China Judaic Studies Association
Promoting Judaic Studies in China
Meet Xu Xin
By Beverly Oberfeld
Friend, Ph.D. Executive Director/ China Judaic Studies Assn. Professor
of English/Journalism, firstname.lastname@example.org
A one-volume Chinese edition
of the Encyclopedia Judaica has been presented to the Ezer Weitzman, President
One hundred and thirty students
have completed a course in Judaic Studies at Nanjing University.
A Chinese professor who has
had his first work published in English: Legends of the Chinese Jews
of Kaifeng, has spent time studying Talmud at Hebrew Union College
in Cincinnati, Yiddish with YIVO in New York, and Judaic studies at Harvard
and runs International Conferences of Judaic Scholars at Nanjing
How did it all come about?
When my late husband, Jim Friend,
arrived at Nanjing University In the People's Republic of China to teach
English in 1985, the first colleague he met as he disembarked from the
airplane was a Chinese professor who was teaching a course in Jewish American
Professor Xu Xin had translated
works of I.B. Singer, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, John Cheever and Clifford
Odets into Chinese. He had written articles on "Saul Bellow and His Novels,"
"Characters in Singers' Short Stories," "Jewish Humor," and "The Image
of the Schlemiel in Jewish Literature" (likening him to the wise-fool in
A former member of the red guard
in the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960's and 1970's, Xu learned everything
he could about Jews and Judaism through American Jewish literature when
he began to take an interest in the subject after Saul Bellow won the Nobel
BUT HE HAD NEVER MET A JEW!
Jim was the first Jew he had
ever encountered, and meeting him, Xu later said, was a turning point in
The friendship between the two
led to Xu coming to the United States and teaching in Jim's school - Chicago
State University - for two years. During the first of these years, he lived
in our Lincolnwood home.
The very first week Xu lived
with us, we attended the Bat Mitzvah of a cousin in Milwaukee. Of course,
he went with us. Later, he wrote of this experience, "It was the first
time in my life that I had ever attended any religious service. What I
found there was very touching and moving: man's relationship to his fellow
man was so beautiful that I began to feel that the Jewish synagogue was
nothing but a home which is graced by many customs and ceremonies, illumined
by the sacred lights of festivals and cheered by songs of joy and faith."
When the High Holidays were
celebrated, Xu attended services with us. On Rosh Hashannah we took him
to our synagogue, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston.
On Yom Kippur we all traveled to a tiny synagogue in Alpena, Michigan near
the military base where our daughter, Tracy, was living. He rode with us
to services through rural countryside where deer darted out from behind
hedges as we wended our way from Wurtsmith Air Force Base to the tiny temple
and a visiting, circuit Rabbi from Montreal.
On Simchas Torah we were back
at JRC. We wanted him to see and experience the magnificent sight of the
Torah unfurled - held, cherished, shared by the congregation. And he marched
with us as we celebrated Torah.
And so the year progressed:
Purim, Passover. Of the Seder Xu later wrote, "The special decoration of
the table, the symbols of the feast, the Haggadah readings, meant more
than ceremony because it integrated tradition with contemporary values
that applied that tradition to modern society."
And all through that year, Xu
read books on Jewish history and religious practices. He lectured at an
Oneg Shabbat in our temple on the many similarities between Jewish and
He stated that both cultures
are old civilizations which have suffered yet never lost their beliefs
in the high value of their cultures; both share strong family traditions
and close family relationships; both value education.
After Xu attended the Jewish
wedding of the daughter of a very close friends, Sharon and Dr. Roland
Rudnick - a beautiful affair at the Drake Hotel. he asked, "What part of
the wedding was Jewish and what part American?" We were hard put to answer
He experienced two Jewish funerals.
The first was the funeral of
the mother of a dear friend, Mark Symons. And as Xu looked around at the
mourners, he said to me, "In China, they would be more sad." I told him
that most of us had not known the woman but were there as friends of the
Mark and his wife, Carol, to share their grief and honor their loss. And
I also said that she had lived to the ripe old age of 86, after all, and
it was not so sad as the loss of a child would have been.
He looked at me, startled, and
replied that it was much worse to lose an older person than to lose a child.
I thought I had misheard him and asked, "What would be worse for you? The
loss of your father, or the loss of your son?" (His son was seven years
old at the time.)
He responded promptly, "Oh,
the loss of my father. I can always have another son; but where can I get
And thus I learned an important
insight from him: something I had thought an absolute value was really
The second Jewish funeral Xu
experienced was Jim's in December, 1987, after my 55-year-old husband was
felled by a heart attack. At this funeral Xu was a participant, a mourner,
one who came up to the open microphone to pay his own, personal tribute.
Ironically, when Xu did return
to China, he discovered that his own father had also died in December,
just four days after Jim, but that his family had unanimously agreed not
to notify him. They had not wished to interfere with his studies in the
U.S. Thus, as he later wrote, he had lost not one, but two fathers.
