Meet Xu Xin

By Beverly Oberfeld Friend, Ph.D. Executive Director/ China Judaic Studies Assn. Professor of English/Journalism, friend@oakton.edu

A one-volume Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica has been presented to the Ezer Weitzman, President of Israel.

One hundred and thirty students have completed a course in Judaic Studies at Nanjing University.

A Chinese professor who has had his first work published in English: Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, has spent time studying Talmud at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Yiddish with YIVO in New York, and Judaic studies at Harvard and runs International Conferences of Judaic Scholars at Nanjing University.

How did it all come about?

When my late husband, Jim Friend, arrived at Nanjing University In the People’s Republic of China to teach English in 1985, the first colleague he met as he disembarked from the airplane was a Chinese professor who was teaching a course in Jewish American authors.

Professor Xu Xin had translated works of I.B. Singer, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, John Cheever and Clifford Odets into Chinese. He had written articles on “Saul Bellow and His Novels,” “Characters in Singers’ Short Stories,” “Jewish Humor,” and “The Image of the Schlemiel in Jewish Literature” (likening him to the wise-fool in Chinese literature).

A former member of the red guard in the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, Xu learned everything he could about Jews and Judaism through American Jewish literature when he began to take an interest in the subject after Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize.


Jim was the first Jew he had ever encountered, and meeting him, Xu later said, was a turning point in his life.

The friendship between the two led to Xu coming to the United States and teaching in Jim’s school – Chicago State University – for two years. During the first of these years, he lived in our Lincolnwood home.

The very first week Xu lived with us, we attended the Bat Mitzvah of a cousin in Milwaukee. Of course, he went with us. Later, he wrote of this experience, “It was the first time in my life that I had ever attended any religious service. What I found there was very touching and moving: man’s relationship to his fellow man was so beautiful that I began to feel that the Jewish synagogue was nothing but a home which is graced by many customs and ceremonies, illumined by the sacred lights of festivals and cheered by songs of joy and faith.”

When the High Holidays were celebrated, Xu attended services with us. On Rosh Hashannah we took him to our synagogue, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. On Yom Kippur we all traveled to a tiny synagogue in Alpena, Michigan near the military base where our daughter, Tracy, was living. He rode with us to services through rural countryside where deer darted out from behind hedges as we wended our way from Wurtsmith Air Force Base to the tiny temple and a visiting, circuit Rabbi from Montreal.

On Simchas Torah we were back at JRC. We wanted him to see and experience the magnificent sight of the Torah unfurled – held, cherished, shared by the congregation. And he marched with us as we celebrated Torah.

And so the year progressed: Purim, Passover. Of the Seder Xu later wrote, “The special decoration of the table, the symbols of the feast, the Haggadah readings, meant more than ceremony because it integrated tradition with contemporary values that applied that tradition to modern society.”

And all through that year, Xu read books on Jewish history and religious practices. He lectured at an Oneg Shabbat in our temple on the many similarities between Jewish and Chinese Civilizations:

He stated that both cultures are old civilizations which have suffered yet never lost their beliefs in the high value of their cultures; both share strong family traditions and close family relationships; both value education.

After Xu attended the Jewish wedding of the daughter of a very close friends, Sharon and Dr. Roland Rudnick – a beautiful affair at the Drake Hotel. he asked, “What part of the wedding was Jewish and what part American?” We were hard put to answer that question.

He experienced two Jewish funerals.

The first was the funeral of the mother of a dear friend, Mark Symons. And as Xu looked around at the mourners, he said to me, “In China, they would be more sad.” I told him that most of us had not known the woman but were there as friends of the Mark and his wife, Carol, to share their grief and honor their loss. And I also said that she had lived to the ripe old age of 86, after all, and it was not so sad as the loss of a child would have been.

He looked at me, startled, and replied that it was much worse to lose an older person than to lose a child. I thought I had misheard him and asked, “What would be worse for you? The loss of your father, or the loss of your son?” (His son was seven years old at the time.)

He responded promptly, “Oh, the loss of my father. I can always have another son; but where can I get another father?”

And thus I learned an important insight from him: something I had thought an absolute value was really culturally conditioned.

The second Jewish funeral Xu experienced was Jim’s in December, 1987, after my 55-year-old husband was felled by a heart attack. At this funeral Xu was a participant, a mourner, one who came up to the open microphone to pay his own, personal tribute.

Ironically, when Xu did return to China, he discovered that his own father had also died in December, just four days after Jim, but that his family had unanimously agreed not to notify him. They had not wished to interfere with his studies in the U.S. Thus, as he later wrote, he had lost not one, but two fathers.

As he did not know of his own father’s death, he did not hurry back to China. He had always planned to visit England and France on the way home, and now, because of his Judaic studies, he decided to try to add Israel, especially Jerusalem, to his itinerary, because he feared that once he returned to China he might never again have the opportunity.

