From China to Israel: How Jin Jin Became Yecholiya Jin

BY DAN-CHYI CHUA
Oct 13, 2010
*Special to asia!

我回家了。That was how she felt when she first arrived in Israel, that she had finally come home, after 19 years, as one of the pioneering Chinese Jews to have returned.

Yecholiya is a special woman in many ways. Just take her name for a start. “Yecholiya” is very uncommon name, and the rabbis almost did not allow her to adopt it as her Jewish name.

“It is not very Jewish to want to stand out, so they wanted me to take a name like 'Sara'. But that is such a common name that if you called it out in the streets here, many people will answer,” she says.

The rabbis said she had to pick a Jewish name that was in the Bible.

“But 'Yecholiya' is in the Bible,” she replied. And she pointed it out exactly where it appeared to these Jewish religious leaders.

In the end, she was allowed to keep this name which she fell in love with from the start. It means “God is able,” she tells me.

That was almost five years ago. Yecholiya has lived here in Israel since then, as one of the first Chinese Jews brought over by Shavei Israel.

There were four of them, all girls. The oldest is now 32, while Yecholiya is 24. They come from Kaifeng, a city most famous for having been one of the ancient Chinese imperial capitals before Beijing. Less known is the community of Chinese Jews who have lived there for generations.

Yecholiya appears just like any other person of Chinese origin, and it surprises people when they learn that she is a Jew.

“When they meet me, they always ask if I come from the Philippines or Thailand. Among us Chinese Jews, we made a joke saying that we should make a T-shirt that reads: I am not a Thai Worker,” she quips.

 

Hard knocks

Yecholiya was born and raised a Jew. Since young, her father had inculcated into her consciousness that she is a Jew and should return to Israel one day. For her, coming to Israel was a fulfilment of her father's dream.

Arriving and living here in Israel though has been less than dream-like. The experience for her has come straight out of the school of hard knocks.

The reality of living in Israel hit the four young women head-on. They arrived on a Thursday and the following evening, the weekly Jewish day of rest, or the shabat, would begin. Not knowing that most shops are closed on shabat, the four women failed to buy some food in advance and ended up starving for three days.

“They came to pick us up on Friday morning to go to the store, but we didn't go because we couldn't think of anything to get,” she remembers. “In China, we have so many convenience stores that are open 24 hours a day, so we thought we can just get something later!”

The first three months continued to be a trying period for Yecholiya, the youngest of the four. She was missing home and crying almost every day for three months. It was her first time leaving home and her family to whom she is very close. Even now, she talks to her father by Skype every day, and sends him daily text messages on her mobile phone.

Being here in the Israeli winter also made it difficult for the young women. They were housed in a mobile wooden house in the religious Jewish village of Bat Ayin, a community of less than 1,000 established in the south of Jerusalem in 1989. Yecholiya recalls how while it didn't snow in the winter, the cold winds would blow through the gaps between the wooden planks.

Sometime through winter, the four women even stopped having heating in their house, because it was becoming too expensive.

“I don't know how we got through that,” she smiles good-naturedly, as she looks back on that first year.

 

Palestinians

Those first few years also saw her being plunged right into the conflict with the Palestinians, which has almost become emblematic of this place.

Their village of Bat Ayin is a part of the Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, located close to Palestinian villages and almost more intimately acquainted with the conflict than in other parts of the country.

In 2002, two men from the village along with other extremist Jews tried to bomb an Arab girls' school in east Jerusalem. They are now serving prison sentences. Early last year, the son of one of the men was attacked by a Palestinian militant who infiltrated the village. He was just seven. Another 13-year-old was killed.

About a year, Yecholiya came home from school one day to news that her adopted Jewish father was in hospital. She was told to stay at home instead of visiting him. The next day, Yecholiya broke into tears when she learnt he was stabbed to death by two Palestinian teenagers, while he was off praying quietly in a secluded spot.

“They are very brave people living there,” she says of the villagers of Bat Ayin.

While it has not been easy here, Yecholiya says she loves being a Jew here, a sentiment she developed after those difficult first three months of missing home.

“People were treating us very well and I was enjoying learning about Judaism, whether it is religious rituals or festivals,” she says.

“I always had it inside me, but I only really fell in love with it when it got awaken from inside me.”

 

Working on becoming a better Jew

 

Yecholiya Jin

Yecholiya Jin

In her fourth month here, she and the other young women made the decision to begin the official rabbinical process of being recognised as a Jew.

“Before, I had a different thinking. I thought, I am a Jew and I do not need to prove anything to anyone. I thought, since God made me Jew, I will always be a Jew. So why do I have to study and be tested by the rabbis? I thought these were all unnecessary.

“But after, I realised there were a lot of things I did not know about Judaism. When people asked me what is shabat, I didn't know what it really meant in the start. So I felt bad and I wanted to really work on becoming a better Jew.”

When people asked me what is shabat, I didn't know what it really meant in the start. So I felt bad and I wanted to really work on becoming a better Jew.

The four women worked hard to learn the history and customs of Judaism. Today, that knowledge comes into good use in her work as a licensed tour guide, bringing groups of Chinese tour groups around Israel.

“I became a tour guide because I did not want to completely lose touch with China because after all, it is the place that bore me and raised me. So I want to be a link, and help people understand these two countries.”

I ask her if she considered herself more of a Chinese or a Jew.

Ethnically, she says, she is a Jew, but China and Israel are both her homes.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi