Audience spellbound at lecture on Jews in China


Above, left to right: Professor Sara Horowitz, associate director, York Centre for Jewish Studies; Kong Defang, wife of guest speaker; Sam Sarick and Esther Sarick, friends of YCJS; Professor Xu Xin, guest speaker; and Professor Martin Lockshin, director of YCJS (Photo by Stephen Epstein/Big Dipper Communications)

On Jan. 11, a cold wintry Sunday in Toronto, more than 200 people came to York’s Founders Assembly Hall to hear a public lecture on “The Jewish Diaspora in Modern China.” The annual Leonard Wolinsky Lecture on Jewish Life & Education was delivered by Professor Xu Xin, director of the Centre for Judaic Studies at Nanjing University in China.

Left: Nanjing University in China

The audience sat spellbound as Xin traced the history of the Jews in China from 1840 to the present, from three political movements that brought 40,000 Jews to China: Chinese colonialism, pogroms and revolutions in the Soviet Union, and the Holocaust.

Xin went on to say that after the Second World War, the number of Jews in China dwindled, due to the reunification of Jewish families and the takeover of businesses and real estate by the Communist government. By the early 1960s, only 200 Jews remained in the city of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province in north-eastern China on the Russian border. By 1980, even fewer Jews remained. In a question-and-answer period following the lecture, Xin referred to some assimilated remnants of the old and isolated Jewish community still in existence in Kaifeng, in Henan province in eastern China.

Right: Ohel Rachel Synagogue in Shanghai

In the 1980s, with the advent of the country’s open-door policy, new opportunities for investment became possible and some Jews moved to China. Beijing is now home to a few hundred Jews; Shanghai has a growing Jewish community and in 1997 the Chabad-Lubavitch movement established a presence there with regular services and kosher food production. There are 2,500 to 5,000 Jews of all denominations in Hong Kong, some working for international corporations for short periods and others living there permanently.

Xin, also president of the Chinese Judaic Studies Association, is a unique scholar of Judaica. He began his career as a professor of English but became fascinated with Judaism while on a trip to the United States studying Jewish authors as Saul Bellow, Isaac Beshevis Singer and Philip Roth. He has since studied Judaism at several institutions, including Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the YIVO Institute in New York City and Harvard’s Centre for Jewish Studies, where he was a visiting scholar.

Along with the public Wolinsky lecture, Xin met the faculty from York’s Centre for Jewish Studies on Jan. 12 and gave a lecture titled “Israel in Chinese Eyes”.

The Leonard Wolinsky Lecture on Jewish Life & Education was sponsored by York’s Centre for Jewish Studies. Through the generosity of Esther and Sam Sarick, friends of York and the Centre for Jewish Studies, Xin and his wife, Kong Defang, were flown to Toronto from China especially for the occasion.

The above article was submitted to YFile by Claire Horowitz, senior development officer, University Research Centres, York University Foundation.