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August 14, 2009

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[ Israelstudies " r semma in China beats obstacles HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, AUGUST 14, 2009 By Alison Klayman BEIJING (JTA)--Chen Yiyi, a Peking University academic, said he was glad his institution was hosting the first major Is- rael studies seminar in China. ~'But you can't imagine how much trouble it took to get here." said Chen, a scholar on the Hebrew Bible and Jewish culture. Despite many obstacles in putting on the workshops th-is month, th~ seminar completed its week at the university with positive reviews from the par- ticipants before moving on for two more weeks at Shandong University in Jinan. As the most prestigious in- stitution of higher learning in China's capital, any program- ming at Peking University, or PKU, is subject to intense scrutiny. When the university aP- plied for approval to host the seminar from the Ministry of Education, the application was immediately passed to the Foreign Ministry, Chen said. "They said an Israel stud- ies seminar was a sensitive topic, could we cancel the seminar--or maybe rename it?" Chen recalled, saying the ministry wanted to omit the Israel studies aspect in the title. Israel studies programs are relatively new in China, where Hebrew language and Jewish cultural studies were around as earlyas the mid-1980s. PKU founded its Hebrew language program in 1985, mostly for national security reasons. While the Chinese are known for respecting Jews for the very reason they were historically demonized in the West--a fabled talent for money management--their Chinese impressions of Israel are more mixed. The ideaofJewish professors lecturing on topics such as Zionism or Islamic radicalism to a room of Chinese academics raised concerns agmng school administrators and govern- ment officials. China's relationship to the Arab world played a part. too. China has become increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil. and countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran are relying more and more on Chinese markets. The growing affinity was a major factor in the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation agreeing to fund the seminar. "China is now concerned with understanding the Mus- lim world," said Ilan Troen, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and one of the seminar lecturers. Wu Bingbing, an associate professor in the department of Arabic language and culture. said PKU is frequently ap- proached by Arab countries who want to donate money." He noted that Saudi Arabia offered his department funds to build a Center for Islamic Studies, as well as an eight- story Islamic library. Oman already established a chair of Arabic studies at PKU. pledging more than $1 million over a five-year period. Kuwait and Iran also have expressed interest in donating an en- dowed chair. Eventually the government approved five days of program- ming at PKU. but attendance was by invitation only and the title for the seminar was care- fully worded. On the official red banner hanging at the front of the room, the Chinese title read. "Antagonistic coexistence and development: Semir~ar on the Israel issue." The addition of the word"is- sue," absent from the English name. connotes positive and negative considerations to the study of Israel. Even after the seminar was approved and the banners were printed, it faced one more obstacle in early July: China's relationship with its own Mus- lim population became a flash- point when clashes between majority Han and Uighur Muslims forced the goverment to bring tens of thousands of troops to maintain order in the far-western Xinjiang region. Chen was afraid the tur- moil in Xinjiang v~ould affect the seminar, but the ethnic violence broke out during the firstweekofsummervacation. "If it was in September or October. I think 60 percent chance the conference~vould have been Canceled." he said. Many of the Chinese Islamic and Persian scholars who at- tended the seminar said they were impressed by the efforts to present balanced views on Israel, perhaps indicating their prior concerns about bias from the all-Jewish cast of lecturers from abroad. Seth Garz. the seminar's project, called it an "accidental strategy" to select a more liberal-leaning group of American and Israeli aca- demics. "We didn't want the seminar to'be too much hasbara." he said. using the Hebrew word for public relations. ".but aca- demics tend to be more liberal anyway." Troen also emphasized that theseminarwas meanttoshow Israel can stand criticism and scholarship. In his lecture at PKU. Troene stressed that there is no singu- lar way to teach Israel. "There are lots of Zionist ideas," he said. "Zionism is about Jews taking responsibil- ity for their own history, their own future, their own fate." "The seminar talked about the structure of Israeli society, and the sophistication of the is- sues benefited us as scholars." Chen said. Alison Klayman glie Rekhess, a Tel Aviv University faculty member and a visitingprofessor at Northwestern University, lectures on Hamas and Islamic radicalism to Chinese scholars at Peking University on July 16. Troen said the Chinese have respect for an ancient civiliza- tion successfully functioning in the modern world. He said many of the Chinese schol- ars with whom he met were interested in learning from Jewish history and cultural evolution as it may apply to the experience of China and Chinese diasporas. Sammy Smooha, a sociol- ogy professor at the University of Haifa. thinks Israeli and Chinese societies have some parallels. "I think both societies are still in formation," he said. "They are not yet crystallized entities. Also, they're both ideological societies--Zionist, Marxist--but both with ideol- ogy on the decline." At Shandong University, the seminar was to focus more on student participation. The first day included about 100 attendees from graduate programs from Macau to Chengdu. Garz said the seminar was an important step in encourag- ing the Jewish community to connect with emerging com- munities around the world. "People don't know about the real level of interest schol- ars and citizens in China have in studying the Jewish and Israeli experience." he said. "Supporting this in China is worthwhile." 