Jew­ish Way­far­ers in Mod­ern Chi­na: Tragedy and Splendor

Matthias Mess­mer
  • Review
May 13, 2013

Read­ers of Jew­ish Way­far­ers in Mod­ern Chi­na will be amazed and aston­ished to learn how many Jews have influ­enced Chi­nese his­to­ry. Who would believe that half the for­eign­ers serv­ing in the recent gov­ern­ment of Chi­na were Jew­ish? Final­ly, with­in one vol­ume, an amaz­ing, fascinating,exciting col­lec­tion of old Chi­na hands, trav­el­ers, advis­ers, adventurers,diplomats, explor­ers, physi­cians, refugees, and even Mao’s inner circle,will daz­zle every read­er. Who would believe that Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai fre­quent­ly played cards with Sid­ney Rit­ten­berg of Charleston, South Car­oli­na, or Sid­ney Shapiro, who is the cur­rent major trans­la­tor of Chi­nese clas­sics into English.

The eight­i­eth birth­day of Israel Epstein was in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple, in Tien­an­men Square, and on nation­al tele­vi­sion for two hours, in the pres­ence of the lead­ing mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment. At Epstein’s funer­al, in the pres­ence of 1,000 mourn­ers, he was eulo­gized by the pres­i­dent of Chi­na. Would any­one believe that Mao’s den­tist was a Jew­ish female, and the chief of med­i­cine of the People’s Lib­er­a­tion Army was Dr. Gen­er­al Jakob Rosen­feld, who was also on the review­ing stand on Octo­ber 1, 1949 when Mao pro­claimed the People’s Repub­lic of China.

The first for­eign­er to die on Chi­nese soil, fight­ing for Chi­na against the Japan­ese invaders, was Hans Shippe; Erwin Reif­fler, mar­ried to the daugh­ter of the rab­bi of Shang­hai, and a bril­liant philol­o­gist, pro­duced a major study of the Chi­nese lan­guage. Some will rec­og­nize Gen­er­al Two-Gun Cohen, the body­guard, friend, and advi­sor to Pres­i­dent Sun Yat-sen, but he also influ­enced Chi­na with its vote at the Unit­ed Nations to cre­ate the State of Israel. Few will rec­og­nize Aaron Avshalo­mov, who com­posed a mag­nif­i­cent opera, The Great Wall,” com­bin­ing authen­tic Chi­nese music and instru­ments with our famil­iar West­ern music. Every­one should know of the careers of Sir Vic­tor Sas­soon, who built the water­front of Shang­hai; Emi­ly Hahn, who intro­duced Chi­na to the Amer­i­can read­er, and the Kadoories, who con­tributed so much to Chi­na and Hong Kong. This book is a page turn­er, thor­ough­ly researched, and with the ris­ing impor­tance of Chi­na, it is incum­bent to be knowl­edge­able about Jews in Chi­na. Next time you hear the nation­al anthem of Chi­na, try to remem­ber that it was Avshalo­mov who com­posed the orches­tra­tion, and the two old­est Hebrew doc­u­ments on paper found any­where in the world were unearthed in Chi­na, by Sir Marc Aurel Stein. Read the book.

Relat­ed: Jews in Chi­na Read­ing List

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