An art exhibit that honours the long and rich—but not well-known—history between China and the Jews opens May 25 in Toronto.
Ian Leventhal, a Toronto artist who helped organize the exhibition Tribute to Friendship, said it marks the millennium anniversary of Jewish life in China. One thousand years ago, a Jewish community was founded in the Silk Road city of Kaifeng, during the Sun Dynasty. There are still ancestors of those original Jewish settlers in Kaifeng, and since that time, other Jewish communities in China have risen and fallen away including in Tianjin and Harbin and most notably in Shanghai, where around 20,000 Jews fled to escape the Holocaust.
Leventhal first learned the extent of Jewish history in China when he visited the country over 20 years ago. In Shanghai, he saw the old Jewish district, including a ghetto and synagogue. There, he met Wang La Fiang, resident historian of the museum, who shared stories of his Jewish friends who had lived in the neighbourhood before the community dissolved under Mao Zedong’s rule.
“I was completely fascinated by it. And I looked around, and they had a tiny museum there, it was very meagre, and I thought ‘I would love to be able to help tell this story;’ the story about the compassion shown by the Chinese during the 1930s and ‘40s to the Jewish people fleeing Nazi Europe,” Leventhal said.
“When I came home, I rallied a group of people… to do an art collection… a gift of friendship as a thank you to the Chinese people for this humanitarian rescue during the Shoah period.”
Thirty-three artists donated their work for the exhibition, which was first shown in Toronto’s Chinese Cultural Centre in 2002, before being shipped as a gift to Shanghai. After the exhibition opened in Shanghai, the local district of the Chinese government reached out to Leventhal and other contributors to ask for their continued help in promoting this aspect of Chinese Jewish culture.
Over several years and 18 visits to Shanghai, Leventhal helped turn the city’s old Jewish district into a historical preservation zone, protecting it from demolition and setting it up for future restoration projects. For example, it served as a catalyst for the later restoration of the old synagogue, Leventhal said.
For the 20-year anniversary of that first exhibition, Leventhal and the team wanted to once again do something to bring the communities together and contribute to mutual friendship. Additionally, the exhibition is opening during May, which is recognized as both Asian and Jewish Heritage Month.
“We wanted to examine all aspects of our common history. And one of the lenses that we felt was important this time is, in the present-day climate that our two communities are living in, even locally, is one of heightened racism,” Leventhal said.
“So, a lot of what we’re trying to do is showcase harmony and understanding between what seems like very different, diverse communities, to sort of mitigate some of these tensions that are prevalent today.”
The opening night of the exhibition will include a klezmer fusion concert by Beyond the Pale, a Chinese dance performance by MyMulan Culture, a lightshow with Jewish and Asian themes by Gina Godfrey that will be accompanied by Cantor David Rosen’s Temple Singers from Holy Blossom Temple, and a music video called Chai Shanghai by Len Rosen.
Tribute to Friendship is at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto, 5183 Sheppard Ave. E., from May 26- June 8. The exhibit is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.