We sit on floor mats in a Japanese tearoom, two middle-aged Jewish ladies, demurely sipping our green tea from little bowls. Though it is winter, we discuss the landscaping of the Japanese garden just outside the wide glass doors – its raked gravel pathways, its carefully arranged boulders and plants, all flowing together in tranquil harmony. We might be in Kyoto or Yokohama.
Actually, it’s Middletown, Connecticut. To be exact, we are on the campus of Wesleyan University, where Professor Vera Schwarcz has been teaching East Asian Studies and writing poetry for thirty-five years. This authentic tearoom, in fact the entire Freeman Center for East Asian Studies – with its photo gallery, garden, meeting rooms, offices and study — are the rewards of her toil as its founding director more than two decades ago. The garden, she tells me, “has become the heart of the university where stillness reigns and contemplation flourishes.” She begins each day contemplating the garden, noting subtle changes from day to day; watching as each season paints it in delightful color or challenges it to surface through mounds of snow. Every moment offers its own inspiration, a thought that may someday emerge as a poem or as the kernel of a creative idea.
It is rare for a frum woman to have earned degrees from Vassar, Yale, Wesleyan and Stanford Universities and become a renowned expert in Chinese history, language and culture; rarer still for that woman to be a prolific and highly respected poet as well as a prize-winning author of more than a dozen books and scores of scholarly articles. But Vera Schwarcz is no ordinary woman, though she describes herself simply as a poet and historian. Alternately effervescent and pensive, her warm personality reflects a life that has transformed sorrow into joy.
Born in Romania to Holocaust survivors, she was schooled in Communist dogma for her entire childhood. When a loving aunt in the United States had finally saved up enough money to bring the family to New York, Vera found herself enrolled in a Jewish school, where everything – -from language to lifestyle to religion – was foreign to her. As an eighth grader sitting awkwardly in a first grade classroom, she was not favorably impressed with the experience. Her aunt, frustrated by her failed attempts to imbue her sister’s family with Yiddisheit, eventually moved to Eretz Yisrael.
Yet many years later, when Vera was in her thirties and developing her academic career, her ancestors’ Judaism took on a luster. Little by little, the wisdom and beauty of her heritage became a light that grew brighter and brighter until she was ready to make the changes that would open the door to a full Torah lifestyle.
Her dozens of trips to the Far East played a surprising role in that development. Initially, Vera, states candidly, she fled to Asia to escape a glum Judaism that rested primarily on Holocaust memories. In China, on territory so far from the norms she had known, introspection came more easily. A Jew among so many non-Jews, she felt her identity challenged and then clarified.
The exquisite simplicity of East Asian art and culture gave her a sense of wholeness and harmony she had not experienced anywhere else. “There is something in me that seeks quiet,” she muses. She learned that silence is a universal language in itself, and that poetry, with its succinct and precise wording often could express personal struggles and insights better than effusive prose.
And she wants to share all she has learned, especially with her students who tend to revere her as a role model. Her attitude toward teaching is that knowledge is about living life, not just facts.
Nineteen years ago, when Vera adopted her daughter, news of her maternity leave made a splash in the university newspaper and evoked consternation among a student body infused with feminism. She already had two sons, and the students were perplexed. Imagine – a professor with a prestigious career going out of her way for motherhood! Students wrote in to the paper, one condescendingly stating that the professor could do as she likes, as long as it doesn’t impinge on anyone else.
Vera was quite familiar with this attitude, for it is not new. As an undergraduate at Vassar College, many of her classmates chose to opt out of having families in favor of a career. (She notes wryly that some regretted that decision much later in their lives: at a recent class reunion there were a dozen women in their fifties nursing their first child — thanks to the wonders of today’s medical technology). She responded to the student’s letter that her decision was a lesson in itself, that “I teach a lot more than dates in Chinese history.”
She made it a point to raise this issue repeatedly when she taught at Hebrew University in 1992. She knew that when she would tell her students that it is important to marry and have a family her words would carry more weight than their parents’ pleas. One graduate student who was particularly attached to her came from Israel to Connecticut to continue her studies. Though a very career-minded young woman, she absorbed her mentor’s constant refrain about family priorities. Vera beams when she tells the end of the story: “A year later, she called me from Israel and told me she had a son, and then she said, ‘You are the savta!’ ”
Her influence has been significant in China as well. She was a member of the first group of exchange scholars to be sent there by the US State Department in 1979 and has returned to Beijing to teach on several occasions. When she went as part of a State Department speakers’ program in 2010, relations between the two countries were at a new low. The mood in China was very anti-American and openly anti-western. Jews, on the other hand, are held in high esteem. They are regarded as wise, broad-minded and cultured. Moreover, like the Chinese, Jews cherish knowledge and convey it across time. In a word, the Chinese respect mesorah, for they too guard and treasure the value of learning from previous generations. So everywhere she went, she was not presented as an American — she would be introduced as “Professor Schwarcz – a Jew” and the audience would respond favorably. “It’s like a pebble thrown into a lake,” she says, “the concentric circles keep widening. Everywhere I go in China, I am vetted and written about as a Jew – a representative of a very special people.”
