China Judaic Studies Association



Judaic Center in China



Seminars and Workshops



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Prior Seminars

Summer 2002 - Faculty Report

Four Faculty Reports
on the 2002 Nanjing University
Summer Seminar on Jewish Civilization


1. Samuel C. Heilman, Ph.D. (Harold Proshansky Professor of Jewish Studies & Sociology City University of New York)

The Nanjing University's 2002 summer seminar on Jewish civilization, the second one in which I have participated, was more successful and gratifying than my first such experience. In many ways, this past summer’s experience built upon and surpassed its predecessor. Having learned last time that to improve the level of appreciation and comprehension of material that was sweeping in its scope and in significant ways unlike anything the Chinese had been exposed to previously, the seminar was organized to begin with a preliminary series of lectures in the Mandarin dialect of Chinese by faculty who would provide a general overview of Jews and Judaism.

These preliminary lectures enabled the scholar/students to have a context, background, and a framework into which they could subsequently place the new material that they learned from Professor Menachem Friedman (Bar Ilan University), Dr. Gustavo Perednik (Jerusalem) and this writer. As a result of this modified program, while the Chinese were exposed to the guest lecturers from abroad for fewer classes than at the previous seminar, their capacity to absorb and make sense out of what they were taught was in fact greater.

My own lectures tried to provide a kind of grand overview of the course of Jewish history by drawing upon themes of Jewish civilization and culture that repeat themselves throughout history. For example, the pattern of Jewish Diaspora life that has been marked by acceptance, exploitation, persecution and expulsion that describes a wide variety of experiences helped students to see the nature of the Jewish experience and a leit motif across generations and in various locales, ending with the extreme case of the Holocaust.

Similarly, the concept of exile and redemption as a historic Jewish organizing principle helped to put Zionism into a larger perspective. I also explained the impact of minority status on the Jewish world view and how this has affected the Jewish attitude toward the many host cultures in which they have found themselves. Comparisons were drawn between the abiding desire for a Jewish homeland and the imperatives of sovereignty and the Chinese attachment to their homeland. Finally, the Chinese were shown how both they and the Jews confront a largely Christian Western civilization that has not always been prepared to affirm the value of their culture and unique history, even though as civilizations they have preceded the West. And, of course, a great deal of historical information was provided.

Perhaps even more important, however, than the intensive transmission of information over more than six hours a day was the interpersonal and face-to-face contacts that I and my fellow teachers established with these opinion leaders and scholars from China, people who are likely to become the intelligentsia and key figures in the academic world (and by implication the larger society) of twenty-first century China. This was the product of the open atmosphere, which Professor Xu Xin, the organizer, and the others at Nanjing University helped to create and foster. This extended to such events as an “oneg Shabbat,” a Sabbath gathering, that provided a chance for the participants to appreciate the spiritual and social aspects of Jewish life and tradition. Similarly, the evening discussions about contemporary Jewish concerns, the Holocaust, modern Israel, and the like seemed to open not only minds but hearts between the representatives of these two venerable civilizations: Chinese and Jewish.

These feelings were enhanced by the presence of a parallel group of Kaifeng Chinese of Jewish ancestry who participated in their own simultaneous seminar, taught by Dr. Ellin Heilman and Mrs. Tamar Friedman – with guest talks from the academic staff of Friedman, Heilman and Perednik. These people, who joined in all the extra-curricular events as part of their search for their Jewish roots, gave a particular strength to these encounters. The blending of these two groups, without the blurring of their intellectual experiences, lent a certain poignancy to the seminar. It thus became not only a lesson in Jewish civilization but also a Jewish experience. Perhaps no one moment caught this best than a moment at the closing session of the seminar.

Both the academic and the Kaifeng participants came together, and we all shared some final thoughts about what we had learned during the seminar. Questions were asked and points clarified. Now, at last, it was time for the participants to offer some comments. Several talked about how much they had learned and how deeply affected they were by meeting Jews who were both knowledgeable about and committed to their Jewish heritage. A number talked about how they would integrate what they had learned into their teaching and thinking. It was clear that we had made an impact. At last, one young scholar, Hu Yujuan of the Institute of World History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, stood up to speak. Just a few days earlier, a terrorist attack had taken place in Jerusalem at the student cafeteria of the Hebrew University where a large number of civilians had been killed and injured. The seminar participants had been acutely aware of how much this attack had concerned their teachers, three out of five of whom came from Israel, and all of whom had a close connection to the Hebrew University and Israel.

