The Haggadah of the Chinese Jews
By Ida Shear
Nathanial made a sudden U-turn and pointed the Chevy pickup toward his mother’s house. It had been six months since she’d passed away and he still hadn’t finished going through her things. The house had to be empty before it could be put on the market. Marcy, his wife, repeatedly told him how ridiculous it was to pay taxes on an unoccupied property. Last night she threatened to call Got Junk if he didn’t get his tuchus over there and get to work on it.
Nathanial sighed. He’d have to miss his early morning Torah study group, a considerable sacrifice. He loved delving into Biblical law with his buddies early in the morning before the work day started.
The sun was just coming up on the streets of his hometown. Memories tapped for his attention. His mother waiting with him on the front porch for the school bus on winter mornings. The dance their little black dog Skippy did to celebrate his coming home. Nathanial found a nearly clean tissue in the pocket of his jeans and blew his nose. His real estate business was finally taking off and he had a full day ahead of him. He had to stay sharp.
“Emotional nonsense,” he told himself, imagining something Marcy might say.
His mother was a nervous, quiet woman, who’d never worked outside the home. Marcy was nothing like his mother. His wife was a sharp-eyed woman who could add a column of twenty rent checks in her head. When they first met, her sharp mind had turned him on almost as much as her physical beauty. Nathanial sighed, remembering her long auburn hair and eyes that flashed like turquoise in the sunlight. These days he found himself seeking cover from those eyes.
Nathanial reminded himself to be grateful for how organized Marcy was. God had blessed them with three lively healthy boys. His wife cooked, cleaned, and made sure all of the chores, science fair projects, basketball games, and guitar lessons got done. She managed that and worked as the nurse in a public elementary school—which was not just wiping puke and runny noses anymore. Nowadays school nurses monitored blood sugar levels in children as young as five and tracked cases of suspected abuse. Marcy put all of herself into everything she did. She was so disappointed when other people didn’t.
Nathanial drove past the small stucco cottage where he and his wife had lived as a young married couple. By their third child, the walls were closing in on them and they’d had to look for a bigger place. They’d looked in religious Jewish neighborhoods so that the boys could find girls to marry. Having the boys marry the right girls was important to Marcy. Her mother, Pearl, had stayed religious despite her whole family being killed in the Holocaust. Marcy intended to honor her mother’s wishes to keep the family Jewish.
Nathanial’s parents were Jewish, but they had been born in America and were not observant. Nathanial had come to Judaism on his own. When he was in his teens, he became fascinated by Jewish rituals and stories and developed a strong sense of belonging to a people. He urged his mother to light Sabbath candles every Friday night and got his father and brother to go with him to synagogue.
After he and Marcy moved into the new house in the Jewish neighborhood, they both became more religious. Instead of driving to the synagogue each Saturday, the family dressed up and walked the two miles. Nathanial joined a Torah Study group. The boys went to Jewish private school. When it came time for college, the boys went to socials at the campus Hillel. Things were going as planned.
Nathanial got to the corner in front of his mother’s house and let the engine idle for a moment.
“Man plans and God laughs,” he said.
He remembered the moment when their eldest, Ari, told them about his new girlfriend. “There’s this girl in my economics class,” Ari told them at the Friday night Sabbath dinner, during soup.
“Her name is Mayling.”
“An interesting name,” Marcy said.
“She’s from Taiwan,” Ari said.
Marcy put down her spoon and directed a laser stare at her son. “They have Jews in Taiwan?” she asked.
Ari put down his soup spoon. “Ma, it’s not serious.”
“Why bring it up then?” Marcy shot back as if she were slamming a ping-pong ball on a weak serve.
“People convert all the time,” Nathanial had said quickly.
“Do I have to be a rabbi, too?” Marcy put her face into her hands.
“You mean that stuff about non-Jews having to convert before they meet the one they want to marry?” Ari said.
“Yes. That stuff.” Marcy said. “A real conversion. An Orthodox conversion.”
Daniel, their second son, was finishing law school at Tufts. He quoted Talmud without interrupting his soup. “One may not convert to Judaism just to marry. One must come to love God on one’s own before marriage.” Then he added the source: “Yevamot 24B.”
