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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2000

Because of memory, because of hope

BRIDGE ACROSS BROKEN TIME: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory, by Vera Schwarcz. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1998, 232 pp. (cloth).

Staff writer Rarely does a book challenge a reader -- or a reviewer -- as this one does. "Bridge Across Broken Time" is equal parts academic study, meditation and personal memoir. It demands not only reading, but reflection. It is, in short, a daunting assignment, but well worth the effort.

Few people would be capable of covering its terrain -- the way that the Chinese and Jewish cultures use memory -- much less of bringing the depth and intensity that Vera Schwarcz provides. But Schwarcz, a professor of East Asian studies at Wesleyan University and a prolific writer, is an original.

She was born in Cluj, Transylvania, and raised in a household that spoke Romanian, Hungarian and German. She learned Russian and French in school; a tutor taught Hebrew, her parents' language. Her father lost his first wife at Auschwitz; her mother lost her parents, her first husband and a daughter during the war. In the early 1970s, after moving to the United States but before relations between Washington and Beijing were normalized, Schwarcz began her China studies.

Superficially, it is easy to compare the two cultures. Both have histories that stretch thousands of years. In both cases, a sense of a distinctive past separates the Jew or the Chinese from the wider culture in which he or she lives. Key dates frequently coincide: Schwarcz notes that she was in Beijing celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day for Jews, when authorities closed the Democracy Wall in October, 1979.

Some see disturbing parallels between the 6 million Jewish deaths in the Holocaust and the 30 million Chinese lives sacrificed to the Cultural Revolution. (Schwarcz dismisses the claim: "No matter how great the stench presumed to emanate from the educated in China [during the Cultural Revolution] they were never degraded to the subhuman level [like the Jews].") There is even the long-standing negative association embodied in the labeling of overseas ethnic Chinese as "the Jews of Asia" as a result of their business success.

That last item reveals why the casual comparisons are flawed. The Chinese are tied to land they have inhabited for centuries; the Jews have been uprooted and are often rootless. They have only had a homeland for the last half-century. As Schwarcz explains, "Perhaps because Chinese culture has been so stably anchored in the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys, its heirs could afford to question the tenacity of the past in imagination. With the ruins of ancient structures at hand, remembrance did not have to perform the salvaging operation required of those who longed for Zion with fervor . . ."

In Schwarcz's reckoning, history isn't the key. Of course, history exists, and it weighs heavy in both cultures. She even accepts that identity for both Jews and Chinese is intermediated by historical precedent.

But the focus of her book is remembering -- more precisely, memory. History is inert; memory isn't. For her, memory is the acknowledgment that time is broken up; "it is the knowledge that an absence has to be bridged with words." It is the raw material that connects today with yesterday and tomorrow, "the cord that attaches hope to despair."

For Schwarcz, the building of that bridge is what brings the two cultures together. This she calls "their shared insistence on reanimating the old."

For both cultures, the past is not only an inheritance, but a quest. It is a guide to living. "Both the Talmud and 'the Analects' [of Confucius] use incidents from the lives of predecessors for moral argument. Both insist that humanity is capable of actualizing the ethical ideals of the past in the present."

Bringing the past to life is a complicated task for the ethicist and the scholar. After all, history is not for everyone. Often, we need something more animated to bring the past to life. That's why Schwarcz says "the words of the sages are not enough. We also need the unique gifts of the poet," for they use "the universalizing force of metaphor."

It is a controversial tack for the scholar, since it departs from the carefully weighed words and tone that characterize most academic studies. But Schwarcz has no reservations -- she relies heavily on poetry in "Bridge Across Broken Time." Mercifully, too. It gives the book much of its rhythm and grace, and provides a vital counterpoint to the weight of the author's family narrative.

That is not to say that her personal history is graceless or obtrusive. Rather, it is the swing between the two that illustrates her points so well. And given the grimness of her family history, the respite is much appreciated. Readers have a chance -- if not the obligation -- to consider the poetry in both Schwarcz's context and within their own lives. (That is not just for Chinese and Jews if a reader believes that there are important lessons to be drawn from such teachings.)

Despite the many parallels, there are still critical distinctions between the two cultures. Schwarcz notes that while both cultures look to the past for guidance, "the Confucian connectedness to history was based on a naturalistic communication with heaven and with the sages of long ago. Jewish faith in the renewal of history, by contrast, is grounded in the relationship to a divine force that transcends nature and time."

"Bridge Across Broken Time" concludes with the core beliefs of Mencius -- Jianshan tianxia (seek to unify and benefit all under heaven) -- and Rabbi Hillel -- V'chesheani l'atzmi ma ani? (If I am for myself alone, what am I?). "Although these two sages never met, we can imagine their talking together under the ragged pine, each experiencing his own world more deeply as he listened to the other." And from that exercise, our own lives are enriched as well.

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