'Blossom' star reflects on how belief changed her look By Mayim Bialik Tablet LOS ANGELES Earlier this year, producers from the TLC makeover show "What Not to Wear" chose me to "fix." Itwas eight months after I had given birth to my second son (my firstwas 3 years old). and I had just completed a doctorate in neuroscience. I had been wearing slouchy clothes since long before I had kids. I favored men's oversized garments that hung loosely from my body and had never much cared for fashion or trends. For the most part, I spent little to no time on my appearance. From the time Iwas 19 until I turned32. I devoted my time to studying, writing a thesis and starting a family. But the acting itch never completely abated and I had decided to pursue it again rather than stay in academia. The actor's life I want to pursue gives me more time to raise my children rather than hand them over to a nanny. Having a makeover seemed like a great opportunity to put together a new look that I could use on future auditions. The WNTW producers asked if I had any clothing restrictions. Deep breath. "I don't wear pants," I told them. "I prefer skirts." You see. I am what I guess you'd call a Conservadox Jew. I started embracing certain aspects of Jewish modesty, or tzniut, before my second son was born, and although t know many Orthodox women who don't observe tzniut, the boundaries and framework of privacy it provides appealed to me. I was raised in a traditional Reform household, the grand- daughter of poor Orthodox Courtesy Mayim Bialik Mayim Bialik shows off her new look, within her boundaries of tzniut, or mod- esty, following her appear- ance on "WhatNot To Wear." immigrants from Eastern Europe. For them, success in America came at the seem- ingly small price of relative assimilation. Growing up, I lived a pretty normal life. I had my own prime -time network TV show from the ages of 14 to 19. which meant my physical ap- pearance and clothing choices were dissected on a weekly basis in gossip magazines and on television. I was pretty impervious to media critiques of my style. I had no real sense of my own physicality and took for granted the feminist idea that I should be able to walk around naked without harassment. But I soon learned that not everyone was a feminist. After graduating from pub- lic high school in Los Angeles, I went to college at UCLA. where I met the man who is now my husband. Knowing we wanted a traditional wed- ding ceremony, we started studying Judaism together to prepare for it. At first my lessons with an Orthodox instructor were almost anthropological--I was curious as to how Judaism viewed marriage and sexual- ity, but I did not really intend to increase my level of obser- vance. The more I learned. however, the more my previ- ous distance from traditional Judaism disappeared. 1 was also a serious per- son in general, and chose a wedding dress that reflected my serious attitude about marriage. Entering a sacred covenant before God, I wore an ankle-length, high-necked Victorian dress with sleeves past the elbow and a heavy veil. reminiscent (I hoped) of the matriarchs Leah and Rebekah. During the days of the sheva brachot, the seven traditional feasts celebrated in the days after the chupah ceremony, I tentatively covered my head with scarves and crocheted hats. trying on my new status as a married woman. Beyond wearing a ring, my lifestyle didn't have a means of representing the change from single to married, and I was cautious about chal- lenging the feminist ideals I had previously embraced. But I liked feeling a physical representation in my new life as a married woman. In synagogue, I began covering my head with tichels (deco- rative scarves) from trips to Israel--just as my Orthodox cousinswho I used to consider submissive and trapped in an archaic lifestyle taught me to wrap them and fashionable hats. No flowers allowed. Too Blossom-y. As my life progressed, tzniut became a bigger part and I started appreciating what it means to keep your sexual appeal for yourself and your partner. I came to see that not everything that makes me beautiful, sexy or desirable needs to be on display. In the world of acting, though, maintaining a de- gree of modesty has been a challenge. I stopped wearing pants outside of the home in November 2007. (I still wear them at home or under dresses.) These days, I am more comfortable in skirts rather than the baggy, saggy pants I used to wear. I feel more attractive and more put-together in a skirt. Tzniut doesn't mean mak- ing yourself less attractive; it means highlighting your strengths within limits. But my definition of limits and that of the folks at"What Not to Wear" differed. On and off the set. I discussed my skirt preference with the produc- ers. When the hosts showed me pants as a possible option in my wardrobe. I pointed out that I don't much wear them. I didn't claim to be the spokesperson for tzniut; after all, I still wear shirts above the elbows and don't cover my head regularly. I bought wonderful new clothes, jewelry and vegan shoes (one of my other pref- erences). When we filmed me revealing the final outfits they picked, I gently pointed out that skirts above the knee are not something l would wear, and that I wouldn't wear sleeveless shirts or dresses without something to cover my arms once I left the set. When the show aired, I saw that my qualifications and explanations did not survive the cutting room. I don't wish to claim that there is an "immodest agenda" on WNTW. It's a show for the average American, who is Courtesy Mayim Bialik Actress Mayim Bialik with her older son Fred prior to her appearance on the TLC make-over show "WhatNot To Wear. " most likely not Jewish. and if she is Jewish, she's most likely not observant. In spite of the fact that the hosts kept telling me that I needed to be "sexy" and not "hide" in my clothing, l loved being a part of the show. They were right to encourage me to wear cloth- ing that was my size and to emphasize my figure where it needed emphasizing. But sexy doesn't necessarily mean scantily clad. The week after WNTW was filmed. I auditioned to play a Chasidic woman on "Saving Grace." When the call came in I laughed, pulled a salvaged Israeliankle-length dark denim skirt from the floor ofmyalmc ~t bare closet, threw on a WNTW- purchased tank, cardigan and simple fiats, and applied some lovely understated make-up. I booked the part. Mayim Bialik starred on NBC's "Blossom" from 1990 to 1994. More recently she has appeared on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Saving Grace" and this fall will have a recurring role on "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Reprinted from, a new read on Jewish life.. L