Nathanial thought that if the lawyer thing didn’t work out for Daniel, he’d make a good rabbi. Ari said again that things weren’t serious, but Marcy just groaned. They finished the meal in silence. Ari stopped mentioning Mayling to her.
About six months later, Ari told his dad that he and Mayling had moved in together. Nathanial invited them out for coffee. He didn’t tell Marcy. At the diner that morning, Nathanial watched the pair closely. He saw how Ari looked at Mayling, how Mayling laughed at Ari’s jokes. Nathanial read the writing on the wall. Nothing was going to tear those kids apart.
Mayling had said she had no ties to any particular religion. Nathanial guessed that Mayling would readily agree to convert. But clearly Mayling was in love with Ari, not Judaism. No Orthodox rabbi would agree to convert her. It was going to have to be a Conservative, or even — God-forbid — a Reform conversion.
How in the world would Marcy be able to live with that?
Nathanial shut off his engine and hurried into the house with a stack of boxes. Before long he had his mother’s things in piles headed for the dump, the Good Will, or his collection of family memorabilia. The sun had risen and was sending wintery spokes through the dust-streaked windows of his mother’s house. He stopped to pick up the tarnished, antique Kiddush cup he had pretended to drink wine from as a child. Nathanial raised the cup to the sunlight to admire the elaborate engraving, thinking of all the little hands that had held it through the years.
Any children from Ari and Mayling’s marriage would not be Jews under Orthodox law. At bar or bat mitzvah time, their children could stand before three bearded rabbis and make the decision to convert. Nathanial shook his head. Imagine being thirteen and having to choose your religion. There were still things about Judaism that he didn’t completely understand. He put the Kiddush cup down and headed towards the bedrooms to grab a few more dresses and handbags for the Good Will box.
Not being a tall man, Nathanial got up on a foot stool and stood on his tiptoes to feel along the top shelf of his mother’s clothes closet. As his fingers skittered along the edge, he pushed a shoebox off the shelf and papers fluttered down all around him. He grabbed at them, lost his footing and fell down hard.
The shock of the fall stunned him into a kind of paralysis. Slowly, he moved his fingers and toes and reassured himself that no real damage had been done. He was fine, but he didn’t want to get up just yet. Nathanial lay motionless between worn snow boots and broken sunglasses. He found it restful to nestle for a while in the leftover mess of his mother’s life.
An old booklet with a sketch in black ink on its cover caught his eye. He squinted at it and thought he saw three Chinese men holding Torah scrolls on what looked like a synagogue altar. Nathanial brought the pamphlet to his face and looked at it closely. No, he hadn’t imagined it. There they were: three men with distinctly Asian faces, dressed in elegant, wide-sleeved robes, hair tied back in the traditional long braid. The altar they stood on could have been in any synagogue in Brooklyn except for the supporting poles which curved, like a pagoda’s. The title on the cover was in English letters in a style Nathanial had seen on signs outside Chinese restaurants on Main Street.
“Haggadah of the Chinese Jews,” Nathanial read out loud.
He moved his arm cautiously around the floor of the closet and found a thick sweater. He propped it under his neck and settled in for a read.
The print was blurred, like a bad photocopy, but Nathanial recognized it as an older Hebrew script, probably one used before the invention of the printing press. The usual prayers were there, but in an odd order. In the back of the Haggadah, he saw notes written in English. They were by the eminent British-Jewish historian, Cecil Roth.
Professor Roth explained that the booklet Nathanial held in his hands was a copy of the Haggadah of the forgotten Jews of Kaifeng, China. This was a community of Jews that had been unknown to Western civilization until the sixteenth century when the Jesuit missionary Mateo Ricci discovered them on his mission to China. The Kaifeng Jews traced their origins back to the first century AD—to Jews from Persia who had traveled the Silk Road but never took the long trip home. To the locals they were known as Blue Hats because of the small round blue head coverings the men wore in public.
“Yarmulkes?” Nathanial marveled.
