Shanghai – Jewish in 1920

Ninety years ago, Israel Cohen (1879- 1961) of London became the first Jew to tour the major Jewish communities of Australia, India, and the Far East. This was no pleasure trip but a grueling fund raising mission. The 1920 San Remo Peace Conference had just ratified the Balfour Declaration and now was the time to empty Jewish pockets in earnest.

As Cohen put it, “The [Zionist] executive lost no time in deciding that among the urgent measures to be taken was the dispatch of emissaries to North and South America and other parts of the world to expound the implications of the Balfour Declaration and to raise the funds that were necessary. They invited me to undertake a mission for this purpose to Australasia and East Asia.”   Armed with a bundle of letters from Zionist bigwigs, Cohen sailed from London on May 15, 1920, returning home on May 8 1921 after a round trip of 30,000 miles that took him to the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan, Java and India. He published the account of his journey in 1924, leaving us a literary snapshot of many kehillos that have since sunk into oblivion. Among his targets was the small Shanghai kehillah, which would mushroom to over 25,000 souls before and during World War II.

The Fake Shamash
England had forced Shanghai to open its gates to foreign trade after the first Opium War of 1843, and by 1848, the first Jews were arriving from Baghdad, Bombay, and Cairo, so few initially that efforts had to be made to maintain a daily minyan. Then things picked up – by the 1870s they were renting space for a shul, and 1887 marked the opening of the Beth El Synagogue.

After the Russian pogroms of 1905, about three hundred Russian Jews filtered down to Shanghai and their numbers swelled with the turmoil of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Although the Shanghai Jewish population was a scant 2,000 by the time of Cohen’s visit, he soon discovered that its diversity more than made up for its small size.

“From the moment of my landing on a bleak and drizzly Friday morning,” he records, “I realized that the Jewish community was almost as international in its composition as the city in general. The dominating element of the city was Sephardi, derived, like Hong Kong Jewry, from India and Mesopotamia, for the first Jew to set foot here, about 1850 was also the enterprising Elias David Sassoon. But there were also many Jews from Western Europe and America.” Despite their isolation, the Jews of Shanghai were proud of their heritage and had suffered only one intermarriage. In addition, a significant number of them were mitzvah observant – so far as their knowledge of halachah took them.

“I was rather surprised to find that [in] this cosmopolitan city, this ‘Paris of the East,’ there was a veritable stronghold of uncompromising Orthodox Judaism,” Cohen notes. “The stronghold was rather sparsely manned, it is true, and those who watched over it might truthfully be described as members of the ‘Old Guard,’ for they belonged mainly to the old generation, as familiar with quotations from the Talmud as with those of the stock exchange. I passed my Sabbath eve and Sabbath morn in the very odor of sanctity, in a milieu of strict observance and cheerful ceremonialism.”

This included spending the Shabbos night seudah at the home of Mr. Sassoon J. Solomon, “a pious and learned man who has a remarkable library of Hebrew lore and spends his days on the books of the Sassoons and his nights on the books of Cabbala.” Here he met one of the city’s Russian refugees, a silent middle aged Russian who had lost wife and children fleeing through Siberia and was now employed as a Hebrew teacher.

The other guest, who looked like a Mongol herdsman, went by the name of Joseph Wong and claimed to hail from the Jewish community of Kashgar in western China. Due to the disturbances of war, he claimed, he had made his way to Kai-Feng-Shu, and finding precious few Jews there had gone on to Shanghai. Now, he had learned Hebrew, was scrupulously observant, and a devout member of the shul. Or so it seemed.

“Alas for human credulity,” Cohen writes in a footnote. “Joseph Wong, of whose Jewishness and piety there was never any doubt, and who was employed as beadle in one of the synagogues, was afterwards discovered to be a Mohammedan, who was engaged in obtaining contributions from the adherents of Islam in China for the alleged restoration of some Moslem temple. Thus is another Eastern romance shattered.”

Cohen’s host, Mr. Solomon, informed him that there were indeed only two Jews left in the ancient Kai-Feng-Shu kehillah, as he himself had taken an active part in bringing eight of the last remnants to Shanghai. Actually, a number of Jews remained in Kaifeng but intermarried over the years. Nowadays, a small number of their descendants have expressed interest in their ancestral religion and a group of them moved to Israel on October 20 of last year.

