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Promoting Judaic Studies in China

Xu Xin's Trip Report

1995: Reaction to Year in the U.S.

China/Judaic Connection, Vol 5 No. 1 Winter, 1996 (Beverly Friend, editor)

The year 1995 was a significant milepost in my life as I began my year-long research at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. “From book Judaism to living Judaism” is probably the best phrase to summarize it.

I said in my open letter a year ago that it would be a wonderful opportunity to research Jewish subjects at a Jewish institution of learning. Living on the campus of the college, studying together with rabbinical students, and touching the daily life of a people I have been studying, I found myself really immersed in Jewish culture.

Shortly after I arrived at HUC, I participated with faculty and students in the celebration of the first Jewish Holiday in spring --Purim--by putting on costumes and eating Hamentashen the traditional food for the holiday. Just a few days before my departure for Harvard, I was honored to be invited to join in the celebration of Hanukkah, the last Jewish holiday in winter, participated in by the entire faculty, students, staff and administration on the campus by lighting Hanukkah candles and eating latkes the traditional food for the festival. I just couldn't get a better or more appropriate conclusion of my stay!

I mention these specific foods because they are not ordinary food to me but food for thought. They enriched my knowledge of Judaism and led to a better understanding of Jewish culture. Of course, the food for thought I got there was not merely limited to these two experiences. Sitting in various classes, attending daily service in the Scheuer Chapel, listening to the weekly sermons by rabbinical students, discussing theory and practices with faculty, reading in the Klein Library, eating Sabbath dinners at faculty’s homes, all provided additional food for thought. I cannot tell you how much I benefited from those meals, but I feel that I touched the Jewish life and embraced Jewish culture fully, with experiences far beyond my powers of description, knowing they will have profound impact on my professional and personal life and studies. The past year also provided me with a great opportunity to contact various Jewish institutions and organizations. By the end of 1995, I had given more than 50 talks at various universities, synagogues, educational centers and other organizations in different cities throughout North America. It was amazing and encouraging to see anywhere from 50 to 500 people attend these talks, even through rain and snow.

Although I spent much of my time at HUC, my research on Judaism was never limited to Reform Judaism. During this year I had the opportunity, for the first time, to go beyond Reform Judaism to experience the worlds of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Humanistic movements. I attended services at orthodox synagogues and yeshivas, visited many conservative congregations, and spent days at reconstructionist rabbinical schools.

It is imperative for me, as a scholar, to pay attention to the varied beliefs in this ever-changing world which includes the world of Judaism. One result of such a diverse emphasis is to more fully understand the richness and developments of Judaism. From each emphasis and from differing priorities, I could further explore the pluralistic concept of Judaism, which, in fact, is one of the fine traditions of Jewish culture described in the Bible. It also explains how Jewish culture has been open and responsive to outside influences throughout history.

Spending a year at HUC enabled me to have a better view of the goals of formal Jewish education which is often considered a key weapon to combat assimilation in a free and pluralistic society like America. It is hoped, as I have been made aware, that Jews will embrace their own culture, not as a reaction to assimilation or discrimination, but out of an internalization of beauties of their heritage and tradition--what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once said fullness of Jewish being.

I have come from this year with a new knowledge of Judaism obtained chiefly from living experiences rather than from books as had been the case of my previous studies. This year also saw one triumph. While I had completed the draft of my first book in English before I came to this country, 1995 brought U.S. publication. Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, written in conjunction with Beverly Friend, describes much of the life and specific values of Judaism shared by the Jewish community of Kaifeng in the last 900 years after it was established in the capital city of China around 1160 and is based on tales from the oral tradition. About 800 signed copies have been sold since the book's publication, adding adventure to my life in this country as I participated in signings at local bookstores. I am delighted to be able to contribute to the study of the Chinese Jewry.

Looking back, I am very grateful to Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, former President and now the Chancellor of HUC, for inviting me to attend his college, to all the faculty of HUC for letting me sit in their inspiring courses and seminars, to the students of HUC for sharing their learning and time, and to all staff and administrators for providing the conveniences that made my research and stay both productive and comfortable.

As I am writing this wrap-up article of my life in 1995 in the United States, I sincerely hope that impressions, experiences, and achievements that have elucidated the past will guide me in the future. And I look forward to new adventures in learning as I head for the Center for Judaic Studies at Harvard.

