Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Using tefillin and a Roedelheim siddur to establish bona fides among a 'Lost Tribe' in China circa 1839. Allegedly.

Suppose you were trying to establish contact with a newly discovered colony of Jews deep in China, close to Tibet, in 1839. How would you establish a connection? By pulling out your Roedelheim siddur and putting on tefillin, obviously.

At least that's the story in what most certainly is a fake, but most interesting, letter printed in the Archives Israélites in 1868. Sent in by a man calling himself Jacob Elsaesser (of Alsace), it purports to be an account of the encounter just described. "Elsaesser" writes that in 1835 his friend Adolphe Stempfel, who had been studying to be a rabbi, fell on hard times. As a result he joined a British ship to Calcutta (in a time when many youths in similar circumstances were going to America, adds the Elsesser). During the time of the First Opium War the British discovered a community of Jews deep in China. Reports made it to Calcutta, and a wealthy Jewish merchant there sent Stempfel (you know, if he ever existed) to China to make contact with them. Elsaesser sent the Archives Israélites a letter purporting to be written by Stempfel back to his patron in Calcutta. It printed the letter in three parts. Here's an excerpt:

In the first part, he describes a river that he thought may have been the Sambation. In this, the second part:
"Barely did I hear the cracking of the bamboo floors in the morning, when I put into action my plan. I got into the corner of my room and without saying a word I put on my phylacteries and opened a Rodelheim siddur. I wished you had been here to see this: my host seemed stunned, his face in a stupor. He fixated on my phylacteries and prayer book. He obviously did not expect to find a coreligionist in the garb of a Western barbarian. I enjoyed his surprise, until finally I smiled. He touched my phylacteries and addressed me, but I couldn't understand him. So I replied to him with feeling "Yehudi." He repeated the word and happily shook his head to indicate that he understood me. Unfortunately he could not reply to even the simplest Hebrew words that I addressed him with, which the most simple Alsatian Jew would have understood."
It continues, how the Chinese Jew fetched the rabbi, they exchanged "Schalem-Alechems" and had a very nice, spirited conversation in Hebrew. According to Stempfel, the rabbi said that they are descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel carried into captivity, and that these Chinese Jews (=Israelites) are shepherds. Stempfel expressed surprise that they are not traders, and hilarity ensues.

1 comment:

  1. For more about the Jews found in Tibet, see here:



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