In that situation, many of us would feel enormous pressure to behave as a kiddush Hashem. But she is not intimidated. “I am who I am,” Vera states, “the rest just follows.” Academic and political leaders revere her as a vibrant symbol of a Jewishness they admire.
The relocation of the Mirrer Yeshiva to Shanghai during World War II introduced the Chinese to the ways and values of the Torah community. They were impressed by the fortitude of the yeshiva faculty and students, and admired their devotion to ancient teachings. A telling incident occurred in May 1942, when the first volume of the Torah Ohr (Mir) Talmud had just been printed in China, through outstanding mesiras nefesh. Though the war with Japan was going on outside, the yeshiva held a grand seudah to celebrate the publication, and was joined by the beloved Rabbi Shlomo Kalish, the Amshenover Rebbe. Even as bombs fell, the Rebbe, the Mir bochrim and their rebbeim danced in a lively circle. A non-Jewish, Polish journalist who observed this strange juxtaposition of courage and ecstasy wrote: “Those who did not witness the Amshenover Rebbe and yeshiva students dance at receiving this marvelous gift had never seen true Jewish joy and felt the secret of the Jew’s eternity.”
Quoted by Dr. Schwarcz in her book, Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (Yale University Press, 1998)
But there is another reason that Jewish Studies is a rapidly growing field in today’s Chinese universities. “When I taught in Peking in 1984, there were just a few students interested in Jewish studies – now it is everywhere. The Chinese are learning about our history, our culture, even reading the Jewish Bible (with commentaries!)” Vera affirms. The reason for this interest is that they perceive a shared challenge. The Chinese are aware that they are becoming bigger and more powerful on the global stage than ever before. Modernization is going at such a rapid pace that many are concerned about their fate as a distinct culture. They look to the Jews as a successful role model. “They see it as a special Jewish chochmah – the ability to be part of the modern world, while staying rooted in one’s traditions and values.”
Not only Chinese intellectuals have looked to the Jewish people as a model of cultural survival. The current Dalai Lama – the Buddhist leader who fled Tibet after a failed uprising in 1959 and has been “in exile” with his coterie of government officials and followers — has also scrutinized the history and culture of the Jews. His aim was to learn how to make religion “portable” away from his homeland and keep his people strong in the face of persecution. Vera met him at a meeting held in Migdal David in Jerusalem, where he was a somewhat controversial figure (because of Buddhist influence on many young Israelis). She witnessed the following exchange, when one of the Jewish leaders bluntly asked him, “Why are you stealing our children?”
His response? “If you would open up to them the depths of your tradition, they would have nothing to seek from me.”
The Jews fell silent.
Another important factor in the growth of Jewish Studies in China is the strengthening of relations between Israel and China. Shared economic and strategic interests (for they too, are threatened by Muslims on their borders), have brought a considerable numbers of Israelis to China.
And a strange thing happens to those Israelis: “They find out how Jewish they are,” Vera chuckles. Invariably, “they seek out seeds of Judaism in the Chinese landscape” – whether it is pursuing the history of the Jews of Kaifeng (who migrated there in the tenth century), or finding local synagogues and Jewish gathering places. “Something awakens,” she says thoughtfully, then quotes an expression from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosha Hashanah) mentioned by Rambam in Mishneh Torah: Divrei Torah are poor in their original place, and rich [when found] elsewhere.”
It is a process that works its magic on Vera as well. “When I go to China, I discover new facets of Yiddishkeit that I wouldn’t otherwise see. I’ve come to realize that Shabbos is the Jewish soul-garden. It is our opportunity to put aside the rush of daily life and contemplate. Asian art is understated, abstract and very symbolic. It has taught me to be grateful for the movement of lines — in ceramics, in fabric, in dance. And that gratitude invariably spills over into a deep thankfulness to Hashem for the sublime beauty of His works, for the many blessings He has given me, and for the opportunity to engage in different worlds.”
To Vera, those worlds are not as far apart as they may seem to the uninitiated observer. For one thing, both nations have suffered much over their long histories, and have learned to be resilient despite adversity. And though Far Eastern culture is riddled with nuances of avodah zara (“One must be careful,” she warns), there are some similarities between the two cultures that resonate in the Jewish mind and heart. She points out that these two ancient civilizations “cultivated the art of memory and textuality” — there is great respect for scrupulous attention to text and the commentaries on classical texts. Being refined means being learned. Moreover, there is a code of ethical behavior (“not like Pirkei Avos, mind you, but nonetheless genuine”) that places strong value on family and nation. Though not G-d-based, there is an emphasis on the totality of the universe symbolized by “heaven, earth and man.” One must be in harmony with Creation and with one’s interpersonal landscape through truth and sincerity.
