Saturday, January 2, 2010

HARBIN Part 4: The Jews of Harbin

In addition to being a beautiful and interesting city, Harbin also has a very Jewish past. About 20,000 Jews used to live there, as they viewed it as a safe haven from the discrimination and pogroms that plagued Eastern Europe and Russia in the early 20th century. While the last Jew of Harbin died in the 1980's, the old synagogues and schools still remain. Additionally, they fixed up the "new" synagogue in 2004 and included a full exhibit on the Harbin Jewry.

One of the first pieces of Jewish history we spotted was close to our hotel: the former Jewish Middle School.

Across the street was the old synagogue - another beautiful building that now houses a cafe and clothing shop.

I took a peek inside. Irony of ironies? A Christmas tree!

Inside the other synagogue, a few blocks away, was the exhibit on Harbin's Jews. It was really impressive - three floors & nice and quiet. I was the only person there.

After working at a few museums, I view all exhibits in a much more academic way and I question why certain things are included or excluded. This exhibit had some life-size plaster figures to represent Jewish life in Harbin. It was a little strange and wax museum-ish, but probably more interesting than just a room full of furniture.

Most of the English explanations were clear and easily understandable. Except this one below. If you can decipher it, you get a prize.

Most of the text was full of praise for the Jewish residents (for bringing a lot of commerce and art to Harbin) and for the city of Harbin (for welcoming Jews and not discriminating). It was pretty much a total lovefest, which I enjoyed. I also liked this wall of photographs and the description.

Overall, I would have liked to see more photos of intermingling between the Chinese and Jewish people, but the Jews of Harbin seemed to be a pretty insular community. However, there were a few exceptions:

It was a pretty interesting exhibit and it made me want to do more research on the Harbin Jewry, as some of the explanations were a little lacking (there was a large emphasis on one "hero," Jacob Rosenfeld, and very little details on what he actually did). In terms of human rights, China doesn't have the best record --- but overall there seems to be very little prejudice towards 犹太人 (youtairen). Which, from my perspective, is cool.

UPDATE: Hannah made a good point in the comments. There are pretty widespread stereotypes here about Jews - for instance, I've been told numerous times that we're all accomplished and smart, like Einstein. I think I was blinded by the fact that these are positive attributes, but it's good to remember that stereotypes are stereotypes. Even positive generalizations can be harmful at the end of the day.


  1. More like prejudice in a different way. Has anyone told you that you're smart (congming) and love money? I definitely got that on more than one occasion, and it made me avoid telling people that I was Jewish.

  2. I had no idea there were ever Jews in China! That sign is hilarious. The holy month of homo, of course...

    I'm only getting this from you and that book that I continue to blabber on about, but I find the Chinese to be so determined to stereotype. Jewish = X type of person. American = Y type of person. I wonder if we do it here and I don't notice it? Or is this a China thing?

  3. My great grandparents come from Harbin. Did you see any pictures of Simcha Rautman??? I must go

    1. Please contact with me. My grandfater's grandfater was also Simcha Rautman.

  4. How can you say that the last Jew of Harbin dies in the 1980's when there are descendent's still living there and practicing Judaism?

  5. My mom was born in China. She is Jew. We left China until 1993.