For centuries the Kaifeng Jews had maintained their religious beliefs while adopting the customs of the populace around them. Physically, they looked Persian. For a while, the genotype was maintained by marrying the daughters and sisters of other European and Middle Eastern merchants that the Silk Road brought them. But by the time Mateo Ricci met them in 1604, except for an occasional longer nose and a head or two of curly hair, most of the Jews in Kaifeng looked completely Chinese, signaling that intermarriage with the locals had become common.
“Funny, you don’t look Chinese,” Nathanial chuckled to himself before he snuggled back down on the floor of his mother’s closet and continued reading.
Roth went into great detail about Brother Ricci’s campaign to bring the Kaifeng Jews to Christ. After a period of settling in, the monk generously invited the community’s leaders to visit his newly constructed chapel. Ricci was proud of the structure, and with good reason. With the thrift and ingenuity of a Jesuit, he had collected young artists, designers, carpenters and needle workers—all eager for creative work and willing to accept low wages.
That’s the way to do it! Nathanial thought, admiring Brother Ricci’s approach to real estate development.
To fire up their imaginations, Ricci had shown the workmen his precious sketches of Brunelleschi’s Domes in San Lorenzo. He let them pore over the fantastical drawings of vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows. The blueprints they produced eventually echoed those images. Then the workmen gathered and soaked hundreds of bamboo stalks and painstakingly coaxed them into the shapes of the domes and arches they’d drawn. When the bamboo frame was completed, they lined each section with silks in shades of rust and orange and gold. Ricci was more than satisfied with the resulting structure. While not exactly rivaling the cathedrals of Europe, he felt it did convey a sense of majesty, and by inference, the majesty of the One True God, Christ.
As a final touch, the workmen hung lanterns to spotlight two oil paintings and a carved bookcase that the monk had brought with him all the way from Italy.
“Of course! All you need are one or two pieces in the right places to stage a property.” Nathanial applauded the ancient designers.
The Jews were gratifyingly impressed with the chapel. As they strolled through it, one young Jewish scholar excitedly pointed to a painting and cried out, “Look! It’s Mother Rebecca holding her son Esau, who has fallen exhausted from the hunt!” The Jewish visitors all nodded in agreement, in happy recognition of the beloved ancestral figures. Brother Ricci, however, quickly explained to them that this was not the Holy Mother Rebecca and her tired son Esau, but was, in fact, the Holy Mother Mary holding her dying son, Christ.
Those paintings all look the same, thought Nathanial.
The lively debate which ensued—on the nature of the Messiah, the Godhead, the Testaments Old and New, the Talmud and the Mishnah—lasted into the evening and then the night, and some said it did not stop until the first rays of the dawn. Roth reports that after this encounter with the Kaifeng Jews, Brother Ricci focused his efforts on converting Confucian and Muslim communities first.
Nathanial put down the Haggadah and closed his eyes. He saw before him a table set for Seder, with candles and matzos and sparkling silver wine cups. Men and women dressed in fashions from all parts of the globe, their faces and skin colors reflecting the varieties of their ancestries, sitting on cushions and shuffling pages of the Haggadah, laughing and retelling the story of freedom, of the exodus from Egypt. Nathanial opened his eyes. Everything was suddenly clear. He knew what to say to his wife.
Nathanial came into the house that evening, and Marcy was waiting for him. They stood across from one another at the dining room table.
“You met her?” The question was more of statement. Red splotches on his wife’s neck warned him that either tears or rage would soon follow. It was tears this time. Big round ones that rolled down her cheeks. Over the years, Nathanial had come to recognize those tears. They were the ones laden with the guilt, hopelessness, and disappointment in humanity she carried in her heart, in that secret pact with her mother.
“She’s lovely,” Nathanial said, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth.
“Of course she’s lovely. They’re all lovely. But they bring about the end of the Jewish people!”
“Mayling is not the end the Jewish people. She will become a real Jew.”
“But if it’s not Orthodox, it’s not real!” Marcy sobbed loudly.
Nathanial reached inside his jacket pocket and took out the pamphlet. He slapped it down on the table in front of Marcy.
Marcy looked down at the Haggadah. “What the hell is this?” she hiccupped.
“A sign? A sign of what?”
“It fell on my head.”
