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China Judaic Studies Association 
Promoting Judaic Studies in China

Xu Xin's Trip Report

2004 - Second Trip to Great Britain

Reforging Chinese/British Links
with Second Trip to London

By Xu Xin,
July 2004.


In a wonderful reciprocal gesture resulting from a Jewish Heritage Tour of China, Trudy Gold, Chief Executive of the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC), invited me to visit London and participate in a truly international experience. In May, I had guided 55 highly interested British citizens on a tour of Jewish Life in China, now, in July, I would participate in a week-long cultural seminar on the "Jewish Experience."

The seminar aimed to provide the local Jewish community with various topics including "Dimensions of Modern Jewish Identity," "Anti-Semitism," "Shoah," and "Israel," presented by an international field of scholars. I was very impressed both by the quality of presentations and depth of discussions. In addition to attending the seminar and listening, I gave two lectures: "China and Jews" and "Israel through Chinese Eyes."

Though it was not my first time in Great Britain (My first visit July, 1988, was exactly 16 years ago.), this trip was even more colorful, eventful and enjoyable --- far beyond my expectations

Highlights:

The British Library.

A wonderful and very pertinent exhibit -- THE SILK ROAD -- was underway, presenting a   colorful glimpse into lives through the manuscripts, artifacts, paintings, and textiles which lay hidden in the desert ruins until their discovery in the early 20th century.

Who could miss such an opportunity?

I had a long wished to visit the library as I missed it during my first visit.

Historians of the Jewish Diaspora in China know that a famous 8th-century letter written in Hebrew script and found along the Silk Road in the beginning of the 20th Century is in the Library's collection. This document serves as one of strongest evidences proving that Judaism was one of several religions from the ancient Near East which traveled thousands of miles along the Silk Road into China. It is also considered as the earliest example of a document of any length in New Persian. I was thrilled at the opportunity to see the original.

When I got to the library, I was surprised and delighted to be met by three experts, Susan Whitfield, Director of the International Dunhuang Project and Curator of the exhibition, Ilana Tahan, Curator of Hebrew Section, and Graham Hutt, Curator of Chinese Collections, thanks to the arrangement made by my friend, Simon Olswang, a governor of the Board of the Library.

Dr. Whitfield not only generously gave me a personal, summarized introduction to the exhibition and pointed out some of most interesting items displayed, but also kindly presented me with a copy of her book, The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, especially prepared for the exhibition, which gave much in depth information.

Not only did I see the original letter during the tour, but I was also able to view a surviving Torah scroll from the ancient Kaifeng Jewish community which had been collected by the Library.

According to its recorded history, the scroll was purchased in Kaifeng by agents of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews in 1851 and brought to London by the Society and presented to the British Museum on December11, 1852. It is a complete set in an excellent condition, and is actually ranked as the No. 2 scroll among the 13 scrolls once owned by the community because it is marked with the Hebrew letter bet on its back,  according to Michael Pollak who had examined most surviving scrolls from the  Kaifeng Jewish community and wrote The Torah Scrolls of the Chinese Jews  (published by Southern Methodist University in 1975). The Torah scroll has two rods, each with a pointed knob at one end. The 94 parchments (skins) are bound together with silk thread, a unique feature that distinguishes Torah scrolls made in Kaifeng from those made elsewhere.

While I had hoped and expected to view the letter during my visit to the library, I never thought that I would be able to view this Torah. However, the scroll was pulled out of storage and laid on a viewing desk before my arrival. Mrs. Tahan kindly told me a brief history and allowed me to examine it. I felt very happy and privileged when I actually touched and examined it. Mrs. Tahan also showed me some other Hebrew books printed in Shanghai during World War II. Obviously all those books testify to the historical links between the Chinese and Jewish peoples and the long history of the presence of Judaism in China. Mr. Hutt showed me the scroll of Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra (printed in 868), the earliest dated printed document of the world and many other fine Chinese collections of his section. What a satisfying, enjoyable visit!

