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A Tour of Jewish China

Courtesy of Yael Farjun

Growing up in Eilat and studying about Asia and political science, Israeli Yael Farjun decided to put her learning, including fluency in Mandarin, to use by going to China. Farjun’s first step was working for the Israeli Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, the first year the Expo was held in a developing country. She fell in love with the city of Shanghai, decided to stay there and opened a travel agency named China: Just Click & Go.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Farjun, 31, for an exclusive interview where the two discussed assimilated Jews living in Kaifeng, China, present-day Chinese and how they feel about Jewish people and even internet censorship in China.

Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish girl from Israel end up in China with a travel company?

Yael Farjun: I studied everything about China — philosophy, history — all 5,000 years of it, and how to speak Mandarin. Arriving in China was a natural step.

An opportunity came with a job offer to come work for the Israeli Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. That was the first time that Israel decided to participate fully and build a pavilion. They invested a lot of money and looked for representatives to come and represent Israel. There were 20 of us, and we all worked in the pavilion for months.

Shanghai is an amazing city with amazing people. It was like someone opened a door of opportunities, and I decided that’s where I need to stay. I wanted to rely on all of the knowledge I had from my studies.

What were the early steps taken in creating your travel company?

I started very small, just as a tour guide in Shanghai. But little by little I built something larger than that. My brother, who’s 28, joined me about a year and a half ago, and now we organize private tours all over China.

Can you talk about the history of Jews in China?

Jews who lived in China before — we’re talking about mid-19th century — were mainly in Shanghai and Harbin. Groups of Jews arrived in China from 1845 and onward. The first were Sephardic Jews from Iraqi and Baghdadi regions. They arrived as merchants and businessmen after the Opium Wars and built their businesses mostly in Shanghai. Ashkenazi Jews — many of them fleeing Russia in the beginning of the 20th century because of pogroms — escaped to Harbin in the north of China, where Russia built the Chinese Eastern Railway as an extension of the Trans-Siberian line.

When the Japanese started taking over China from the north, a lot of foreigners, especially Russians, fled and escaped south to Tianjin, Dalian and Shanghai. Shanghai was the biggest of those, we’re talking close to 7,000 to 8,000 Ashkenazi Jews and another 3,000 to 4,000 Sephardic Jews. The Sephardic Jews, mostly spoke English. The Russian Jews spoke Russian and maybe Yiddish as well. The “third wave” of people that came to live in China, about 20,000, were Jews who had escaped Europe, the eve of the Second World War. Most of them were Austrians from Vienna and Germans from Berlin, who arrived in 1938 and 1939 [respectively].

What about Orthodoxy?

There were Chabad rabbis here. They were in Kovno, now it’s Lithuania. Many Jews managed to escape [the Nazis], thanks to the help of a wonderful Japanese consul general in Kovno named Sugihara, who helped them by issuing visas.

What types of trips does your company offer?

Many travelers don’t know special places to visit in China. Americans love to visit Yunnan province. We take them off the beaten path. Mostly people who travel to China are here for 10 days or two weeks, but for Yunnan you need at least a week just for that province. You get to see traditions and eat great food everywhere. In the villages, everyone you meet is smiling and kind. We also offer kosher tours by cooperating with Chabad Houses in China.

Everyone who comes to China wants to see the Great Wall, but there are so many different sections. There are very touristy parts and then there are areas that you wouldn’t even know exist. We also take tourists to places that you wouldn’t even know to ask about.

Why did you and I have difficulty connecting via Facebook?

Because of the firewall. Most of the outside is blocked here. Chinese authorities control everything very tightly; in part it’s because it makes it easier to manage content and what Chinese people are exposed to. Also because it helps them to help local brands promote themselves. You cannot do anything Google based here so, we have a problem with Gmail, Google maps, Google search. If I want to download something on my Android phone from Google Play, it’s almost impossible. I have to turn on the app VPN. Facebook is blocked; Twitter, Instagram and a lot of blogs are blocked to the outside world, so we cannot use them. But you learn how to use the local things.

Is there anti-Semitism in China?

No, on the contrary, there is a lot of love towards Jewish people — no matter who you ask here. It could be a small boy, a taxi driver or an old man. If you say you’re Jewish in China, the first thing they will say is, “You are very smart.” They admire it in a way like “Teach me how” and “Show me, I want to learn.” They talk about Israel in a way where it’s like a childlike admiration like, “You’re strong, your economy is strong, you have the highest number of high-tech entrepreneurs in the world, you’re so successful, there’s so many Jewish people who won the Nobel Prize for so many great discoveries. For such a small number of people in the world it is amazing what you’ve done.”

Chinese people love to compare that we survived with our traditions for about 5,000 years just like they did. That we share similar ideas, like, we respect the family a lot, we respect studies and our elders, so they look at those things and say, “We are so much alike and we admire what you do.” They’re in love with us in a very naive way, which is really nice. I’m not afraid to walk around here and say I’m from Israel or that I’m Jewish, because I know that I will receive a lot of respect.

This interview has been edited for style and length.

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