Inaugural Vera Schwarcz lecture explores the Tibetan-Jewish connection
By Cindy Mindell
MIDDLETOWN –During her 40-year career at Wesleyan University, noted Chinese scholar and author Vera Schwarcz established the East Asian Studies Program, where she served as director and as Freeman Chair in East Asian Studies. Following the motto, “thinking Jewish/teaching China,” she has also forged a unique academic and personal path combining Chinese studies and her Jewish identity; among her eight authored books on Jewish and Chinese history (and five books of poetry) is Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory, winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
A year after her 2015 retirement from Wesleyan, Schwarcz will be honored on Monday, April 4 at the inaugural Vera Schwarcz Annual Lecture, co-sponsored by the East Asian Studies Program and Chabad at Wesleyan.
The Vera Schwarcz Annual Lecture was established “to expand avenues for reflection on campus about the deeper meanings of ‘critical thought,’” says Schwarcz, who today splits her time between Israel and her home in West Hartford. “Too often, students are taught how to deconstruct all beliefs, myths and concepts, without being given the tools to build up a deeper understanding of ethical and religious values. It is this vacuum that the Schwarcz lecture series seeks to address and to explore.”
The inaugural guest lecturer will be Professor Nathan Katz, a fellow innovator in the field of Jewish-Asian studies, who will discuss “The Dalai Lama and the Secret to Jewish Survival.”
Katz is a faculty member at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, where he serves as distinguished professor in the School of International and Public Affairs, the Bhagawan Mahavir Professor of Jain Studies, founder-director of the Program in the Study of Spirituality, and director of Jewish Studies and academic director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. He has been awarded four Fulbright grants for research and teaching in India and Sri Lanka, and accepted two.
Katz was selected as a delegate to the 1990 Tibetan-Jewish dialogue hosted by H.H. The Dalai Lama and reported in the best-selling The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, by Roger Kamenetz (1994). Katz reciprocated the hospitality in 1999 when the Dalai Lama first visited FIU for an honorary doctorate, and returned in 2004 and 2010. Inspired by the Dalai Lama’s vision of educating both the “warm heart” and the “good brain,” Katz founded FIU’s Program in the Study of Spirituality with foci on research, public programs, and seminars, and designed a curriculum that includes the world’s only undergraduate certificate program in the study of spirituality.
On a 1989 visit to the U.S., the Dalai Lama first met with a group of Jewish scholars in New York, seeking to learn what he called “the Jewish secret technique” of survival. He continued the Tibetan-Jewish dialog the following year, at his palace in Dharamsala, India. Katz was among the invitees.
“He was most interested in the home-centeredness of our religion, and institutions such as summer camps for instilling spirit into our youth,” Katz recalls. “He was also impressed by our ritual life, which continually reminds us of what we have lost, the breaking of the wine glass under the chuppah being the case in point.” Today, Tibetans run summer camps in India for their youth, who are scattered throughout India and around the world.
A graduate of Temple University, Katz is best known for his work in Indo-Judaic studies. He has written award-winning books on Indian Jewish communities, and in 2002 convened an international seminar on the topic at Oxford University, bringing together scholars from North America, India, Europe, and Israel. The conference resulted in Indo-Judaic Studies in the 21st Century, a book that was the focus of an academic panel at the 2008 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
Katz also serves as an adjunct professor of Hinduism at Hindu University of America in Orlando, and as a consulting dean of the Chaim Yakov Shlomo College of Jewish Studies, an Orthodox rabbinical school in Surfside, Fla.
His book, Who Are the Jews of India?, was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist in 2000 and won the 2004 Vak Devi Saraswati Saman Award from India. His co-authored book, The Last Jews of Cochin (1993), was a Nota Bene selection of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
When exploring the similarities between Jews and Asians, Katz says, “There are more commonalities among truly ancient religions – Judaism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, as well as some aspects of indigenous religions – than most people realize. Each is rooted in a people and/or place and does not tend to spread out, as newer or missionary religions do. Of course, there are cultural similarities: strong family, emphasis on education, immigrant experience in America, and so on.”
As for the more recent phenomenon of syntheses like “Jewish Buddhists” – described as “Jubus” in The Jew in the Lotus – Katz offers a personal opinion.
“Certain practices, such as some type of Buddhist meditation, or yoga, seem not to pose any conflict with practicing Judaism,” he says. “But one cannot really be seriously Jewish and serious Buddhist or Hindu at the same time. Most people who [do so] claim to experience Jewishness merely as an ethnicity. But there are many for whom an excursus into Hinduism or Buddhism led them to a passionate return to Judaism, and this is true for every form of Judaism from Renewal to Chasidic.” Katz describes this phenomenon in his 2009 memoir, Spiritual Journey Home.
The analogy between the Tibetan and Jewish peoples was drawn as early as 1973, in “An Outline of the History of Israel,” a pamphlet written by Tibetan Youth Congress leader, Jamyang Norbu and translated by Katz. “Norbu sees Jews as role models for successfully navigating diaspora and ultimately triumphing with the establishment of the State of Israel,” he says.
“The Dalai Lama and the Secret to Jewish Survival” with Dr. Nathan Katz, Monday, April 4, 8 p.m. at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, 343 Washington Terrace, Middletown. For more information: chabadwesleyan.org/vera.
CAP: The Dalai Lama is greeted by Prof. Nathan Katz upon his arrival at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, Florida on Oct. 26, 2010. Photo/AP