How Jews Ended Up in India and China

Trade has been just as much of a driving force of migration in Jewish history as persecution and antisemitism. 

The Silk Road trade brought Jews to Kaifeng, China in the early 12th century.  For 800 years this community maintained both economic and religious contact with the rest of world Jewry, which in turn allowed them to maintain their own Jewish practices.  When modern European innovations in oceanic shipping displaced the Silk Road, the Jews of Kaifeng lost touch with the global Jewish community and declined rapidly due to assimilation and intermarriage.  While there has been a kind of Jewish revival in this community, they are subject to persecution by the Chinese government as an illegal religion.

The overseas trade of goods across the Indian Ocean from India to Arabia brought Jews to India, perhaps as early as the 1st century CE.  Hindu rulers did not treat Jews as a threat to their religion.  In the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala, an especially large and prosperous Jewish community developed in the port city of Cochin.  Unlike virtually all other waves of “mass” aliyah in Israeli history, the Jews of India in the 20th century did not face anything like the religious discrimination experienced by Jews in Christian and Muslim lands. Rather, they were pulled by their incredible love of Israel and ardent Zionism.

  1. Throughout history, Jewish migration has been mostly driven by persecution.
    •  True
    •  False
  2. When did the Persian-speaking Jews first settle in Kaifeng?
    • 1st century CE
    • 18th century CE
    • 12th century CE
    • 9th century CE
  3. Kaifeng was the only Jewish community in China during the Middle Ages
    •  True
    •  False
  4. The Kaifeng Jewish community began to decline when…
    • The Ming Dynasty refused to recognize Jews as an official minority
    • Non-Jewish merchants dominated the Silk Road trade
    • Europeans invented larger, faster shipping boats
    • Leaders of the community began to intermarry.
  5. Today there are around how many members of the Kaifeng Jewish community?
    •  300
    • 1,000
    • 10,000
    •  100,000
  6. The majority of Indian Jews now live in:
    • Cochin, Kerala
    • Maharashtra
    • Israel
    • Canada
  7. Indian Jews made mass aliyah to Israel in the 1950s because they were:
    • Fleeing religious persecution by Muslims
    • Seeking fortune and new business opportunities
    • Able to move to America.
    • Ardent Zionists
  1. Even after they were cut off from the rest of world Jewry and were assimilating, the Kaifeng Jews “remained united by a vague awareness of their Jewish heritage” by continuing some practices like avoiding pork, wearing a “localized form” of the kippah and generally refraining from working on the Sabbath. What do these practices have in common? (You may note to students that these are all personal observances, not communal.) Why do you think these practices were maintained as others melted away? What observances do Jews in your community maintain?
  2. This New York Post article explains the recent crackdown of Chanukah celebrations in China: 

    China’s tiny Jewish population is celebrating in secret for fear of a renewed crackdown by the Communist government against non-approved religions… ‘It’s government policy. China doesn’t want to recognize us as Jews,” one man told the Telegraph. “Their goal is to make sure the next generation doesn’t have any Jewish identity.” The crackdown is so intense that some members of the community refuse to be seen breaking bread together in public. “It’s a small place… Restaurant managers know that we are the Jews, and they will report us to the authorities.” 

    What new meanings do you think the story and celebration of Hanukkah might take on for the Kaifeng Jews?

  3. Over the centuries, the majority of the Kaifeng community assimilated, intermarried, and many even converted to Islam or Buddhism. Thus, as My Jewish Learning notes:“The establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in the late 1980s, and the arrival of Jewish tourists to Kaifeng, inspired many Kaifeng Jews to rediscover their Jewish identities. Some Kaifeng Jews have made aliyah to Israel in recent years, but proving their Jewishness is complex. Chinese descent is patrilineal, which means that descent is calculated through male links only. Traditionally, Jews use matrilineal descent to determine if a person is Jewish. Influenced by Chinese practices, Kaifeng Jews trace Jewish lineage through the patrilineal line. This practice produces extra challenges for Kaifeng Jews who wish to be accepted as Jewish by the larger Jewish community — especially those seeking to move to Israel. Since Kaifeng Jews don’t fit the criteria of Israel’s Law of Return, they are required to go through a yearlong conversion process in order to become [eligible for aliyah and Israeli citizenship].””

