Reyna and the Jade Star
On Reyna’s seventh birthday, her father handed her a gift - an intricately designed Star of David pendant carved from emerald-green jade, about 3 inches in diameter and a half-inch thick. A dozen glistening garnets as big as pomegranate seeds were embedded in the jade.
A six-pointed star means different things to different cultures. To the Chinese, it symbolizes hope that things go smoothly. “For the Israelites, it means God is the ruler of the universe, protecting us from all six directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down,” Yehuda told his little girl as he handed her the star. He continued to explain its significance.
“We call it a Magen David, or shield of King David, and the garnets represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Legend claims that Noah hung a large garnet in his ark for illumination. Garnet is also said to be one of the 12 gems in the breastplate worn by Moses’ brother, Aaron.
“In our family, Reyna, your jade star has extra-special meaning because it has been handed down from generation to generation, just like our religion. Now the star is yours. Someday, I hope you will give it to your firstborn when he or she turns 7.”
Chirping with delight, Reyna said, “Thank you, Mother,” which was a strange thing to say since her mother had died right after Reyna was born.
“How could you know this pendant was your mother’s? I never told you that husbands gave it to their wives,” asked Yehuda, astonished.
“I knew because there were tears in your eyes, and right before you gave it to me, you glanced at the picture of Mother - the one you drew last year when I asked what she looked like,” Reyna said. “So I figured that this star used to be hers.”
“You’re absolutely right, Cookie Nose. My grandfather gave it to my father when he turned 7, who gave it to me when I was that age,” Yehuda said. “After your mother converted to the Israelite religion and we got married, I gave the star to her - to honor her conversion. She adored it and wore it everywhere. When Mother was carrying you in her belly, she decided she’d give you the star when you turned 7.”
“Why seven?” asked the always-inquisitive Reyna.
“Seven is an important number for the Israelites because it’s associated with Shabbat. The Torah says that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Your mother loved to celebrate Shabbat, the day of rest. When I handed you the star, I was wishing with all my heart that she were here to give it to you. I guess that’s why I got teary-eyed.”
So exquisite was the jade star, it could bring tears to anyone’s eyes. It was almost unheard of to see garnets or any gemstone embedded in jade since jade is so lovely by itself. It was also rare to see jade in such a vivid shade of green. Common jade was light green, dull green, or gray. Reyna’s jade star was priceless, and that didn’t begin to describe its sentimental value.
Reyna asked, “Who made it?”
“We believe it was made by one of the first Israelites to settle in China, at least 450 years ago,” said Yehuda. “Our ancestors cherished this star. It has been in our family for as long as anyone can remember.”
“Where did our ancestors come from?”
“After we were expelled from our homeland, Israelites attempted to spread out all over the world, but most countries didn’t want them,” said Yehuda. He went on to explain how a few brave and desperate Israelite families caravanned from Persia and other Middle Eastern countries through Central Asia. Riding on camelback, they crossed treacherous mountains, deserts, and wastelands until they reached the Middle Kingdom, which is what China used to be called around 718 C.E. The Israelites were traders of multicolored cotton fabric, which the Chinese had never seen before. Not only were the Israelites allowed to live in China, they were embraced by the ruling family.
For about 250 years, Israelites lived in small communities that dotted the Chinese landscape. Then, in 960 C.E., the emperor gathered together some 500 of these families and resettled them Kaifeng, a prosperous city and one of the “six great capitals of China.” Encouraged to continue their customs and traditions, the Israelites flourished in their new home.
“Our ancestors who made it to China were very lucky,” Yehuda pointed out. “Of the 12 original tribes of Israel, 10 have been lost in the fog of history.”
The Israelites of Kaifeng were close to being lost, too. Some intermarried and raised their children as Buddhists or in other religions. Those Israelites who strove to maintain their heritage struggled because they had no central place to pray and study together. Over the years, with no focal point to keep their community together, their awareness of God’s covenant with Israel began to fade. Alarmed, Reyna’s grandfather, along with members of 70 other Israelite families, decided to build Kaifeng’s first synagogue in 1163 to help them preserve their religious identity. Each and every Israelite in Kaifeng donated money, labor, or both to make it a reality.
The Moses Synagogue’s design reflected the people who prayed and studied there. From the outside, it looked like a typical Chinese building, with its gracefully curved pagoda-style roof, courtyard, arches, pavilions, and great halls. Yet, the heart of the synagogue - its sanctuary where two sacred Torah scrolls were housed - was undeniably Israelite. It faced west toward Jerusalem and featured a large menorah, one of the oldest symbols of the Israelite people.
The first Israelites who moved to China were Caucasian. Over the years, though, many of them intermarried with native Chinese, and their children began to inherit dark almond-shaped eyes and straight, jet-black hair until the Israelites were indistinguishable from other Chinese. Even Yehuda’s surname, Li, was Chinese; his ancestors had adopted Li because their original name, ben Eliezer, was too difficult for their Chinese neighbors to pronounce. Beneath their name and outward appearance, however - in their hearts, minds, and memories - Yehuda and Reyna were undeniably Israelite and deeply committed to keeping their heritage alive.
“Our synagogue renews our hope that you and the other Israelite children will teach our traditions to your children,” Yehuda told his daughter on her 7th birthday. “Our family has some extra traditions, Reyna. Your name, which means ‘queen,’ was popular among Israelites in Persia, where our ancestors once lived. Passing the jade star to each new generation is another way we honor our family’s heritage.”
The star was the best birthday present Reyna could imagine. She carefully felt its smooth and raised edges with her fingers, and then she gave the star a little kiss. It felt cool on her lips. She held it to her chest, and the pendant quickly warmed to her body temperature. Then Reyna placed it gently on the table, beside the sketch of her mother. Two minutes later, Reyna picked up the jade star again. She was surprised to find it was still warm. This stirred Reyna’s imagination. She decided that as long as the star remained warm, it would allow her to speak to her mother. She knew it would be just pretend, but still, she couldn’t wait to take the star to her Thinking Place. She ached to tell her mother how much she wished she could have known her. She wanted to tell her mother what it’s like to be Reyna, an only child who lived in the largest Israelite community in East Asia in 1175 C.E.
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