But how to get the funds? Xu was nothing if not enterprising. First, he wrote an article for The Sentinel, stating his position as a Chinese scholar of Judaism, setting forth his dream of visiting Israel, and then stating that while he had saved every penny while living and working in the United States, he could “use a few dimes.” Small sums came in.

Next, he visited representatives from El Al airlines and the Israeli Consulate in Chicago. They responded handsomely to his plea, with El Al sponsoring the flight, and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University covering his expenses in return for lectures at the school on “Jews and Judaism through Chinese Eyes.”

He told the Jerusalem Post that Israel, to the Chinese, is “an alien and mysterious country, even more so than the countries of the Western Hemisphere,” and that what little the Chinese do know is negative. “We learned that Israel was the running dog of the Western imperialist powers,” he said. Beverly and Xu Xin, June 2003

Beverly Friend and Xu Xin

Beverly Friend and Xu Xin

And despite his extensive reading of American Jewish authors, he acknowledged that, like most Chinese, he knew little factually about Jews or Judaism as practically no literature exists on the subject in China. In fact, until he came to Chicago, he had thought that Hebrew was a dead rather than a spoken language. Until he visited Israel, he had never heard of a Kibbutz.

But Xu’s desire to learn more about Judaism did not end with his trip to Israel. Upon his return to Nanjing, he established a China Judaic Studies Association with former JRC Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, on the board of consultants and Ken Lubowich, O.M.D. of Skokie as Director of the U.S. Foreign Office. I am now the Executive Director of the Association and publish a bi-annual newsletter of its activities. Subscribers to this newsletter now include more than 20 college libraries (including the Harvard Yenching Library), the New York Public Library, and a library in Moscow.

The goals of the Association are to carry out Judaic studies in China, to organize and publish a series of articles and books on Judaism, to offer related university courses, to hold seminars and public lectures and promote a better understanding of Jewish culture and the Jewish people, to subsidize publications and award Chinese scholars who have made outstanding contributions to the field, to build a library for research and study, and to develop both domestic and international conferences on Judaic Studies.

Quite an ambitious program.

And it is going full steam. In July, 1990, my cousins Earl, Harriet and Abbey Newman, of Milwaukee, and I visited Xu in order to attend the dedication of the James Friend Memorial Reading Room at the Nanjing University Library, the first room ever dedicated to honor an individual. Xu was just completing a three-month exhibit of Judaica set up in the Library.

The goal of this exhibit, which took over a year to plan and assemble, was the same as that of the Association – to popularize Judaic Studies in China. By reviewing what had been done by Chinese scholars in the past, Xu hoped to encourage young scholars to enter the field. Xu also felt that the exhibit would provide concrete evidence rather than abstract information about Judaism.

A first of its kind in China, this retrospective consisted of eight parts: studies of the Jews in China (including Jews in Kaifeng as well as in other cities); studies of Judaism; zionism; Jewish literature; Jewish culture, society and people; the Kibbutz; scholarly exchanges; and organization of the field in China.

Thousands of visitors came to view the exhibit where Xu had displayed posters, books and articles on Chinese scholarship of Judaica. From outside China, two tour groups from the United States and one from Great Britain eagerly sought out the presentation and one of the groups from the U.S., who had uncovered an announcement about the exhibit in the newspaper, China Daily, and insisted that their guide find out about it and take them there, were so impressed by the display that they told Xu it had been the highlight of their tour of China – and gave him a donation to apply to his work.

Another, equally successful exhibit was held in 1993 in conjunction with the Simon Weisenthal Center. This exhibit, titled “The Courage to Remember: the Holocaust 1933- 1045,” was mounted in the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese invaders which had been sent up in Nanjing in 1985 to commemorate the 300,000 captured Chinese soldiers and civilians murdered by the Japanese in 1937. Linking these two events gave additional meaning to the viewers.

Currently Xu is teaching courses in Jewish Culture at the university. While 15 students enrolled in the first class, which was taught in English, the enrollment jumped to 130 when the course was taught the following semester in Chinese! Xu wrote that he was teaching with a microphone for the first time in his career. The enrollment might have been still higher had the course not been limited to college juniors.

Nearly 300 books on Judaic subjects have been sent by Chicagoans, including 80 from Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, former Rabbi of Temple Emanuel and his congregation. In addition to the time spent preparing and teaching courses in Jewish culture, Xu has translated In the Heart of the Seas by S.Y. Agnon, and a critical article on him for the journal Contemporary Foreign Literature. This was the first time since 1949 that a Chinese journal had published an article on a modern Hebrew writer.

