As a child growing up in Kaifeng in central China, Jin Jin was constantly reminded of her unusual heritage.A video about Shavei Israel and the Chinese Jews made two years ago shows more:
"We weren't supposed to eat pork, our graves were different from other people, and we had a mezuza on our door," said the 25-year-old, referring to the prayer scroll affixed to doorways of Jewish homes.
Her father told her of a faraway land called Israel that he said was her rightful home, she recalls. But "we didn't know anything about daily prayers or the weekly reading of the Torah."
Jin has since fulfilled her father's dream. On a hot summer day in Jerusalem, where she works as a tour guide for Chinese citizens visiting Israel, Jin, who now goes by the Hebrew name Yecholya, wore a long khaki skirt, indicative of her conservative religious views, and Teva-like sandals, the national footwear of Israel.
Jin and her relatives belong to a community of Chinese Jews that was established in the 9th century by Persian traders who traveled along the Silk Road to Kaifeng, at the time China's capital.
Records documenting the group's history are spotty, but experts do know that some of the Jewish traders settled in Kaifeng and eventually built a synagogue with official recognition from the emperor. After the last rabbi in Kaifeng died in 1809, many began to forsake their religious practices while holding on to certain traditions, like the prohibition against pork and the celebration of a communal meal on Passover.
Then in 2005, Shavei Israel arrived. The privately funded conservative religious organization, based in Jerusalem, specifically targets descendants of Jews who have lost their connection to the religion, such as those forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition in Spain.
(h/t Philtheman, Ian)