Jews of Kaifeng, China" exhibit will go mobile. The traveling exhibit will hit several stops before it winds up in a museum in Kaifeng.

Wendy Abraham, noted Stanford lecturer and writer on the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, will present a slide show and talk at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19. The presentation will deal with both ancient and present-day Kaifeng. Tickets for this presentation are $5 general; $3 seniors and students.

What: "At the End of the Silk Road: The Jews of Kaifeng, China" exhibit

Where: Koret Art Gallery, Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, 655 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto

When: Exhibit runs through Oct. 19. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday

How much: Admission is free

Information: 493-9400 

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