As he did not know of his own
father's death, he did not hurry back to China. He had always planned to
visit England and France on the way home, and now, because of his Judaic
studies, he decided to try to add Israel, especially Jerusalem, to his
itinerary, because he feared that once he returned to China he might never
again have the opportunity.
But how to get the funds? Xu
was nothing if not enterprising. First, he wrote an article for The Sentinel,
stating his position as a Chinese scholar of Judaism, setting forth his
dream of visiting Israel, and then stating that while he had saved every
penny while living and working in the United States, he could "use a few
dimes." Small sums came in.
Next, he visited representatives
from El Al airlines and the Israeli Consulate in Chicago. They responded
handsomely to his plea, with El Al sponsoring the flight, and the Harry
S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University
covering his expenses in return for lectures at the school on "Jews and
Judaism through Chinese Eyes."
He told the Jerusalem Post that
Israel, to the Chinese, is "an alien and mysterious country, even more
so than the countries of the Western Hemisphere," and that what little
the Chinese do know is negative. "We learned that Israel was the running
dog of the Western imperialist powers," he said.
And despite his extensive reading
of American Jewish authors, he acknowledged that, like most Chinese, he
knew little factually about Jews or Judaism as practically no literature
exists on the subject in China. In fact, until he came to Chicago, he had
thought that Hebrew was a dead rather than a spoken language. Until he
visited Israel, he had never heard of a Kibbutz.
But Xu's desire to learn more
about Judaism did not end with his trip to Israel. Upon his return to Nanjing,
he established a China Judaic Studies Association with former JRC Rabbi
Arnold Rachlis, on the board of consultants and Ken Lubowich, O.M.D. of
Skokie as Director of the U.S. Foreign Office. I am now the Executive Director
of the Association and publish a bi-annual newsletter of its activities.
Subscribers to this newsletter now include more than 20 college libraries
(including the Harvard Yenching Library), the New York Public Library,
and a library in Moscow.
The goals of the Association
are to carry out Judaic studies in China, to organize and publish a series
of articles and books on Judaism, to offer related university courses,
to hold seminars and public lectures and promote a better understanding
of Jewish culture and the Jewish people, to subsidize publications and
award Chinese scholars who have made outstanding contributions to the field,
to build a library for research and study, and to develop both domestic
and international conferences on Judaic Studies.
Quite an ambitious program.
And it is going full steam.
In July, 1990, my cousins Earl, Harriet and Abbey Newman, of Milwaukee,
and I visited Xu in order to attend the dedication of the James Friend
Memorial Reading Room at the Nanjing University Library, the first room
ever dedicated to honor an individual. Xu was just completing a three-month
exhibit of Judaica set up in the Library.
The goal of this exhibit, which
took over a year to plan and assemble, was the same as that of the Association
- to popularize Judaic Studies in China. By reviewing what had been done
by Chinese scholars in the past, Xu hoped to encourage young scholars to
enter the field. Xu also felt that the exhibit would provide concrete evidence
rather than abstract information about Judaism.
A first of its kind in China,
this retrospective consisted of eight parts: studies of the Jews in China
(including Jews in Kaifeng as well as in other cities); studies of Judaism;
zionism; Jewish literature; Jewish culture, society and people; the Kibbutz;
scholarly exchanges; and organization of the field in China.
Thousands of visitors came to
view the exhibit where Xu had displayed posters, books and articles on
Chinese scholarship of Judaica. From outside China, two tour groups from
the United States and one from Great Britain eagerly sought out the presentation
and one of the groups from the U.S., who had uncovered an announcement
about the exhibit in the newspaper, China Daily, and insisted that their
guide find out about it and take them there, were so impressed by the display
that they told Xu it had been the highlight of their tour of China - and
gave him a donation to apply to his work.
Another, equally successful
exhibit was held in 1993 in conjunction with the Simon Weisenthal Center.
This exhibit, titled "The Courage to Remember: the Holocaust 1933- 1045,"
was mounted in the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre
by Japanese invaders which had been sent up in Nanjing in 1985 to commemorate
the 300,000 captured Chinese soldiers and civilians murdered by the Japanese
in 1937. Linking these two events gave additional meaning to the viewers.
Currently Xu is teaching courses
in Jewish Culture at the university. While 15 students enrolled in the
first class, which was taught in English, the enrollment jumped to 130
when the course was taught the following semester in Chinese! Xu wrote
that he was teaching with a microphone for the first time in his career.
The enrollment might have been still higher had the course not been limited
to college juniors.
Nearly 300 books on Judaic subjects
have been sent by Chicagoans, including 80 from Rabbi Joseph Edelheit,
former Rabbi of Temple Emanuel and his congregation. In addition to the
time spent preparing and teaching courses in Jewish culture, Xu has translated
In the Heart of the Seas by S.Y. Agnon, and a critical article on him for
the journal Contemporary Foreign Literature. This was the first time since
1949 that a Chinese journal had published an article on a modern Hebrew
Coincidentally, the Chinese
translation of Agnon came out at the same time as the opening of the Liaison
Office of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities in Beijing, illustrating
the growing Chinese interest in and involvement with Jews and Israel prior
to the official recognition of the State of Israel.