Coincidentally, the Chinese translation of Agnon came out at the same time as the opening of the Liaison Office of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities in Beijing, illustrating the growing Chinese interest in and involvement with Jews and Israel prior to the official recognition of the State of Israel.

Responding to this interest, Xu recently completed an anthology (with critical introductions and appendices) of Modern Hebrew short stories by 20 Israeli writers including Agnon, Amos Oz, Haim Hazaz, Moshe Shanmir, Uri Orlev, Yehuda Amachai, Ruth Almog, G. Shofman, Y. Shteinberg, and B. Tammuz.

But most dazzling is Xu’s work on the translation of an abridged version of the Encyclopedia Judaica where he promised the publisher $10,000 to subsidize the work. Xu donated $1,000 of his own money (a veritable fortune in China) and is raising funds for the rest. A recent article in the Jerusalem Post praised Xu as the single most active and productive Chinese scholar on Judaism and noted how daunting the task is to raise funds in a country where the 1989 per capita income of urban dwellers was $275 a year. Funds for the Encyclopedia were raised by grants from organizations and individual donations. The work is completed.

Xu, who has studied Hebrew at Ulpan Akiva for three months, had the opportunity to present the first copy of this Encyclopedia to the President of Israel. No subsidy was requested for Xu’s next assignment: a book : Anti-Semitism.: How and Why. China is noted for its religious tolerance and much interest has been expressed in an explanation of how such prejudice could arise historically and still exist today.

Most recently, Xu completed his first book in English: Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (with Beverly Friend, KTAV,1995).

Xu is being noted and honored for all his work. In the summer of 1992, Harvard University invited him participate in an academic conference on the “Jewish Diaspora in China: Comparative and Historical Perspectives.”.

Xu has also acted as a National Guide for American groups touring Jewish sites in China. In 1991, he traveled with Erica and Rabbi Neil Brief and 16 members of Niles Township Jewish Congregation on to visit to the ancient city of Kaifeng to learn about the Jews who had lived there from Biblical times and to meet some of their descendants. I led another such trip in the summer of 1993. The latest group–led by Xu Xin–will leave for China April 28, 1996.

All this — and much more — has occurred because Xu came to the United States and lived with a Jewish family. One has only to look at the seminar reports — of the three summers he held classes for Chinese professors of history and western civiilization in order that they might incorporate such information into their own college programs, to see the scope of his endeavors. In 2002 he was rewarded — with the granting of an Honorary Doctorate from Bar Ilan University in Israel. The award is highly deserved!

While I am certain Jim would be pleased if he could know that a Memorial Reading Room has been dedicated to him in China, he would be even more thrilled to learn about how much he had influenced his dear friend and colleague; if he could know about the turn Xu’s life has taken – how he has moved from being a student of American Literature to being a student of Judaica, reading Jewish history, learning Hebrew, preparing and teaching classes, working on translations, preparing exhibits, leading special-interest tour groups, writing books immersing himself in the culture.

All teachers – good teachers – know in their hearts that they influence their students, that their words may be as pebbles cast upon the waters, causing concentric circles of influence. And Jim lived to see many of his students grow and change. But while many returned to thank him personally for his care and direction, most of the influences were soft, subtle, not readily or immediately seen.

Xu’s passion, however, is vibrant, alive, highly visible.

It is awesome to me to think that students in China will be learning about one facet of American religion and culture because Xu was exposed to this religion and culture for the time he lived here and because his – really his first – exposure to religious practice and people changed his life.

I think about this every year’s at the Yom Kippur service and have shared some of my thoughts with the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation during an open microphone section of the service where we may individually come up to the podium and speak, or pray, or meditate just before the afternoon break.

I have told fellow congregants that as we start the New Year, I want to tell them this story of what is happening in China and to say that one person can really make a difference; that the memorial prayer that says that the dead live on in us and in our deeds is true and is exemplified by what is happening in China today. Although my husband has now been dead for over 15 years, I still am learning from him each and every day of my life.


Chinese students in the first class in Judaic Studies taught at Nanjing University were asked to bring in questions they most wanted to know about Jews and Judaism. Following are the seven most frequently asked questions:

Why have the Jewish people been persecuted throughout history? How did Anti-Semitism come into being?
How can we tell Jews from other white people? Are there any particular features (both appearances and gestures) which might help us to identify them when we see them?
What are the parents’ roles in the Jewish family, family relationships and the education of their children?
History shows that Jews accumulated wealth and money fast. Would you tell us some of the reasons why they are so good at dealing with money?
What are the attitudes of the American Jews towards Israel and the conflicts in the Middle East?
Tell us some more about the contributions the Jews made to the civilization of human beings in the past.
How could the Jews remain as Jews in the history of three thousand years?

Those tempted to answer can write to Professor Xu Xin, School of Religious Studies, Nanjing University, Nanjing 210093