Reaction to U.S. and Return to China

China/Judaic Connection, Vol 5. No. 2 Summer, 1996

How wonderful to be back home after 15-month’s absence! As the saying goes, East and West, home is best. However, my experience in the States from January 1995 to April 1996 was most rich, fruitful, and memorable.


I enjoyed my stay at Hebrew Union College's Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati for the entire year of 1995. It was an ideal place for me to explore Judaism and touch Jewish life. This experience was briefly summarized in the last issue of this newsletter.

I also fully enjoyed my visit to Harvard University. The meetings and discussions I was luckily granted with Professor Ruth Wisse, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies, which sponsored my visit at Cambridge, were enlightening and encouraging. Her teaching is superb and is valued by her students. I was privileged and thrilled to have the opportunity to experience it. The facilities and assistance I received there made my research much easier and productive. Publication of an article about my scholarly activities in Gazette, (the official paper of Harvard University), by a staff reporter, reached a large number of readers. Thus the university provided me with a starting point for many valuable contacts with scholars and academia.


In addition, the “recharge” of my knowledge of Judaism in the last 15 months provided me with a valuable opportunity to travel and meet scholars and people with various backgrounds. I could hardly believe that I had given more than 70 lectures in 25 cities in 15 states by the time of my departure. This was far more than I had ever expected. I was very much touched by my audiences, who often came by the hundreds and raised many interesting questions. Their great interest in me as a Chinese scholar in the Jewish field and their overwhelming warmth and friendship were no doubt an award for what we have done to promote the study of Jewish subjects in China and a better understanding of Jewish culture among Chinese.


The situation and atmosphere of the study of Judaica in China are extremely successful. Jewish subjects and Israel are no longer strange or alien to many Chinese. I am thrilled to learn that various institutions for Jewish studies are springing up like bamboo shoots. Six cities in Israel and six cities in China have established fraternal ties, with enormous potential for direct contact between the two peoples. Any subjects related to Israel or Jewish matters attracts much interest among the Chinese. For example, a Hebrew class in Shanghai, sponsored by the Shanghai Center for Jewish Studies in cooperation with the Israeli Consulate General in Shanghai, had as many as 70 participants. Among the students were scholars and graduates engaged in Jewish studies, employees of commercial firms that have business contacts with Israel, tour guides, teachers, and government officials.

One week after I returned home, I received a phone call from Omer Caspi, Cultural Attaché of the Embassy of Israel in Beijing, and was asked to edit the second edition of the Catalog of the Chinese Books about Israel and the Jewish Culture. (I was the editor of the first edition, published in 1994.) As I worked with this project, I was surprised by the number of the recently released books about Israel and Jewish culture in Chinese. I began to see the results of the constant work of Chinese Jewish scholars. The interest in Jewish people and Jewish subjects among Chinese has greatly increased. I also learned that the Encyclopedia Judaica (Chinese edition) had been sold out for a year, and that other books dealing with Jewish matters are very popular and with large demand among Chinese readers. Many books are in their second or third printings.

I was told that additional books are being set and printed and will shortly be released. As a result, the size of the catalog has doubled. It now includes 117 books compared with 64 books in the first edition.

These include five on Hebrew literature, four on the Holocaust, twelve on Jewish culture, three on Israeli leaders, two about Jewish history, five on Israel, and two about Jews in China.

Seeing so many books published in Chinese in the last two years, I feel strongly that no one can now make the statement that "the knowledge of Jewish subjects among Chinese is very much limited." The condition that we, the Chinese scholars in the field of Judaic studies, had been longing and working towards finally justifies our efforts.


While Chinese knowledge about Jewish subjects has greatly broadened, study and research by Chinese scholars needs to be deepened. How to continue to improve our scholarship and how to make unique contributions to the scholarly study of Jewish subjects are the challenges that currently face us. It is imperative for Chinese scholars to upgrade their studies to meet international standards. For this purpose, as the founding member of the China Judaic Studies Association, I am looking forward to the 1996 International Conference of Judaic Studies with participation by both Chinese and foreign Judaic scholars, scheduled to be held in Mid-October 1996 in Nanjing, China. I am sure that the success of it will no doubt encourage and expand solid scholarship on the study of Jewish subjects in China.