Jews offer lessons for everyone, says Chinese scholar, author

Arguably, Professor Xu Xin not only knows more about Jews than anyone in his native China, but he knows more about Jews than many Jews.

The 48-year-old director of the Center for Judaic Studies at Nanjing University has been ensconced at Harvard University's Center for Jewish Studies since January, wrapping up work on his book about Kaifeng Jewry. He has already written a book on anti-Semitism, and penned numerous articles on the subject of Jews.

Xu Xin (pronounced Shoo Shin) will be in the Bay Area this week to share some of his findings on the ill-fated Kaifeng Jews of China. He's giving a lecture at Stanford on Wednesday, and he'll be speaking at Temple B'Nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek on Friday, April 17.

Xu was first exposed to Jewish culture through literature. As a college student in the '70s, he began reading short stories written by Jews. Bernard Malamud's "Magic Barrel" and Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimbel the Fool" left indelible impressions, Xu said.

At the time, he said, "I didn't know what a Jew was."

His first glimpses of Jewish life and Western culture made him hungry to learn more. "Any book I could get a hold of, I would read," he said.

"I wanted to have a better understanding of those stories and to learn why the people in those stories had such fascinating traditions. But I wound up going way beyond literature because the more I learned about Jewish culture, the more I believed the Chinese and Jews have a lot in common and the Chinese should learn more about Jewish culture."

While Xu couldn't find in China the type of Jewish community he had read about in literature, he has seen a version of it in the United States, where he has spent a lot of time the last few years.

But it was during a visit to Israel, he said, where the imagery matched the warmth he experienced from reading stories about Jewish life.

"I caught the feeling on Sabbath," he said. "I was walking in a square and it was so gentle, quiet and relaxed."

What continues to fascinate Xu most about Jews has everything to do with survival. "Jews have lived in hostile societies for so long — more than any other people," he said. "Despite Jews wandering all over the world, they have a persistence to keep their identity.

"The Chinese have roots, but they never change the land under their feet. Jews move all the time but they still return to their culture. Even the holidays and language is still there. No other culture has done that. The Jews offer a lesson that is beneficial to all other people. Now that the Chinese travel, they can know that tradition can survive."

Fiction set in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries also intrigued Xu. "That way of life seemed very exotic to me. Even though life was hard, their hearts were light," he said. "Yiddish culture is very humorous."

Xu has written numerous articles on Jewish literature and culture, including pieces on Saul Bellow, Israeli women's literature and surveys of Jewish communities in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Aside from writing a 1995 book called "Anti-Semitism: How and Why," he is most proud of editing the Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, published in 1993.

"Now the Chinese have a readable reference book," said Xu, who received a thank-you letter in 1994 from then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "Through your tremendous efforts and dedication," Rabin wrote, "you have built a bridge between our two ancient cultures, revered traditions and customs."

Xu's book on Kaifeng Jews, which he wrote in English, will offer a different perspective than others he has read on the subject, he said.

"I tried to depict the whole picture and emphasized how they survived and adjusted to the environment. I also wrote about everyday life."

About 400 to 500 years ago, there was a thriving Jewish community in Kaifeng, the largest in China. "During the Ming Dynasty was the best time for them," said Xu. "The Jews had the opportunity to go up. They were appointed to government positions. They were respected because of their achievements."

The decline began with floods, which reduced the population of the city to one-third its size. By the middle of the 19th century, a Jewish "community" no longer existed.

Currently, there are between 100 and 200 descendants of Jews living in Kaifeng, Xu said. "They know they are Jews and some try to contact each other. They are interested in meeting with Jews who visit China and they would like to learn about what is happening in Israel. If not for some element of Jewishness in their heart, they wouldn't care."

Aside from teaching English and Jewish studies at Nanjing, Xu, who studied Hebrew for eight weeks while in Israel in 1993, has translated several novels by Israeli authors, including S.Y. Agnon's "In the Heart of the Seas" and "Bridal Canopy," as well as "Badenheim 1939," a Holocaust novel by Aharon Appelfeld.

When teaching classes, Xu recommends his students read some of the works he has translated. "I try to introduce Jewish culture directly," he said.

Xu's son, Ningwei (whose English name is David), is a sophomore majoring in English at the university in Nanjing. Ningwei recently took Xu's class, called "Jewish Culture and Western Civilization."

"He told me my lectures were `not bad,'" said Xu. "I'll take that as a compliment. I gave him an A."