Poised at the junction of Jewish and Chinese cultures, Vera feels that we can all be enriched by experiencing each other’s worlds. When you are dislodged from your own culture, you shift perspective, yielding depth and enrichment. “We are not all the same, but we learn much when we go beyond our own proximity. We can learn things that that enhance rather than threaten Jewish spirituality.”
A tempting suggestion, but how many of us have the opportunity to go to China? Vera feels that the average American Jew can “visit” Chinese culture in many ways. “Take a look at Chinese painting,” she suggests. “Note the subtleties and the way it hints at meaning. Pick up a brush yourself and try your hand at something quiet and creative. Take a course in Chinese calligraphy. Write some poetry. Take time to think, take time to breathe.”
That point is particularly important to our lives, Vera contends. We are inundated by multiple connections and constant interruptions. We would do well to develop the Chinese gift of appreciation: to stop and listen, to take the time to notice things – a leaf on a tree, rain glistening on a spider web, the sound of the wind — in a way that is respectful of the briyah and our place in it. Instead of bemoaning winter, take a picture of it and live in that moment. Really look at the world around you.
“Be silent and watchful and you will discover an aesthetic dimension that is very Chinese, but also very Jewish,” she counsels. “When you become a truly attentive person, you become more thoughtful, and your actions are more deliberate, more meaningful. You achieve a level of yishuv hadas.”
Her poetry is the product of immersion in Chinese and Jewish knowledge, circling back to her experience as a child of the Holocaust. She avers that much of her scholarship, as well as her poems, “centers on issues of remembrance and how to make room in language for things that are sometimes unbearably difficult to express in words.”
Currently, her work is not about herself, but renditions of Chinese poetry that give voice to ideas and insights that move her. In Vera’s multi-faceted, yet harmonious world, history and poetry entwine. She sometimes fashions her own interpretation of poems that are centuries old, yet they reflect a concept that is as current as this morning’s sunrise. And she hopes that others will be as touched by them as she has been. “I daven that my poems will do something in the world, that they somehow will help bring to light what Hashem wants known at this time.”
Chisel of Remembrance
Your freezing scent lures few butterflies…
Huang Chao (840-884)
How do you pry open time?
Crowbar of volition, too coarse,
tweezers of history, too weak.
Chisel of remembrance, however,
designed to scrape the face
of blinded clocks, reveals,
a second hand well suited
to give the past a pair of wings.
The White Button
seventy years ago,
sat between her parents
on a sculptured chair.
The man in the stylish hat
has one arm around the girl
with lace-up shoes, another
on his waist as if the world
were a leisurely place
where he might have taken out
a gold watch, counted the minutes
of daily blessing. His young wife
gazing inward, almost in a dream,
not yet alarmed by war. A wig
on her married head slopes gently
like a sumptuous robe, no armor
against the ravage when it comes.
To all her children,
not just this serious girl in a dark sailor suit
with one white button, balanced
between parents she will not be able to save,
war comes. It comes to all of her kin
I refuse to let them vanish
speechless. I call them back
on this page. I strengthen
my hand around a child with dark eyes
and old fashioned lace-up shoes –
gone the aristocratic chair,
gold chain, hat, wig.
The white button remains,
A pustule of hope.
How to roll the sound
of feet dancing Torah
into the vernacular
of days to come?
How to decode the music
of ancient letters binding together
myrtle, willow, date frond,
heart of etrog?
How to keep the echo
of ram’s horn blowing
in the mind’s ear
long after the closing of the gates?
How to translate silence
into the tongue of cluttered
speech, into hours
How to give voice
To diamond minutes?
No alchemist, the translator
is left with shards of splintered light.
Listening to the Universe
Is no longer a Chinese pastime
since the Communists
shrank language, calling it
Once xian 閒 was a word picture
sages sang out with joy
at the idea of “idle” being made up
of two gates framing the crescent moon,
hinting at the art of listening to heaven,
lingering at the doorposts of the unsaid,
alert to what steals in and out of language at ease.
Today’s xian 闲 is a poor cousin
to the idleness of yore: a skinny, broken
doorway now frames a solitary tree,
like a broken finger wagging at anyone
who dares to linger
where no grain grows.
perverted, may leave a nation mute.
How do you travel
without a map? –
more alert at the cross
you have come
this way before,
knowing the road
is carved inside,
so you are not
truly lost, not
traveled with you
that life is
of old maps.
Rendition of a poem by the Manchu Prince Yihuan (1840-1891)
A wall of flowers
used to bloom here
in my old garden.
Never mind, let it rot:
red flames already ate up
palace, pagoda, pavilion.
Now, you say, let us take up
our conversation as before.
Come, let me show you
what is left of my refuge.