THEY were called T'iao Chin Chiao, "the sect which plucks out the sinews," a name that referred to their dietary laws. Jews first went to China a thousand years ago as merchants traveling along the Silk Route. Some settled in Chinese cities.

At the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum, "The Jews of Kaifeng: Chinese Jews on the Banks of the Yellow River" tells the story of the unique population that assimilated into Chinese society. Similar in appearance to their neighbors, they maintained their own religion through the mid-1800s. The Jews of Kaifeng probably never numbered more than two thousand, and today a mere 200 descendants still live there. A few still identify themselves as Jews.

But artifacts in the show demonstrate how truly lost their culture is. What do Ming dynasty porcelain bowls, water droppers and brush washers -- though lovely -- tell us about them?

There are only a handful of things from that community -- a carved sandstone drain-mouth for ritual handwashing, 15th century; a Passover Haggadah on Chinese paper, 17th century; and a Torah scroll, made in Kaifeng in the mid-17th century. Produced in isolation, the Torah contains many errors. Ironically, perhaps the only reason it survives at all is that it was purchased, in Peking in 1868, by an American missionary.

What exists in Kaifeng now is a street named after "the sect which teaches the scriptures" and a memorial stone from the synagogue's courtyard. The synagogue -- founded in 1163, destroyed by fire or flood several times and rebuilt until a flood in 1849 brought it down for the last time -- was, of course, a pagoda.


Through August 23 at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum, 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Open 10 to 5 Sunday through Friday; closed Saturday.