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Spotlight on Judaic Studies

Gilya Gerda Schmidt in China"One would think that China and Judaic Studies make strange bedfellows, since there is not even one Jewish community in China today," Gilya Gerda Schmidt said.

Yet, Schmidt -- head of UT's department of religious studies and chair of the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies -- spent five days this summer at an International Task Force seminar on Teaching the Holocaust at Shanghai University. She was the only American academic involved.

"Thanks to Vice President Emeritus Phil Scheurer's foresight in seating me next to Professor Guo Changgang of Shanghai University during the university delegation’s visit to UT in fall 2006, I received an invitation to participate," Schmidt said. Professor Guo was the organizer of the conference, along with the London Jewish Culture Centre.

"It was a superb experience.The five-day conference gave me an opportunity to teach and meet with faculty and students, 80 in all, from a number of Chinese universities. All the faculty teach Judaic Studies and the Holocaust -- none of them are Jewish -- and the students were all graduate students who work with these scholars and will be future scholars in the field of Jewish Studies. The interaction was exhilarating as well as humbling. Some Chinese students spend time in Israel to learn Hebrew. In conversation, English can easily be skipped in favor of Hebrew. In fact, Dr. Zhong Zhiqing, from the China Academy of Social Sciences, worked with Israeli poet Amos Oz in Beer Sheva, Israel, and has translated his autobiography into Chinese. Oz will visit China in August.

"I also had the opportunity to meet with my counterpart at Nanjing University, Professor Xu Xin, who not only started a Center for Jewish Studies there in 1992, a year before I started our Judaic Studies Program at UT, but whose center is named after major donors Diane and Guilford Glazer, the first big donors to my endowed chair here at UT."

A Continuing Relationship

Schmidt said her Chinese counterparts would be interested in seeing the relationship continue.

"I have been invited back for an extensive lecture tour next year.In addition to Shanghai and Nanjing, I hope to also visit Henan University in Kaifeng, where the oldest Jewish community was located. For the future, I would also like to interest some of my colleagues in Judaic Studies and Religious Studies in participating. Student contact was excellent, with students asking for help with papers on anything from religious pluralism, American synagogues, Israel, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, to 'Who are the Jews?' and even career counseling! Although male and female students eagerly engaged me in conversation, the female students saw me quite clearly as a role model for themselves. The openness and kindness of students and colleagues was touching and disarming, activating the Jewish mother in me. To my surprise, they mothered me right back, fulfilling my every wish before I could even utter it as such.

"I found it most interesting that this nation of many millions looks up to the Jewish people, whose worldwide population is smaller than the population of Shanghai, because of our integrity. It was with considerable joy and some pride that I answered their many questions during the seminars we conducted.

"The various Judaic Studies programs also have a need for books on Judaism, which we will try to fill via a book drive in the Knoxville Jewish community this fall. Next year I hope to also visit Henan University in Kaifeng, where the oldest Jewish community was located."

The Chinese trip was "one of the most profound learning experiences of my professional life, and I look forward to nurturing the relationships I established," Schmidt said.

Schmidt's travel was supported by a UT SARIF travel grant and a generous donation from Guilford and Diane Glazer.

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To learn more about the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies, see web.utk.edu/~judaic. For more about the department of religious studies, see web.utk.edu/~religion.

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