From inscrutable to scrutable

Following Olmert's China visit, I'm reminded of the strong connection between our peoples.

olmert, chinese pm 298.8 (photo credit: AP)
olmert, chinese pm 298.8
(photo credit: AP)
With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now back in Israel after a brief visit to the People's Republic of China, I am reminded of the strong connection between our two peoples. I'd like Israelis to be aware of the influence of Professor Xu Xin, a scholar whose contribution to Chinese-Jewish understanding must be fully appreciated. It was Xu Xin who, in the mid-1990s, led a team of 40 scholars in translating the Encyclopedia Judaica into Chinese. He thus paved the way for a positive view of the Jewish people and Israel, thereby helping to open the door for diplomatic relations between the two countries. Xu Xin, with an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University, has captivated audiences ranging from laypeople, such as those of us he led as scholar-in-residence during our recent trip to China, to Harvard academics and growing numbers of students. Some 2,000 students now attend his lectures, making him the envy of many colleagues at China's Nanjing University. His Sino-Judaic studies touch on differences in values such as attitudes to life and death. Xu Xin is fondly called "Shu," but his name is pronounced ShuShan. He's recently inaugurated a 3,000-square-meter Sino-Judaic Studies Institute at Nanjing University. The facility contains not only 7,000 books on topics relating to Judaica, but a Torah scroll as well. On a road which led him to study the story of the Jews of Kaifeng, he discovered the tragedy of a small remnant of a once-thriving Jewish community which, together with the native inhabitants of around four million Chinese in this fertile plain, was almost obliterated in 1642. A siege by 100,000 rebel infidels, and flooding of the Yellow River, all but destroyed beautiful Kaifeng, capital city of China for 800 years. If this touches memory chords, more resonate with the subsequent discovery, in 1907, of evidence of Jewish life and tattered remains of Torah scrolls. WHAT MOTIVATED this soft-spoken but mesmerizing man on his odyssey from professor of American literature to an appointment as professor of Sino-Judaic studies at Nanjing University? At lectures here in Israel last month he told us that he had been searching to answer the age-old question of how the tiny Jewish people came to so influence - in terms of religion, philosophy, commerce and values - the world at large. We, meanwhile, were curious about how an academic figure from a country numbering over 1.3 billion people could possibly be fascinated by the achievements of our Jewish people numbering, perhaps, 13 million worldwide, or by an Israel with a Jewish population of 5 million. Shu's attention was first caught in 1976 by the work of novelist Saul Bellow, who stemmed from a poor Russian family. Later he began reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born Yiddish writer. He was and remains fascinated not only by Singer's stories, but also by the writer's own situation. Singer's writings reflect a spiritual turmoil affected by cultural political and social upheaval in the years between the world wars; his stories and novels are beset by merciless struggles for universal meaning for our age; clashes between tradition and worldliness, faith and mysticism, secularism, doubt and nihilism, preservation and renewal - ideas which matter to us all, Jew and non-Jew. Shu was also captivated by the visit to China of Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration, and by the story of this immigrant Jew who rose to become the American secretary of state. Interestingly, the influence of Prof. Xu Xin himself extends far and wide. He is said to have input over appointments relating to Israel, and has seen his former doctoral students fill important government posts, such as at the Department of Ethnic Studies. Many Chinese officials seek to understand the Jewish contribution to humanity, to modernization and in the intellectual arena. Today's China's is also interested in entrepreneurship - and Jews are said to know a thing or two about this field. With China now preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games, my hope is that our two peoples continue to get to know each other better and better. The writer, a psychotherapist, is director of the Shalshelet Center for Marriage Guidance and in private practice. She has a long-standing scholarly interest in Sino-Jewish relations.