Responding to this interest,
Xu recently completed an anthology (with critical introductions and appendices)
of Modern Hebrew short stories by 20 Israeli writers including Agnon, Amos
Oz, Haim Hazaz, Moshe Shanmir, Uri Orlev, Yehuda Amachai, Ruth Almog, G.
Shofman, Y. Shteinberg, and B. Tammuz.
But most dazzling is Xu's work
on the translation of an abridged version of the Encyclopedia Judaica where
he promised the publisher $10,000 to subsidize the work. Xu donated $1,000
of his own money (a veritable fortune in China) and is raising funds for
the rest. A recent article in the Jerusalem Post praised Xu as the single
most active and productive Chinese scholar on Judaism and noted how daunting
the task is to raise funds in a country where the 1989 per capita income
of urban dwellers was $275 a year. Funds for the Encyclopedia were raised
by grants from organizations and individual donations. The work is completed.
Xu, who has studied Hebrew at
Ulpan Akiva for three months, had the opportunity to present the first
copy of this Encyclopedia to the President of Israel. No subsidy was requested
for Xu's next assignment: a book : Anti-Semitism.: How and Why. China is
noted for its religious tolerance and much interest has been expressed
in an explanation of how such prejudice could arise historically and still
Most recently, Xu completed
his first book in English: Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (with
Beverly Friend, KTAV,1995).
Xu is being noted and honored
for all his work. In the summer of 1992, Harvard University invited him
participate in an academic conference on the "Jewish Diaspora in China:
Comparative and Historical Perspectives.".
Xu has also acted as a National
Guide for American groups touring Jewish sites in China. In 1991, he traveled
with Erica and Rabbi Neil Brief and 16 members of Niles Township Jewish
Congregation on to visit to the ancient city of Kaifeng to learn about
the Jews who had lived there from Biblical times and to meet some of their
descendants. I led another such trip in the summer of 1993. The latest
group--led by Xu Xin--will leave for China April 28, 1996.
All this -- and much more --
has occurred because Xu came to the United States and lived with a Jewish
family. One has only to look at the seminar reports -- of the three summers
he held classes for Chinese professors of history and western civiilization
in order that they might incorporate such information into their own college
programs, to see the scope of his endeavors. In 2002 he was rewarded --
with the granting of an Honorary Doctorate from Bar Ilan University in
Israel. The award is highly deserved!
While I am certain Jim would
be pleased if he could know that a Memorial Reading Room has been dedicated
to him in China, he would be even more thrilled to learn about how much
he had influenced his dear friend and colleague; if he could know about
the turn Xu's life has taken - how he has moved from being a student of
American Literature to being a student of Judaica, reading Jewish history,
learning Hebrew, preparing and teaching classes, working on translations,
preparing exhibits, leading special-interest tour groups, writing books
immersing himself in the culture.
All teachers - good teachers
- know in their hearts that they influence their students, that their words
may be as pebbles cast upon the waters, causing concentric circles of influence.
And Jim lived to see many of his students grow and change. But while many
returned to thank him personally for his care and direction, most of the
influences were soft, subtle, not readily or immediately seen.
Xu's passion, however, is vibrant,
alive, highly visible.
It is awesome to me to think
that students in China will be learning about one facet of American religion
and culture because Xu was exposed to this religion and culture for the
time he lived here and because his - really his first - exposure to religious
practice and people changed his life.
I think about this every year's
at the Yom Kippur service and have shared some of my thoughts with the
Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation during an open microphone section
of the service where we may individually come up to the podium and speak,
or pray, or meditate just before the afternoon break.
I have told fellow congregants
that as we start the New Year, I want to tell them this story of what is
happening in China and to say that one person can really make a difference;
that the memorial prayer that says that the dead live on in us and in our
deeds is true and is exemplified by what is happening in China today. Although
my husband has now been dead for over 15 years, I still am learning from
him each and every day of my life.
Chinese students in the first
class in Judaic Studies taught at Nanjing University were asked to bring
in questions they most wanted to know about Jews and Judaism. Following
are the seven most frequently asked questions:
Those tempted to answer can write to Professor
Xu Xin, School of Religious Studies, Nanjing University,
Why have the Jewish people been
persecuted throughout history? How did Anti-Semitism come into being?
How can we tell Jews from other
white people? Are there any particular features (both appearances and gestures)
which might help us to identify them when we see them?
What are the parents' roles in
the Jewish family, family relationships and the education of their children?
History shows that Jews accumulated
wealth and money fast. Would you tell us some of the reasons why they are
so good at dealing with money?
What are the attitudes of the American
Jews towards Israel and the conflicts in the Middle East?
Tell us some more about the contributions
the Jews made to the civilization of human beings in the past.
How could the Jews remain as Jews
in the history of three thousand years?