Hu Yujuan began by saying how much the seminar had meant to her, and then almost as an after thought she added that she knew that we had been much disturbed by the events in Jerusalem. She knew as well that some of us were going to be returning to Israel in the near future but she concluded, quoting in Hebrew from a Hasidic saying that she had learned several evenings earlier in our seminar, ha’ikar lo le’fached klal, most important was to not be afraid. Her reference to this bit of Hasidic wisdom from Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, her use of the Hebrew, her sensitivity to our anxieties as Jews and her desire to reach out past them in a way that spoke for all of those of our new Chinese friends and colleagues left a deep impression on us. It showed how far we all had come in the few short weeks of this seminar and epitomized the great value of such a seminar.

Those who have made it possible for such a program can truly be certain that they have made a significant, and I believe lasting, contribution to the developing relationship between Jews and the people of China.

2. Menachem Friedman, (Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel)

General: The workshop gave me the opportunity to meet and teach a group of Chinese academics and graduate students from various universities in China. It was for me one of the most important intellectual experiences as a scholar and as a Jew. Most of the students, if not all of them, were good students and expressed their willingness to learn about Judaism as an ancient culture which still exists and to know more about Israel as a Jewish state. The workshop enriched me and I hope it enriched the students as well. The studies were very intensive. Every one of us taught at least three hours a day, some times even more. We constantly used power-point shows, maps, diagrams and pictures and video films.

My subject was defined as: Nation in Exile - The Riddle of Jewish Existence. The major sub-subjects were:

1) The structure of Halahkic-Rabbinic Judaism;
2) The major turnings points in the history Rabbinic Judaism;
3) Major evenst in the history of modern Judaism, such as: Haskalae (enlightenment), Emancipation, Anti-Semitism (in east and west Europe), assimilation, national movements (in particular; Zionism), Economic development in East and West Europe, Immigration to from small "shteitle" to the big cities, from east Europe to west Europe, to America and to Palestine;
4) The Shoa (holocaust);
5) The establishment of the State of Israel and short history of the State of Israel.

Prof. Xu Xin participated in nearly all the meetings with the students and made important contributions including explanations of difficult issues in the Chinese language.

The workshop was by all means a success. The students were serious and eager to learn and my colleagues and I did our best. But I feel it was too short. I recommend that such a workshop will last at least three to four weeks., and that the evenings activities be devoted to readings, discussions and watching video films in a much more informal atmosphere. This would enable the teachers to get to know the students better and to be able to respond to their questions in more depth. I know that some of my students wanted to know much more on some of the topics mentioned during the presentations, but due to the tight schedule it was impossible to elaborate.


For a long time Jewish descendants from Kaifeng have the“reputation” of knowing very little about their history and traditions because of the long isolation and no available Jewish education. In the summer of 2002, twelve of them were invited to participate a three-week workshop on Jewish History and Culture held at Nanjing University. Their only goal was to learn about Jewish heritage and Hebrew language, long forgotten by their community. During those days, Jewish descendants were serious in learning, spending six hours daily in classroom studying about Jewish history and culture. This is now their first opportunity to study Jewish history and culture (including Hebrew language) systematically. Many people wondered what they learned at the Nanjing workshop. Dr. Ellin Heilman, one of two instructors of their class and wife of Prof. Samuel Heilman from City University of New York who came to conduct the workshop, wrote the following answers:

3. Dr. Ellin Heilman

The construction of a course on holidays involved:
a. Exploration of the reasons for the celebration of each holiday, often citing Biblical texts;
b. Learning how one prepares to celebrate the holiday
c. Reviewing the customs and traditions practiced on the holidays
d. Learning some of the Torah readings which happen in the synagogue on the holiday and examining the texts to begin to understand what we learn from them and how they are relevant to us today
e. Actually participating in some of the rituals, e.g. listening to the shofar, lighting Sabbath candles, dipping apples in honey; preparing for a Passover seder by writing an abridged Haggadah in Chinese and Hebrew and preparing food, e.g. charoset, for the seder; actually conducting a “model seder” together.