“You fell on your head?” Marcy’s eyes got huge and she reached out towards him in a nursey way.
Nathanial dodged her hand. “No, no, no. This booklet fell on my head. When I was cleaning out my mother’s closet.”
“What are you talking about?” Marcy picked up the booklet. She got out her reading glasses and inspected it more closely. Her lips twisted into a slight smile despite the tears rolling down her face.
“There were really Chinese Jews?” she asked, looking up at him with childlike amazement.
“And Ethiopian Jews, and Bronx Jews, and probably Inuit Jews, if we look hard enough,” Nathanial said. “The point is that there has always been intermarriage, and it was because of love. If it’s a Conservative or Reform conversion, it’s not going to matter. As long as Ari and Mayling believe in Hashem, and do the commandments, they will be Jews, and their children will be Jews too.”
Marcy sniffled quietly. Then she said, “What would my mother have said?” She slumped down onto one of the chairs and was about to cry again.
Nathanial grabbed the Haggadah and waved it. “She told us, honey, with this.”
“How do I know I’m making the right decision?” Marcy moaned.
“Your mother and my mother got together in heaven and threw this Haggadah right down on my head. So we would know we were doing the right thing.”
Nathanial slowly made his way around the table to Marcy’s side. He bent down and wrapped his arms around her sagging shoulders, and rocked her like the sad little child she was.
Mayling went to classes at the Conservative synagogue every evening for a year. She studied Jewish history, prayers, songs, and rituals. She listened with an open heart. These were the images and ideas that her Ari had grown up with. They would be part of her history and her children’s history now, too. At her conversion ceremony she would recite the words of Ruth, the first convert:“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God”—and she would mean them.
To augment her studies, Mayling also attended informal cooking classes with Marcy. They practiced making classic Jewish dishes: brisket, blintzes, gefilte fish, chicken soup with dill, kugel―noodle and potato―as well as tzimmes made with raisins and plums.
“I didn’t know there were so many flavors besides bacon,” Mayling joked once.
“There’s never been a piece of bacon in this house,” Marcy said emphatically.
Mayling looked away, embarrassed.
Marcy softened her tone. “From the cooking channel you’d think bacon was the greatest thing in the world. Is it really so good?”
Mayling scrunched up her face. “Eh, it’s not that great. If you eat it for breakfast, you smell it on yourself the whole day.”
Marcy smiled, but Mayling never joked about bacon again.
Mayling was converted on a Monday evening by the respected Conservative Rabbi, Jonathan David Stienmetz. When all the papers were signed and the prayers completed, a small group of women escorted her to the special part of the synagogue that housed the mikvah. Under the watchful eyes of the female attendant, Mayling immersed herself three times into a deep pool of freshly drawn water. After the third dunk, Mayling emerged as a Jew.
That evening, Marcy and Nathanial waited in their living room for their son and his fiancée to arrive. They had made reservations to celebrate with the kids at their favorite kosher restaurant. Mayling walked in, her black hair still wet from the mikvah. As Nathanial got up to get the coats, he heard Mayling whisper to Ari, “It’s so weird. I feel so close to Hashem now.” Nathanial wondered if Marcy had heard. He glanced over at his wife. She was looking at the couple with a softness in her turquoise eyes he’d never seen before.
Later that evening, when the kids had left, and they were settled into their recliners in front of the TV, Nathanial asked Marcy if she had heard what Mayling told Ari earlier that evening.
“No,” Marcy said. “What?”
“That she felt close to Hashem.”
“Wow,” Marcy said. “I’m sorry I missed it.”
“I thought you’d heard. You were staring at her.”
Marcy shrugged. “I was remembering something my mother told me. She said that when she was little her brothers used to tease her that she was really Chinese, because her face was round and she had straight black bangs and a tiny nose.” Marcy got up and pulled out a picture album from the bookcase beside the fireplace. She brought it over and turned the pages quickly.
“Look.” Marcy pointed at it.
Nathaniel gazed at the faded sepia photo of a little girl with thick dark bangs, a small delicate nose, and a solemn expression. She was looking straight into the camera, and right into his eyes.
“Well, that explains it,” Nathanial said.