    Does Israel have any moral obligation towards the Kaifeng Jews who are not Jewish according to Jewish Law but have Jewish lineage? (To learn more, check out our video on the Law of Return here.)

  4. The Cochin Jews left India in a mass immigration to Israel. They were not driven out of India by persecution or discrimination, nor because they lacked economic opportunity. Rather, they were compelled by their intense, historically-rooted sense of Jewish identity and religious love of Israel. What do you think about these motivations? Is your personal connection to Zionism more rooted in negative considerations of anti-Jewish persecution or to the positive connections between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel? Which considerations provide the strongest justifications for the Jewish State?
  5. “Jewish medieval sources that discuss Hinduism consider it idolatrous,” notes My Jewish Learning. However, some modern Jewish leaders have been more accepting. In recent years, interfaith dialogue between Jews and practitioners of Eastern religions has developed as well.” What questions and topics do you think might arise in interfaith dialogue between Jews and Hindus that might not come up when dialoguing with other “Abrahamic” religions?
  1. Use our ready made lesson plan about “How Jews Ended Up in India and China” here.
  2. The story of the Kaifeng Jews raises issues regarding “who is a Jew” and patrilineal descent. Watch our video about “Who Decides Who is a Jew?” to learn more about this important topic. Read more about the situation of Jewish nationals of “no religion” (i.e. who are not Jewish according to Halacha) from the former Soviet Union here.Then, lead a discussion where students compare and contrast the following cases:
    1) An American Jew of patrilineal descent who was raised Jewish and had a bar mitzvah
    2) A secular Russian with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and
    3) a Kaifeng Jew who has not converted (back) to Judaism.

    How might the “Jewishness” of each of these types be similar or different to the others? What relationship should the State of Israel have to each of these different types of people in its role as the Jewish State?

  3. In the Cairo Geniza exhibit, check out this thousand-year old example of paper currency issued by Abu Zikri Kohen, a Jewish merchant in the India trade. Then, learn more about such documents with the “Cairo Geniza” video and lesson from PBS’s “Story of the Jews by Simon Schama. The oldest examples of modern paper cheques, this innovation originated as an ingenious solution to get around Muslim laws prohibiting Jews from carrying gold across borders. Using these or other resources, have your students research and discuss the role of Jews and Jewish kinship networks in international trade and commerce during the medieval and early modern eras.
  4. Play our Kahoot about how Jews ended up in India and China here!
  1. Imagine you live in a well-off Jewish family in Cochin, India in the 1950s or 1960s. Israel is still a young country struggling to establish itself economically and militarily (as was India). What kind of conversations and debates might your family be having regarding making aliyah to Israel? How would you feel about the fact that so many members of your Jewish community are moving to Israel when none of you are really facing persecution? Would you want to join them? What considerations would you have in mind?
  2. What Jewish practices do you think are most essential for communal preservation? What Jewish practices are you personally committed to?
  3. If you met someone of Kaifeng-Jewish heritage, what are three questions you would ask them?
  4. Put yourself in the shoes of a Jewish person in the Middle Ages attempting to earn a living through international shipping and trade. What opportunities might make Cochin or Kaifeng a desirable place to move your family to? What might the tradeoffs be compared to living in Paris (Catholic Europe) or Cairo (Islamic Egypt)? Where would you choose?

Unlock these resources with a free account

Don’t have an account? Sign up now

A division of

Legal Privacy Policy © 2022 All rights reserved

Access these resources with a free account!

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Unlock the interactive quiz with a free account

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Access the transcript with a free account!

Don't have an account? Sign up now

By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively.