August 11, 2006

In China, a Growing Interest in All Things Jewish

Scholars and students examine Judaism as a model for a people's success in the modern world


Jinan, China

It's a Friday night in the capital of the eastern coastal province of Shandong, and a group of several dozen young Chinese university students gather for dinner at an apartment just a few blocks away from the campus of Shandong University. Save for some hummus, the dining table is weighed down with Chinese food. But this is not your typical Friday-night meal in China.

First, the gathered students bow in prayer, covering their faces with their hands as candles are lit. Then, led by M. Avrum Ehrlich, a former rabbi and now a professor of Judaic studies in the School of Philosophy and Social Studies at Shandong University, the group sings songs and recites prayers together as several participants crane their necks to read the Hebrew script in shared books. The male students wear yarmulkes. One even wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a large blue Star of David.

Mr. Ehrlich finishes the ritual blessings over the wine and the bread, and offers a toast. At last the students take their seats and begin to eat, as the room fills with animated conversation. All but two of the guests at this weekly celebration of the Jewish Sabbath in Mr. Ehrlich's apartment are Chinese students of Judaism at Shandong University. Mr. Ehrlich, a 37-year-old professor from Australia, is one of the first foreign academics to teach Hebrew Bible, Talmudic thought, and the Kabbalah in China. His ambitious plan is to put this sleepy provincial university on the map as an international center of Judaic studies.

Part of Mr. Ehrlich's pedagogy is to immerse his students in rituals central to Judaism. Thus he holds this weekly gathering at his apartment — complete with chopsticks. "It's sort of a fusion Chinese Shabbat," he quips.

Pop into any of the classrooms in the building that houses the School of Philosophy and Social Studies on Shandong's tree-shaded campus and you are likely to see students reading the Bible in Hebrew, conjugating Hebrew verbs, thumbing through the Talmud — a centuries-old collection of Jewish law and commentary — or debating the similarities between Judaism and Confucianism.

The enthusiasm for studying Judaism expressed by Mr. Ehrlich's students reflects a growing interest in that religion elsewhere in China as well, both in academe and in popular culture. Along with Shandong, 10 other Chinese universities now offer courses in Jewish studies.

Although Judaism is not one of China's five officially recognized opiates of the masses, as Lenin described organized religion — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism — the study of its history, ritual, cultural influence, and language is on the rise here.

Buried Roots, New Shoots

Little Chinese interest in Judaism was apparent until recently. The triumph of Maoist Communism after World War II was a major obstacle to studying the topic. China's Communist leaders have traditionally looked on religion with disdain, and religious studies in general has been a risky endeavor.

But the country does have a long and rich history of contact with, and interest in, Jews and Judaism. A small Jewish community thrived in the city of Kaifeng, in eastern China, for 700 years. (Some of the Sinicized descendants of those early Jews remain there today.)

In the early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals, who were keen to see China modernize, looked to the Jewish experience for inspiration. In the 1920s, Yiddish literature provided an example for the development of vernacular Chinese. And Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese Republican revolution, praised the Zionist movement as a model for popular independence. During World War II, Shanghai, Harbin, and Tianjin served as refuges for thousands of Jews who fled into China from Europe.

The political and cultural reopening of China in the late 1970s opened the gates for the study of religion in general, and Judaism in particular, at many universities, such as the one in Jinan (see box, Page A15). But one of the most prominent Chinese scholars of Judaism says he stumbled into the field by accident.

Xu Xin, 56, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, was a Red Guard during the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76). He was in high school when the Cultural Revolution began, and at the age of 18 was sent to the countryside to work for two years. He entered Nanjing University in 1973 as a worker-peasant-soldier and graduated three years later. As academic life returned to normal, Mr. Xu focused his attention on post-World War II American literature.

He was particularly attracted to American Jewish writers — especially after Saul Bellow won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature. "I never thought I'd focus on Jewish literature," says Mr. Xu. "There were a hundred Chinese professors doing Bellow, Malamud, Roth, and Singer, and I was just doing a small bit."

The Jewish Observances

But in order to understand those writers, Mr. Xu says, he realized that he would have to learn more about Jewish culture. So he dug into Jewish studies, taking off in 1986 to live with a Jewish family in the United States. He knew nothing about Jews at the time. He thought Hebrew was a dead language. Mr. Xu had not even met a Jew until 1985, when an American professor, James Friend, turned up at Nanjing to teach English literature for six months. The two scholars hit it off, and Mr. Xu was invited to teach for two years at Chicago State University, where Mr. Friend was chairman of the English department. During the first year, Mr. Xu lived with the Friend family, at their home in Lincolnwood, Ill.

During his first week in the United States, he attended a bat mitzvah. He then worked his way through the Jewish calendar, observing Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and other Jewish holidays with friends and relatives of the Friends. When Mr. Friend died of a heart attack, in 1987, Mr. Xu attended a Jewish funeral as well.

The journey had a major impact on him. "When you live with someone every day for a year, you see their life and way of thinking," he says. "I lived with a Jewish family and went through all the traditions and rites. I felt the traditional Jewish way of thinking and philosophy could provide many valuable lessons for China."

For instance, he recalls learning the Jewish concept of tzedaka, or charity and justice for those in need. Jewish law commands Jews to give tzedaka according to their ability. Charity is a concept that is basically alien to most Chinese, says Mr. Xu. He tells of his surprise when Jewish friends readily donated money to some worthy cause. "They were middle class," he says, "and I asked them why."

He also marveled at Jewish friends who regularly read the Talmud and the Torah "just for the love of learning," comparing them with Chinese colleagues, who, he says, learn just to pass exams or get better jobs. "How many Chinese scholars read Confucian classics every day?" he asks.

At the end of his trip abroad from China, he jumped at the chance to go to Israel. "My visit to Israel was just 10 days," he recalls, "but it shook me." Among Chinese people, he says, Israel is usually thought of as a war-torn country, but he was surprised by its modernity. Before heading home, he went to a bookstore and spent his remaining money on books about Judaism. "I didn't buy my wife a gift," he says, laughing. "I just bought books."

Finding Structure

Upon returning to Nanjing, in 1989, as chairman of the English department, Mr. Xu set up the China Judaic Studies Association with the help of prominent American Jews. He met like-minded Chinese scholars who had studied in Europe and exchanged ideas with them. "We had a saying," he says. "'Without an understanding of the Jews, you can't understand the Western world.'"

In 1992 he established the Jewish-studies center at Nanjing, the first of its kind in China. Since then Mr. Xu has studied the Talmud at Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati, Yiddish at Columbia University, and Hebrew again at the Ulpan Akiva, or Hebrew school, in Netanya, Israel. He has also done two stints at the Center for Judaic Studies at Harvard University, and has compiled a lengthy CV of scholarly works in English and Chinese, including monographs, scholarly articles, and translations. Most impressive among them is his work on the translation of an abridged version of the Encyclopedia Judaica, with 800-plus pages and more than 1,600 entries.

Some 300 undergraduates at Nanjing enroll each year in "Jewish Culture and World Civilization," an elective course. Although only a handful of students are in the Jewish-studies center's graduate and Ph.D. programs, Mr. Xu says he has more students applying than he can accept. "My students are excited because they've never heard these things before," he says. "They never thought they could view life in this way." Each year one Ph.D. candidate goes to Israel to study Hebrew.

The center, which is run out of a small space on the Nanjing campus, is scheduled to move in November to the Glazer Center for Judaic Studies, which was built with donations from American and British Jews. The new building will provide much-needed space for classrooms; the collection of 7,000 books, which is still growing; an exhibition room; and a conference room.

Fu Youde, a professor of philosophy at Shandong University, relates a similar tale of an accidental discovery and a rapid growth in interest and academic enterprise. Mr. Fu, who is China's leading expert on George Berkeley, the 18th-century Irish philosopher, was invited to work on a project to translate the works of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher of Jewish background, into Chinese.

He knew nothing about Judaism at the time, so in 1992 he traveled to the University of Oxford to study Hebrew, the Talmud, the Bible, Jewish history, and Jewish ethics. He moved on to London, where he continued his studies for one more year at Leo Baeck College, an institution of Jewish learning.

Mr. Fu never finished his ambitious translation project, but, like Mr. Xu, he came away convinced that China had a lot to learn from the Jewish tradition. "I came to realize the importance of Jewish culture, and that it could play an important role in the future of China," he says.

When he returned to Shandong, in 1994, Mr. Fu established the Center for Judaic and Interreligious Studies, a project he says the university readily supported. The center is now developing a library and research center, with books coming in from individuals and libraries all over the world. On a recent afternoon, Noam Urbach, a Hebrew teacher from Israel, stands in his office going through boxes of donated books, brushing off dust with his hand as he separates them into stacks.

Piquing Interest

The program at Shandong is recruiting students from all over China and hopes to attract international students as well. It has held international conferences, playing host to international scholars who have included Elliot R. Wolfson, an expert on the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Last July the Shandong center held a summer program in Jewish studies that attracted students in various disciplines from around the country.

Shandong's Mr. Ehrlich says the program is translating dozens of academic works and Jewish classics, along with 15 books by American Jewish writers, including The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, and This Is My God, by Herman Wouk.

Zhang Can, a graduate student of Mr. Ehrlich's, became interested in Judaism as an undergraduate studying philosophy. This month she plans to go to Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a year, where she will do a comparative study of the Chinese and Jewish diasporas. She will return to Shandong to complete her Ph.D.

Ms. Zhang has been studying Hebrew for a year, and Mr. Ehrlich is proud of her. He pulls a Hebrew-language book off a shelf, hands it to the young woman, and asks her to read. As her finger moves deliberately across the page, she slowly says the words aloud, translating into halting but fluent English the biblical story of Jacob.

Ask Mr. Ehrlich about China's growing fascination with things Jewish, and the talkative former rabbi ticks off a number of theories. He agrees with Mr. Xu that Chinese students and scholars feel that studying Jewish history and philosophy is an excellent starting point for understanding the fundamentals of Western civilization. But he also believes that among Chinese people, "the sense of affinity with the Jews because of a shared notion of suffering is very strong."

Mr. Ehrlich points out that in the 1970s, as China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution, the Diary of Anne Frank sold 40 million copies in that country. Chinese readers apparently identified with the plight of the young Jewish girl. The book may have "served as a canvas for observing their own condition," he says.

Chinese citizens can also benefit from adopting the Jewish notion of critical but constructive self-examination, says Mr. Ehrlich. "Many Chinese are fascinated with the absence of censorship, the liberal criticism heaped on Jewish protagonists, the lack of uniformity in thinking and practice, and the high degree of innovation exuding from the Jewish experience," he argues. "They are curious about how the Jews can remain united without consensus, without obsession with land, and without homogeneity of any sort."

A look at a list compiled by Mr. Ehrlich of some 50 scholarly articles written in China about Judaism over the past decade offers an idea of where Chinese interest lies: "The Reason Why There Are So Many Outstanding Jews"; "From the Success of Jews to Chinese Education"; "An Analysis of the Factors Behind the Cohesiveness of Jews."

Such interest has spilled into Chinese popular culture, says Mr. Ehrlich, although there the books tend to be not only more superficial but, in some cases, anti-Semitic. In the past year alone, he says, at least 10 books have been published in Chinese with titles like The Secrets of the Jews and How to Be a Jewish Millionaire. Mr. Ehrlich is quick to emphasize, however, that the Chinese are not anti-Semitic, and that the Chinese stereotypes are "more complimentary than contemptuous."

Model of Reform

Shandong's Mr. Fu is quick to draw similar connections. He argues that of all peoples, the Jews have been the most successful in dealing with the challenges of modernity. "The goal of Jewish reform ... was to retain Jewish cultural identity by reserving Judaism while accepting modernity and merging into Western society," he says.

He sees the Reform movement in 19th-century Judaism as a model for China. The movement's goal, he says, was to transform the Jew into a European, integrated into Western culture, who, at the same time, would remain faithful to his religion. "The Jews have modernized themselves materially," he says, "living a modern life in Western countries on the one hand, and they have maintained their cultural identity — namely, their Jewishness — on the other."

As China has transformed its economy into a market system, Mr. Fu continues, Chinese people have grown perplexed about who they are. "Most Chinese do not know what their cultural identity is and how to keep it," he says. "In short, they have lost their 'Chineseness' and are soulless."

Mr. Fu sees Confucianism, the social philosophy that shaped the thinking and behavior of Chinese for centuries, as playing a role similar to that which Judaism played for Jews. Although many Chinese do not deem Confucianism a religion, Mr. Fu argues that Chinese are thirsty for religion and a spiritual way of life, and that the country is a "hotbed for Confucianism to take root, sprout, and grow up."

Indeed, Confucianism has enjoyed a revival in China in recent years, with scholars dusting off the writings of the man once vilified by the Communists for his "feudal" thinking, and universities offering courses in what is known as guoxue, or national studies.

For the time being, however, scholars such as Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Fu, and Mr. Xu are focusing on training the next generation of scholars, both to examine Jewish studies and to see its connections to Chinese traditions both ancient and modern.