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Over 1,000 Years of Jewish Life in China Medals

By Mel Wacks, Reprinted from The Shekel, March-April 2011

Jews have lived in peace with their neighbors and with the approval of the government in China from the time of the Silk Road to the refugees in Shanghai during World War II. The Jewish-American Hall of Fame has issued impressive 3-inch, half pound medals in editions limited to just 388 bronze, 188 silver-plated bronze and 88 gold-plated bronze-each serial numbered on the edge. (Note that actual mintages as of September 1, 2011 are 118 bronze, 53 silver-plated bronze, and 37 gold-plated bronze.)
Jews in China

According to scholar Xin Xu (The Jews of Kaifeng, China), the first Jews settled in Kaifeng.

c. 960-1126, and the first synagogue was built in 1163. The first settlers were Silk Road traders, probably from Persia. It is estimated that by the late thirteenth century there were about 2,000 Jews in Kaifeng. A Kaifeng tourist web site states that:"Today the community is fairly well integrated into the local population, after centuries of intermarriage, so that although more than two hundred of the Kaifeng population claim Jewish descent, they will not be overly easy to recognize. Thankfully the beliefs and customs of the Jewish community here, that had died out after many centuries of neglect and suppression, is slowly making a comeback." The web site goes on to indicate that a few steles from the synagogue dedications of 1489, 1512, and 1679 can be seen at the Kaifeng Bowuguan Museum.

The medal's obverse combines the Chinese yin-yang symbol (representing the two complementary forces that make up all aspects of life-heaven and earth, male and female, light and dark) with the Jewish Star of David. The Star of David brings the story of the Jews in China to modern times, when nearly 20,000 European Jews found a safe haven in Shanghai during World War II. The Hebrew letters within the star spell Shemesh (sun) as appeared on a plaque from the Kaifeng Synagogue, above the Shema prayer. Interestingly, the morning benedictions before the Shema echo the meaning of the yin-yang: "Who forms light and createst darkness."

The Kaifeng Synagogue is based on the model displayed at Bet Hatefutsoth Museum, Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel Aviv, which in turn was created from the drawings of Father Jean Domenge, made when he visited Kaifeng in 1722.



Exterior view of the Kaifeng Synagogue, drawn by Father Jean Domenge, 1722.

The reverse design of the "Over 1,000 Years of Jewish Life in China" medal features a Jewish worshiper reading the Torah (Bible)--also inspired by the drawings of Father Jean Domenge. The inscription is a quote from the 1489 stele in Chinese and English: "THE EMPEROR SAID PRESERVE YOUR ANCESTRAL CUSTOMS."


The original drawings of Father Domenge depict the worshippers without shoes, as does the medal. Moses, arriving at the site of the burning bush, was immediately commanded to remove his shoes from his feet, because he was standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:5), and from this episode the Sages deduced that one is required to remove shoes in holy places.

The initials of Jamie Franki, the medal's creator are below the Chinese inscription. Frankie is a prolific designer of commemorative medals, and his facing portrait of Thomas Jefferson appears on every United States nickel produced beginning in 2006.

To inquire about the availability of the medals commemorating Over 1,000 Years of Jewish Life in America click here.

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