KAIFENG, CHINA — THE bat mitzvah marks a coming of age for Jewish girls, but for Yiling Chen-Josephson it also was an introduction to the belligerence of an authoritarian regime. The Jewish-Chinese girl from New York celebrated the ceremony Saturday in Kaifeng, once the home of China's largest Jewish community. She is perhaps the first Jewish girl to undergo the rite of passage in China. The ceremony is the modern answer to the bar mitzvah for boys.
Jews are believed to have come to China by way of the Silk Road, founding their most enduring community in Kaifeng, the capital of the Sung Dynasty at the time of their arrival around 1040 AD.
For Ms. Yiling, the ceremony was a celebration of her dual heritage. Her mother is a Chinese-American and her father is an American Jew.
``Having my bat mitzvah at a place where the two parts of my heritage and the strength of their traditions come together is a real thrill,'' Yiling said.
But in their search at Kaifeng for hallowed ground and self-affirmation, Yiling, her family, and an entourage that included the United States ambassador to China inadvertently walked into a political minefield. Officials nearly called off the ceremony.
Beijing is trying to bury the history of Jews in China and discourage contact between foreigners and the few hundred descendants of Chinese Jews, say Chinese officials in Kaifeng on condition of anonymity.
Henan Province officials last month denied that there were distant offspring of Jews in Kaifeng and then prevented a US reporter from meeting such descendants. In the past year all contact between foreigners and the descendants of Jews in Kaifeng had to be approved by the Henan Province government, the officials say.
China's denial of its long-gone Jewish minority is apparently just another sign of the political anxiety among the communist leadership since it crushed the pro-democracy protests in June 1989.
Censured and shunned by the West, Beijing is concerned that by acknowledging the lost Jewish minority it will insult friendly Muslim states and compound its diplomatic isolation, the officials say.
Since the Beijing massacre, Muslim states have maintained ties and not chastised China. Premier Li Peng met with a special envoy from Saudi Arabia in Beijing July 11 for talks that could lead to diplomatic ties, say Western diplomats.
Beijing also wants to muzzle any publicity of the former Jewish settlement in order to avoid piquing China's large Muslim minority. Relations between the majority Han Chinese and Muslims in the westernmost region of Xinjiang have been strained since April, when Muslim fundamentalists staged a rebellion.
Moreover, Beijing is worried that foreign Jews will seek to subvert the government and promote liberal ideals on the pretext of searching for traces of Jewish brethren, say the officials.
Finally, misunderstanding and ignorance also soured officials on Yiling's bat mitzvah.
Officials were concerned that the entourage included Yiling's family friends from Israel - which does not have diplomatic ties with China - and US Abassador to China James Lilley. They were particularly alarmed to receive applications from foreign journalists to cover the ceremony, says Marvin Josephson, Yiling's father.
``The officials don't have a clear understanding of Israel, Zionism, and Judaism and they confuse all three,'' says Mr. Josephson.
Ironically, officials today flout the spirit behind a history of state tolerance toward Jews in China spanning several centuries.
The earliest Jews came to Kaifeng with goods from Central Asia and were gradually recognized by the imperial government. They became silversmiths, craftsmen, and businessmen and many distinguished themselves in officialdom, says Wang Yisha, a specialist on the Kaifeng Jews.
``The Jews flourished in Kaifeng because their beliefs and traditions were respected by the imperial government; there was never any hostility between Jews and Hans or other ethnic groups in China,'' says Mr. Wang.
Jews intermarried with their Han or Muslim neighbors and the small settlement gradually faded away after the death of the last Kaifeng rabbi in 1850. A few hundred of their descendants remain in Kaifeng today.
``Here was a people who came and were allowed to settle, practice their religion,'' Josephson says. ``And they disappeared more for pressures of assimilation than prejudice and discrimination.''