Happy Jew Fish

The Fish are happy remarked the master, as he observed them swimming in the pond.

“How do you know that they are happy?” challenged the disciple. “Since you are not a fish.”

The master had lured his upstart quarry into a trap of Talmudic proportions. “How do you know that I do not know the fish are happy?” he countered. “Since you are not me.”

Professor Xu Xin, presiden of the China Judaic Studies Association, hooked me with this ancient Asian riddle as he showed me around the Yuyuan Royal Gardens of Shanghai in the spring of 2002. I was returning the visit that he had paid me in Boston, a year before when he contributed a paper on “Holocaust Studies in China” at my international Symposium on Third World Views of the Holocaust. Yes, I had come to witness the fallout of the shoah in Shanghai. But I was more like the inquisitive disciple at the fish pond: I wanted to get inside the mind of this Radical Other, an otherwise ordinary teacher of English in China whose lifework had morphed into mastering Jewish civilization, culture and history. His mission is to share his Judaica knowledge with colleagues and students in the most populated country on earth – a country for whom Jews are as alien as the Chinese are supposed to be inscrutable.

It was during the Q & A session at symposium that Xu Xin made his greatest impression me:

We hope that Holocaust studies will make the Chinese aware how important it is to value the life of human beings. For Chinese people, human life is important, but not that important if you take into consideration influences like Buddhism: life is pain and suffering, what we live today is not all important because we try to prepare for the next life. We try to emphasize that for Jews, life is important. We have to enjoy this life. Each human being is individual, unique. If we emphasize life in such a way, we should respect human rights. We try to get this information across from a cultural perspective.

Xu Xin’s fascination with the Jews was stoked by the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature to Saul Bellow. Bellow led Xu, a native of Nanjing who had begun teaching English at his hometown university, to I.B. Singer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. Karma or beshert , intervened in the form of James Friend, a visiting literary scholar from Chicago. Friend was Jewisg, and with his wife Beverly housed Xu Xin for the first of his two years as a lecturer at Chicago State.

Through the friends, Xu Xin participated in the full lifecycle of Jewish holidays and simchas going on to foundd Nanjing University’s Center for Jewish Studies. He has studied Talmud at Hebrew University College, Yiddish at YIVO, and Jewish studies at Harvard. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has honored him and he has lectured extensively throughout the United States. In Englsih his publications include translations of American Jewish writers and books on the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng; in Chinese, works on anti-Semitism and an encyclopedia of Judaica. In the early 1990s, the tehn 54-year-old professor also mounted a Holocaust exhibit at the Nanjing Massacre museum. It was with him that I visited China’s equivalent to the museum at Auschwitz.

A vast plaza––empty except for a cluster of statues of dead tree trunks in one corner –– stretches from the permanent exhibit hall to the encased forensic tombs, displaying the bones of some of the 300,000 victims of Japanese barbarism in 1937-8. The ground of the plaza is strewn with rocks. “It is designed like a desert,” Xu Xin explains, “like the Gobi desert. Each rock represents a life. Like the Jews, we mourn the dead not with life–– not with flowers––but with rock.”

I have agreed to lecture in Professor Xu’s graduate seminar on Jewish Culture and World Civilization. It is a humbling experience. Up until now, it had seemed bizarre for me to imagine people in China taking a serious intellectual interest in the heritage of the Jews. But when I walk into that classroom, the tables are turned: I have become the oddity, a member of a rare and curious species of humanity. After all, there are a lot more Chinese in the world that there are Jews: more than a hundred times as many. In global terms, we are the exotics, not they. That a people of such enormous population and venerable history should be so taken with my own relatively tiny tribe begins to fill me with a different kind of pride.

There are 20 students in the Spartan classroom, 15 of them female. Their English is good enough to follow most of my ruminations on what it means to be a Jew: Xu Xin steps in only occasionally to translate. His students are fascinated to meet an actual living breathing Hebrew. It is as if I have been conjured up, genie-like from an ancient scroll and have materialized before their very eyes.

Professor Xu Xin grants me the time to ask his students why me to time to ask his students why they have elected to study my people.

“Jews are a special nation,” says one young woman. “So many distinguished people are Jewish, and so I want to know about them.” A classmate is more specific: “I do philosophy studies. So many philosophers were Jewish.” Ours is a people full of magic,” adds another.

Pathos attracts others. “Jewish people have suffered so much. I want to understand why.”

Indeed, according to Xu Xin, the two most common questions in China related to the Holocaust are “Why do they hate the Jews so much?” and “why did Hitler want to kill them all?”

One student wants to “better understand the roots of Palestinian conflict.” Another young woman responds as an Oriental universalist: Jewish civilization is “the legacy of all of us.”

Xu Xin honors me with an invitation to his home in downtown Nanjing. He is in the process of buying a luxury house in the outskirts f the city but his current apartment in working class district tells a much more poignant story. The crowded neighborhood, dingy surroundings are weathered and cramped interior evoke Shtetl

One of the Xu family’s two bedrooms is the professor’s study. There is a mezuzah on its doorpost. My host assures me that that he had had a minyan when he mounted it. Behind a glass case is the most impressive collection of Judaica I have ever seen in a person’s private home: menorahs galore, a pointer for reading the Torah scroll, Kiddush and havdalah cups. In his soft-spoken slightly Chinese accented voice, he recounts how he obtained his most prized possession: “A rabbi asked me what I wanted from Israel. I told him,” If it is possible, I would like to have a Megillat Ester .” A Purim scroll.

Visiting Xu Xin in his native land alleviated my initial hesitation about this man in Chna who devotes his life to studying my inscrutably complicated kinsmen. In this country of a billion souls, Xu Xin contemplates us with the scholar’s typical blend of passion and detachment. His intense driv to know about Jews and to share his knowledge about us is unencumbered by any need or desire to actually become a member of our tribe. In context, the previously bizarre becomes completely normal.

By paving my way to Communist kingdom fast succumbing to capitalism, my new friend also inadvertently helped answer a question that had long perplexed me: Why did the Lubavitcher rebbe of Brooklyn never himself go to the land of Israel? Perhaps to preserve forever the ideal image of a Holy Land.

The sage of the Jews smites a man in Nanjing. Consequently, a quarter of a century later a sinologically ignorant Jew travels to China. Ever after, he ponders the puzzle that cosmically binds, as tightly as phylacteries, the improbable trinity of happy fish, wandering Jews, and curious Chinese.

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