Xu Xin:

2003 Trip to Israel: a Renewed Beginning

 

In the year 2003 I made my fourth trip to Israel, traveling to accept the highest honor in my life: the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Honoris Causa, from Bar-Ilan University. The citation explicates the reason that Bar-Ilan University bestows the honor upon me: “for establishing the academic framework for the teaching of Jewish history and culture in China, and for encouraging the development of Sino-Israel ties.” What an honor and compliments!

 

En route, I could not help but recall my first, 1988, trip, long before there were any formal relations between our two countries: China and Israel. Although it was considered a very brave for a Chinese scholar to take such an ice-breaking trip, I must say that the purpose was quite simple--- to start my journey into Jewish studies with a personal glance at the sole Jewish country on our planet.

 

With scant knowledge of Israel, I had no idea what I would see and was unable to predict the outcome of the visit. The result was a visit that changed my life and encouraged me to travel further down the road of Jewish studies, making my small contribution to the development of Sino-Israel ties. Since then Israel became a subject for my research and study, signifying an academic addiction to it as a country and as a people. Any news from radio, reports from TV, articles from papers, anything related to Israel catches my attention. As a result, I returned twice after the first trip. Although I expected further trips, I never dreamed that I would one day come back for such an honor. 

 

The degree, conferred at a festival ceremony held at the newly-completed Dahan Family Unity Park in the north of school campus on May 28, was also the day designated to dedicate the Park. Many of my Israeli friends attended. Chinese diplomats on a mission in Israel also came to congratulate me.  In a fulsome response, I thanked the University's Board of Trustees and Senate for the honor, recalled the beginning of my journey on the road of Jewish studies, and expressed my happiness, gratitude, and future plans. (For details, please see the attached text). The great, moving and happy event celebrated friendship, a culmination of Chinese and the Jewish relations.

 

During the ceremony, I had opportunity to meet Moshe Katzav, President of the State Israel, who was also a recipient of a Bar-Ilan honorary doctorate. He received   the honor for "his extraordinary personal accomplishments and exceptional achievements as a leader in the political arena who strives for unity, social justice and peace for the Jewish nation." He is the fourth Israeli president I have met, following different introductions to Navon, Herzog, and Weizmann during the last 10 years.

 

As a guest of honor, I was also invited to participate many other events, including the Opening Reception of the 2003 Global Board of Trustees Meetings at the residence of Nissan Khakshoui, Chairman of the Israel Friends of the University, on May 26, and the Dedication of the Anna & Max Webb and Family Psychology Building on May 27. 

 

The trip was too short, lasting only 11 days, but I was filled with  an eventful schedule. It was a good time to meet officials of Bar-Ilan: Prof. Mina Teicher, Vice President for Research, Prof. Y. Yeshurun, Rector, and Prof. Joshua Schwartz, Dean of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, and discuss with them possible cooperation and exchange programs between Bar-Ilan and Nanjing University. 

 

I also had met with 12 Chinese scholars who are currently doing post-doctorate studies at Bar-Ilan on the Fred Kort Program. Coincidentally, Fred Kort, a US entrepreneur and philanthropist, donated funds to set up fellowship for Chinese scholars to do post-doctorate studies at Bar-Ilan after he participated “The First International Conference on Jewish Culture in China” organized by the Center for Jewish Studies at Nanjing University in 1996.What a pleasure to see so many Chinese scholars from various parts of our country studying at Bar-Ilan, which is obviously a strong sign of academic ties and friendship between the two countries and peoples. 

 

Additional meetings were arranged for me during my stay. For instance, Rosalie Lurie, Executive Director of Western Region of Tel Aviv University American Council, arranged for me to proceed to Tel Aviv University to meet Prof. Dan Laor, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, and other officials of the University. The meeting was fruitful and an arrangement has been made for one of our young scholars attend Tel Aviv University to do his post-doctoral work in the academic year 2003-4. 

