New School/Old World

“And your children shall be wanderers in the wilderness…” (Numbers 14:33)

“Preserve the old but know the new.” (Chinese Proverb)

Fleeing persecution involves some serious cultural, intellectual and emotional displacement and yet, after centuries of experience in exile, Jews have channeled their disadvantages into productivity. The Radhanites, a medieval Jewish merchant sect acted as the neutral go-betweens between warring countries, pirates and between Western Europe and East Asia during the Middle Ages. Among the first to establish an extensive Eurasian trade network, some historians even suggest that the Radhanite merchants were responsible for helping introduce paper (a Chinese invention) to the West. With the fall of the Chinese Tang Dynasty in 908 AD, however, chaos descended on the East. The bridge was closed, but not before the Jewish merchants left a trail of Jewish settlements across both continents, many of which still exist today.

As Jews are no strangers to immigrant culture—accompanying identity crisis included—it is little surprise that in recent years a new kind of understanding is developing between Jews and the nations of the Far East. The last century bore witness to political upheaval, all the more drastic and dramatic with advances in global communication and military technology. While history’s Jewish fall-guy has become uncomfortably familiar with the painful results of such events, a kinship formed from the socio-political fallout and of cultural similarities now exists between Jewish and Asian American immigrants in the wake of World War II, the Cold War, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and other events placing the Far East back in the spotlight on the world stage. The Jewish people, a wandering nation with faraway homeland, has held tightly onto its identity for thousands of years while the nations of the East have the geographic home-base advantage but have had to rewrite their cultures after almost half a century of being verily erased by political reforms, foreign occupation, and other complications.

In the fight to hold onto and/or reestablish ancient heritage in a world hell-bent for better or worse on modernization, Jews and Asians have found a common ground through philosophy, family life, social traditions and a deeply ingrained sense of ”peopleness.” Today, even as media speculation runs bi-polar on East-West relationships, the Art World especially acts as a guiding light in the realm of cross-cultural collaborations. The relationship between the Jewish Diaspora and the Asian Diaspora, particularly in North America has gained momentum in the last several years through living in geographically overlapping communities in major cities like New York and San Fransisco, a higher rate of intermarriage between cultures, the Jewish love-affair with Chinese food and Japanese sushi, the rising popularity of Talmudic study in Korea and China, and the comic book culture explosion, heavily influenced by Japanese manga and by a couple of Jewish guys from the Lower East Side (you remember Superman) part in partial responsible for the Golden Age of Comic Books. Furthermore, where most international dialogue seems to attempt to surpass social differences to go straight to the root of what it means to be a human being and a citizen of the world, Jewish and Asian cultures hold steadfastly to the knowledge that as people of the world, they are culturally different and so behave accordingly. The Torah demands that the Jews, “be a light unto the nations.” (Isaiah, 49:6) Asians have held themselves to high standards in that department as well; their cultural, social and technical creations indeed shedding enlightenment upon the world.

The modern “Tiger Moms,” “Nice Jewish Doctors,” and the driven Asian and Jewish businessmen stereotypes of the 21st century spell out a story today beyond simply ambition; both the Jewish and Asian immigrant families are “strangers in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22) and understand what it means to lose everything and start over again and again. With their feet planted on foreign soil, and their hearts in their ancient homelands, Jewish and Asian immigrants are uniquely positioned to explore the intersection between East and West. These middle-men gravitate to centers of culture and commerce such as big cities, where they play a harder game and bet higher stakes because they have faced down the world and proved that no one can take away from them that which is most important: their spirit and their identity. In a world where the future is “now” and today is old news, the gravitas of Jewish and Asian heritages bring a sense of timelessness to arts, culture and commerce. The question we must ask as citizens of the world is “what do these ancient peoples have to share with each other and how will this budding relationship shape the future for everyone?

One can at the very least anticipate that the international buffet table just got a whole lot better.

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