James Ross, pro­gram director of Jewish Studies and pro­fessor of jour­nalism at North­eastern, has written and lec­tured exten­sively on the Jewish Dias­pora, with one of his focal points being the little-​​known his­tory of Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in China. Here, Ross dis­cusses some of that his­tory, as well as cur­rent Chi­nese per­cep­tions of Jews and Jewish cul­ture and the impli­ca­tions of those beliefs.

How did you come to study Jewish cul­ture while you were teaching in China?
I first learned about Jews in China in August of 1986, after I returned from my second summer teaching jour­nalism at the Shanghai For­eign Lan­guages Insti­tute (now Shanghai Inter­na­tional Studies Uni­ver­sity). I read a brief article in The New York Times about an Amer­ican group that was working with the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to pre­pare a study of the 20,000 Jews who had escaped the Nazis and fled to Shanghai between 1938 and 1941.

I was sur­prised to dis­cover that there had been a Jewish com­mu­nity in a Shanghai neigh­bor­hood I knew quite well—I passed through there each day on my way to the uni­ver­sity. I dis­cov­ered that there had been Russian and Bagh­dadi Jews in Shanghai as well, and that Jews had a long his­tory of living in China dating back to the eighth century.

I spent the next seven years trav­eling around the world to inter­view sur­vivors of the Shanghai refugee com­mu­nity, and returned to Shanghai to again walk through the neigh­bor­hood they had left in the late 1940s.

Why are the Chi­nese are so fas­ci­nated by the Jewish cul­ture?
When I first vis­ited China in 1985, Chi­nese young people often approached me to prac­tice their Eng­lish. It was quite common for them to ask me my reli­gion. When I said I was Jewish, the response was invari­ably “Jews are the best!” along with a thumbs up.

There are now vir­tu­ally no Jews in China other than for­eign vis­i­tors. But eleven Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties offer Jewish Studies courses and grad­uate degrees in Jewish Studies. I think one reason for their fas­ci­na­tion is that Jews have an ancient his­tory, even longer than Chi­nese history.

What are the most common pre­con­ceived notions or mis­con­cep­tions that Chi­nese people have about Jewish people and cul­ture?
The Chi­nese grow up knowing that Marx, Ein­stein and Freud were Jews. So the common stereo­type is that Jews are smart as well as rich and polit­i­cally pow­erful. The book­stores and blo­gos­phere are filled with books and blogs that stereo­type all Jews as wealthy, crafty and good at busi­ness. Despite the stereo­types, which in some ways mimic “The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion,” there are few neg­a­tive com­ments. Many Chi­nese today want to learn from the Jews, par­tic­u­larly as their economy expands so rapidly.

You have been pre­senting your research find­ings to local cul­tural groups. What has been the response?
My talks have gen­er­ated a lot of dis­cus­sion about how Jews should respond. Some of the stereo­types may seem flat­tering, but I think the gen­eral response is that it’s impor­tant for the Chi­nese to have a more nuanced under­standing of Jewish reli­gion and cul­ture and the rela­tion­ship between Amer­ican Jews and Israel. One way to do that is to pro­mote cul­tural exchange and send more aca­d­e­mics to China to teach Jewish Studies. Stereo­types can be dan­gerous. Although there’s vir­tu­ally no his­tory of anti-​​Semitism in China, it’s pos­sible that ten­sions with the West or con­flict in the Middle East could foment anti-​​Semitism in China.

Can you tell us about your new course on the Jewish Dias­pora?
It’s the most chal­lenging and rewarding class I’ve taught in my 20-​​plus years at North­eastern. We’re exploring the reli­gion, cul­ture and iden­tity of more than a dozen Jewish com­mu­ni­ties out­side the United States and Israel. I wrote about some of them, such as the Abayu­daya of Uganda, in my book “Fragile Branches: Travels through the Jewish Dias­pora.” We’re also looking at Moun­tain Jews in the Cau­casus, as well as Jews in Argentina, Cuba, South Africa and Ethiopia, through film, music, art and lit­er­a­ture. For me, the joy of teaching is the oppor­tu­nity to learn about his­tory and cul­ture and to pass on that new­found knowl­edge to my students.

To learn more about the School of Jour­nalism at North­eastern, visit: http://​www​.north​eastern​.edu/​j​o​u​r​n​a​l​i​sm/

To learn about the Jewish Studies pro­gram at North­eastern, visit: http://​www​.jew​ish​studies​.neu​.edu/