 

Mrs. Lurie also arranged a meeting with Mrs. Moshe Dayan, where I joined her for a  lovely lunch. Both Mr. and Mrs. Dayan were very close friends of Diane and Guilford Grazer, who not only supported generously my projects at Nanjing University but also contributed a great deal to the establishment of The Moshe Dayan Center after General Dayan died. Diane talked about their friendship with the Dayan family when I saw her in Los Angeles last March. She hoped that I could, one day, meet Mrs. Dayan. I am very glad I was able to do so in less than three months. 

 

I went to see Shalom and Varda Yoran at their home in Tel Aviv. We became friends following  2001our meeting in  New York. Actually, I was at their beautiful home in Long Island, New York, during my visit to the US early this year. It was a great pleasure to be at their home in Israel. Shalom is legendary person. He was a fighter against the Nazis during World War II and served in armies of four countries: Poland, the Soviet Union, British and Israel, in his early life. Varda, who speaks Chinese with the Tianjin dialect, was brought up in Tianjin China as her parents came and live in that city. She came to Israel after the establishment of the State of Israel. We had a wonderful conversation and agreed that our Center will translate Mr. Shalom Yoran's most celebrated book: "The Defiant: A True Story" (published in 1996, The Book Guild Ltd.) into Chinese to make his book available to Chinese readers.

 

I also met Moshe Berlin and his wife. Berlin is former trustee of the Rothschild Family Foundation and has been very supportive to many of our projects. We corresponded for years, and I was delighted to finally meet him this time in Jerusalem. I also met. Michael Freund, another benefactor of our programs.  

 

While in Jerusalem, I was introduced to Manfred Gerstenfeld, Chairman of the Steering Committee of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs through Larry Pfeffer and Aryeh Gallin, who runs Root & Branch. We had a wonderful talk. He was very kind and invited me to speak to his organization next time I visit Israel as well as agreeing establish a tie between his Center and our Center and to enroll us on their list to receive updated information about the situation in Middle East.

 

I am very glad to report that we have already received a  "Daily Alert," an internet publication by his Center.  

 

On May 29, Prof. Menachem Friedman, a well-known sociologist at Bar-Ilan University and a top scholar on Ultra-Orthodox studies, who was one of three instructors who taught at the Workshop of Jewish History and Culture I organized in summer of 2002 in Nanjing, picked me up from Dan Tel Aviv Hotel to visit an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of in Jerusalem. Under his guidance, I had a very interesting visit to the area and learned a great deal about the community. He also took me to visit the Mir Yeshiva, perhaps the best known yeshiva to Chinese scholars in the field of Judaica because the yeshiva, originally located in Eastern Europe, miraculously escaped from the Holocaust when its members fled to Shanghai during World War II. After the War, some of its rabbis and students settled in Israel while others immigrated to the US. The yeshiva that I visited was set up by those who had survived the Holocaust in Shanghai. It was a surprise for me to see so many students studying there today. Prof. Friedman and his wife kindly invited me to participate the brith (circumcision) of their relative's son in Jerusalem the next day.   

 

I was kindly invited to spend a Sabbath with Prof. Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan, who participated the International Symposium on the History of Jewish Diaspora in China organized by the Center for Jewish studies at Nanjing University, and his family in Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the territories on the West Bank. He showed me around the settlement and told me its history. Most people who live there are religious professionals. I attended both Sabbath evening and morning services there. In the late afternoon, Prof. Demsky invited over 20 his colleagues and friends home to meet me. It was a lovely experience.     

 

Like many of the trips I have taken outside of China in the last several years, this one was also filled with talks. Besides a "formal" lecture at Bar-Ilan on the day of the ceremony, I was invited to deliver three talks in Jerusalem and one in the city of Ra'anana. It was exciting to see many people attend, which is no doubt a sign of friendship between our two peoples.   