In general, the presentation of information by translation appeared to be somewhat “dry” for the students. While students appeared to be attentive, when questions were asked, especially questions involving opinions rather than factual information, they seldom volunteered responses. In order to involve the students in the learning process, several methods were employed:
a. Students appeared more involved when I was telling personal stories involving the impact of observance on my lifestyle. For example, I believe they were impressed when I explained that when I first arrived in China on Wednesday night, after a long journey, one of the first topics of discussion with our co-teachers (the Friedmans) involved how we would prepare for Shabbat. I also explained how my first outing on Thursday was a trip to market to buy vegetables and that I already had begun to cook to be ready for Friday evening. Such personal vignettes seemed to help bring the traditions to life for the students.
b. To increase the relevance of the material presented, I tried to elicit as much student participation as possible. However, when asking open-ended discussion questions such as comparing holidays celebrated by the students to the Jewish celebration of the Sabbath or comparing Chinese traditional versus Chinese modern versus Jewish wedding ceremonies, few responses were forthcoming. Hence, students were asked to respond to the questions, individually or in groups, by listing possible responses on a sheet of paper, sometimes discussing them among themselves (in Chinese) and then listing them (in Chinese) on the blackboard. Once the responses were visually presented in their own language (and then translated for me to help make comparisons and conclusions) involvement and interest seemed to increase significantly.
c. Audio-visual presentations of life cycle events, e.g. weddings, bar mitzvah, going to school were helpful to convey how actual celebrations look in the modern times. The wedding celebration seemed to motivate some of the younger students to think about the value of including more tradition (whether it be Chinese tradition or Jewish tradition) in their own wedding ceremonies.
d. Re-enacting traditions, such as the Passover seder, utilizing both the Hebrew and Chinese languages, singing songs taught during Hebrew language sessions, eating the traditional foods while talking about what they represent.

In general, my purpose in teaching this course was to enhance the ability of the Kaifeng Jews to remember and identify with their tradition. Difficulties involving teaching through translation and in bridging the gap of cultures were addressed through the techniques discussed above. I hope that I was able to communicate my respect for a community who has remembered and treasured their Jewish identity despite their isolation from other Jews and despite the loss of knowledge about how to practice the religion.

4.Tamar Friedman, (Education Advisor)

Mrs. Heilman and myself taught Jewish culture to the "Kaifeng Jews" who are the descendants of the old Jewish community existed in the city of Kaifeng (Henan Province) for many centuries (until the beginning of the 19th Century). The purpose of the workshop was to teach them about their Jewish roots and their ancestors’ belief and culture.

I was askedo teach basic Hebrew, words and terms related to the Jewish calendar and life cycle. I chose songs and basic sentences from Jewish rituals and traditional prayers used in Jewish festivals and taught them with short explanation. Mrs. Heilman used all those in her classes. The students in our class knew almost nothing about Judaism and this workshop was their first meeting with Jewish culture, the culture of their ancestors. Because of this, it was an exciting experience both for the students and me.

Of course, we encountered many difficulties. Because the students in this workshop don't speak any other language besides Chinese, we needed to translate every sentence. Two of Prof. Xu Xin's students undertook this task with great success: Meng Zhenghua, who is a student studying Hebrew at Peking University and was the translator from Hebrew to Chinese and Yang Bo translated from English to Chinese. I would like to use this opportunity to thank them both.

We all, teachers and students, worked hard. The Hebrew language is very strange to Chinese ears and some of the Hebrew letters are difficult to pronounce. But at the end of the second week they knew many words and some songs and sentences, and how and when to use them. On the first "Sabbath," we organized a Jewish traditional service which included a Sabbath meal. We al sang Jewish traditional songs in Hebrew. This celebration was one of the highlights of the seminar.

I hope that this workshop will inspire our students in the future to learn more about their heritage and to use what they learned whenever they want to experience Jewish culture.