The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

This is the oldest synagogue in England and still in regular use. Beautifully built with a distinguishing Sephardic style, it opened in 1701. I was given a special personal tour and there that I met a London celebrity, Aubrey Rose, who was giving a Jewish tour for a reporter from Germany. I took some pictures and brought back a few post cards as one of our Ph.D. candidates is doing his thesis on Jews in England at Nanjing University.

Shabbat Service  at New North London Synagogue

As a Chinese scholar studying the history of Jewish Diaspora in China, I felt grateful and privileged to attend, and even more so when I was invited by the rabbi to speak in front of the congregation before the end of the service. In a very short time, I explained the early ties between the London Jews and China. History shows that Jews from London are actually the first group of Jews who came to do business and live in China around 1840, which marks the beginning of the history of Jewish Diaspora in Modern China. Moreover, most of members who belonged to the early Jewish communities established in Chinese cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai around 1900 were subjects of Great Britain. It is such a link that makes me feel so close to the London Jews.

Twenty Jewish children from Chernobyl also attended the service. Later, I was told that the congregation brings in 20 children from surviving families of Chernobyl disaster for two months each summer in order to give them a chance to experience a Jewish life. With shining eyes, they sang a very beautiful Jewish song together. It was quite touching.

Hospitable British Hosts

During my stay I enjoyed enormous hospitality extended to me by those who had visited China the previous May as they liberally opened up their homes

Trudy Gold, who invited me and made all arrangements, told me that she had to move me from home to home as so many wanted to have me. As a result I was honored to move four times during my 12-day visit. Marvelous hosts and hostesses included Haggit Inbar-Litta and Robert Litta, Clive and Adrianne Marks, Simon and Susie Olswang, and David and Joyce Kustow.

Many others visited or ate dinner or lunch with me. Thanks to their hospitality, I enjoyed a great opportunity to taste Jewish English life and to relax and broaden my experiences.

For instance, Haggit Inbar-Litta and Robert Litta gave me a great tour of London on a beautiful Sunday. They walked with me for five hours in downtown London.

Clive and Adrianne Marks took me to a finest restaurant for dinner with Mrs. Gold.

Simon and Susie Olswang made special arrangements not only for me to have dinner each night with their friends and also for me to spend a weekend with their friends, Steven Nathan and Colleen Toomey, who temporarily rented the Purston Manor, an estate originally owned by Knight Frank and Rutley. It lies near Banbury, England, the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It was my first time to live in such a manor and enjoy the pleasant English countryside. Many of their friends arrived to share the weekend. It was a great experience!

David and Joyce Kustow took me to see the play Democracy by Michael Frayn at Wyndhams Theatre in London. Joyce also accompanied me to visit Oxford University the day before my departure.

I was honored to meet a number of people fascinating people, including Dame Jessica Rawson, Warden of Merton College, who is an expert on Chinese art, Melanie  Phillips, a well-known columnist for The Daily Telegraph, and Stephen Feinberg, Director of National Outreach Education of The United States Holocaust Museum. All provided enlightening conversations.

English  Judical System

I also had a chance visit the Haringey Magistrates court thanks to Susie Olswang, who is a magistrate of the court. She explained the system to me and showed me the court in action.

THE FUTURE

I left England, after several newspapers such as The Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle interviewed me for potential future articles, and filled with plans for future connections between the two countries. During the visit, I had a chance to brief the LJCC on our various Judaic Studies programs. Clive Marks, President of the LJCC, pledged that the organization will do its best to help transfer funding for our Jewish projects. Trudy Gold and Jerry Gotel, Director of Overseas program of the LJCC held many discussions with me about a possible seminar on Holocaust Education to be held in China in August 2005 with the support from the Task Force of the European Union on Holocaust Studies. The LJCC is also planning to send another delegation to visit China in 2005.

I cannot thank the people I met enough for their friendship and the ways in which they made my visit most enjoyable. I would never have experienced this overwhelming joy, had I not undertaken the field of Jewish studies -- and it reinforced my firm belief that I truly made a right choice!