Collecting Spree
On Shabbos morning Cohen attended Shacharis where he found that no prayer was said for any royal family or otherwise, since the shul was situated in the International Settlement of Shanghai and owed no official allegiance to any monarch or ruler. Afterwards, he was surprised to see rickshaws waiting outside the shul door, “For there were some Orthodox Jews who, living at a distance from the synagogue, were carried thither in a rickshaw, the Chinese doorkeeper paying the fare, whilst after the return journey the fare was paid by a domestic.”

Admitting that this practice was questionable, the worshippers said they would clarify the issue with the newly arrived rabbi of Shanghai, Rav W. Hirsch.

As in modern day collecting, Cohen had not been in the city for more than an hour or two when people began telling him that economic depression had swooped down on the Far East; he was reproached for not coming twelve months earlier when money was being made so rapidly he would have rendered a public service by removing some of it. But he discovered that things weren’t all that bad after all while making his first appeal in the home of a local magnate, Mr. Edward I. Ezra. Nearly five hundred wealthy guests arrived at the palatial residence that looked like something out of the Arabian nights set like a jewel on sixty acres of private grounds tended by sixteen gardeners and guarded by a dozen private police officers.

Among the international repertoire of donors attending the appeal was a Nagasaki Jew who informed Cohen there were only four Jews left in his city, that its synagogue had been closed for months, and that he was anxious to have its Torah scrolls transferred to Shanghai. By 1924, the beautiful shul and its land were sold by auction for 220 pounds and converted to secular use. Chances are that all its Jews had gone by the time the place was atom bombed in 1945.

The host of the evening opened the appeal by personally pledging a thousand pound sterling to Cohen’s cause, the equivalent of almost thirty thousand pounds in modern currency, and altogether, Cohen squeezed over ten thousand pounds from the pockets of Shanghai’s Jews.

During his flying visit to Shanghai, Cohen did not always fully comprehend what he saw or heard. One Friday afternoon he was mystified when a Chinese servant ‘boy’ asked him in Pidgin English, Chin-chin joss (would you like to pray to G-d). Cohen was shocked, thinking that joss was a reference to idolatry. In reality, chin chin is a Portuguese derived word meaning to give reverence or pray, while joss is the pidgin derivative of the Portuguese De-us, G-d.

He suffered yet another miscomprehension when he went to daven in Shanghai’s famous Ohel Rachel shul recently built by the wealthy Sir Jacob Sassoon in memory of his wife.

“It was designed for two hundred but I counted only twenty people there…,” Cohen writes. “In the grounds had been dug a deep, round well, which was intended to take the place of the stream into which orthodox Jews are wont to cast their sins on New Year’s day with the aid of a special invocation. As my eye measured the cubic capacity of the well, I could not help expressing a doubt whether it could accommodate all the iniquities of the large and absent congregation.”

Actually, Cohen was wrong on all counts. The magnificent shul was actually large enough to hold seven hundred and was probably empty since it had only opened in March that year and was only officially consecrated months later in January 1921. In its heyday, this shul’s ark held thirty sifrei Torah.

The kehillah’s sole secular institution was a Yiddish theatre run by a company of Yiddish actors who had recently fled the war and revolution of Russia. “They were waiting daily and anxiously for tidings of the recovery of Russia from the Bolshevik nightmare, and hesitated to make any lasting arrangements in what they regarded as a temporary asylum,” blissfully unaware that their wait for freedom would probably outlast their life spans.

Ohel Rachel Resuscitated
Falling into decay after the Communist takeover, Shanghai has made a comeback during the last decade and is now home to between three to four thousand Jews who even have accessibility to cholov Yisroel. However, only two of the city’s seven shuls remain, the Ohel Moshe Shul which is now a museum dedicated to the kehillah’s history, and Cohen’s Ohel Rachel Shul. Closed in 1949 and used as a storehouse by the Shanghai Education Commission, the shul was officially reopened on May 7th this year in honor of China’s 2010 Expo (international trade fair) after renovation at government expense.

As for the famous Bais Aharon Shul, which provided Mirrer bachurim with a beis medrash during the war, sad to say, it was demolished in 1985 and replaced by an office building. Its sole remnant is a large stone menorah in the Shanghai museum.

(Cohen, Israel. Journal of a Jewish Traveller. London: John Lane, 1925.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.