 

While I had many interesting exchanges with people in the audiences, one of the most fascinating was the meeting with Avraham Schwartzbaun, author of The Bamboo Cradle, a book relating a Jewish father's story after he adopted an abandoned girl at a train station in Taiwan, which I had read nearly 15 years ago when I started Jewish programs at Nanjing University. I was very much touched by the story and often mentioned it to my students. He and his wife, Rochel, came to my last lecture at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem on the eve of my departure. Rochel, who speaks excellent Chinese, first greeted and congratulated me on the degree I received. She told me that they enjoyed my talk thoroughly before they told me who they were. I was suddenly reminded of the book.  Schwartzbaun has not changed much from his picture on the book cover, as far as I could remember. I was overwhelmed when at the revelation. During our brief conversation, I asked about their daughter. Rochel removed a picture from her purse showing her daughter and her handsome husband, surrounded by six children: one girl and five boys. "How nice," said I. " She really multiplies." "So does your Judaic programs in China," they replied. She put the photo in my hand as a souvenir.  

 

It seems to me that things like this happen almost everyday, beginning when I jumped into the field of Judaic studies. After this trip, I feel luckier than ever, really privileged and blessed that Jewish people and their culture have become major sources of achievement, fulfillment and enjoyment in my life.

 

 

 

Xu Xin’s response at the ceremony of honorary doctorate of Bar-Ilan University

 

 

Dear Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

What an extraordinary moment. What an extraordinary journey this as been. Who could ever have predicted that learning English via the Voice of America, moving from a study of English and American literature to a study of Jewish American Authors, and most important, transferring from a study of Jewish literature to exploration of Jewish civilization, would lead to such a moment.

I can hardly believe that I am standing here -- not only in Israel -- but at this celebrated university, an institution where the wisdom and legacy of the Jewish people are explored and taught in addition to the academic studies of science and humanities. As I receive the highest honor of my life -- far beyond what I ever could have expected or predicted -- I must most gratefully thank the University's Board of Trustees and Senate. What a privilege!

But I would be an ingrate, indeed, if I did not today give special tribute to the person, and the family, who started me on this road, while I am taking this opportunity to express my sincerest thanks to all individuals and organizations that have provided me with all kinds of much needed and timely assistance and support for my various programs of Jewish studies in the last decade. Seventeen years ago, Prof. James Friend was the first Jew I ever met -- even though I was at the time teaching a course in Jewish American Authors at Nanjing University. Following his teaching stint in China, Jim invited me to Chicago to assume a teaching position at his school: Chicago State University, and I was even more fortunate that he invited me to live with him and his family, sharing their day-to-day secular and religious lives. Through them, I had an opportunity to become immersed in Jewish life and culture, and I came to see the many contributions of Jews to the world civilization in general and to Western civilization in particular. These opened my eyes to the many possible lessons for Chinese. It is not an exaggeration to say that for me Jim's family exemplified the wisdom of the Jewish people and the beauty of their legacy, which eventually led me to travel so extensively down the road of Jewish studies. I can attest to the fact that one man can make a difference. The late Jim Friend and his family have made a world difference of me. Whatever I may have achieved in the field of Judaica originated with them.

While I happily accept this honor, I must not accept it alone, but on behalf of all Chinese scholars who have been involved in Judaic studies in China during the last 15 years. Due to their untiring efforts, the study of Israel and Jewish subjects in China, which revived in the 1980's, accelerated in the 1990's, and is racing full steam ahead into the new century.  Contributions by these scholars not only bring our two peoples and two countries closer but also help more and more Chinese realize how important an understanding of Jewish culture is as an essential step in preparation for the challenge faced by Chinese as they move towards a more active world role. The whole world has been stirred by Jewish thought. Virtually no civilization has been untouched, no history of western civilization can be recounted without considering the Jewish component: what Jews have thought, felt, written and achieved

Mr. Chancellor and Mr. President, this honor you have just kindly bestowed upon me is an enormous encouragement for Chinese scholars to further promote the study of Jewish subjects in China. Although much has been achieved in the field, we still have long way to go, and much still needs to be done. Chinese scholars need to deepen their study of, and research in, Jewish culture. How to improve their scholarship in general, and how to make unique contributions to the scholarly study of Jewish subjects in particular, are the challenges we currently face.  As my colleagues and I attempt to courageously meet these challenges, we also hope to produce fruitful results of value to our colleagues in Judaic studies worldwide.

While one might say that an honorary degree is the culmination of one's work, for me it is a milestone of encouragement -- marking a renewed beginning.

Toda Raba.
 

 

 

Last updated February 13th, 2008

 

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