Louis Finkelstein and Hu Shih

Hilde Lewis
May 1986

We had just finished dinner and the children had already left the table. I was a college student, living in the hourse of Professor Louis Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, managing the household, and taking care of his children. I suddenly asked Professor Finkelstein, ``What was the happiest experience of your life?'' a question prompted by a psychology course I was taking just then. Professor Finkelstein, a tall, slender, and very distinguished-looking scholar, in his dark beard and somewhat melancholy eyes, looked at me, smiled and said: ``I think I can answer that. In 1941, we wished to have a keynote speaker at the Institute for Interdenominational Studies. The Chinese ambassador was known to me as a first-rate scholar. I had read some of his publications and thought he might be a fine choice. So I wrote to the embassy, asking whether I might have an audience with the ambassador. To my surprise, I received an overwhelmingly cordial reply to this request, such as I had never received in my life. I was really impressed with how the Chinese handled things.''

``I took the train to Washington and a taxi to the embassy. Soon after I was ushered into the ambassador's study, he came in himself, and greeted me in this manner: `Professor Finkelstein, you are the one person I had hoped to meet more than any other when I heard I was to take this post. Please take a seat.' As soon as we were both seated in his beautiful study, filled with antiques, exquisite rugs, and scrolls, he bent forward and took the volumes of books which had been placed on a little table next to him, and looking at me he said: `Before you tell me what you came to see me about, will you do me the great honor to autograph your books on the Pharisees for me?' I was speechless. Here, in this room, so strange to me and, in fact, technically on foreign soil, were my two volumes on the Pharisees, published in 1938. And, when I took one in my hand, I could see that the book had been handled, annotated, and thoroughly used. I was so shaken by my surprise that, for a moment, trying to write a dedication to my host, I could not recall his name, Hu Shih.''

``Taking the volumes into his hands, the ambassador said: `Please let me tell you how I came to have your Pharisees. A few years ago, I was doing research about a Chinese tribe of ancient origin which had retained its distinct culture throughout the centuries, although it had been dispersed and persecuted. I wondered whether there was any other instance in the world of such an unusual phenomenon and wrote to the Library of Congress, here in Washington. Your Pharisees were recommended to me, and, as you can see, I read, reread, and studied them thoroughly. I said to myself, this is the man I most want to meet when I come to Washington. When I received your letter asking to see me, I felt that it was providential.' ''

``Need I tell you why this was the happiest moment in my life? To have my work known and treasured on the other side of the globe by such a scholar? No wonder I was overcome by emotion and happiness. And ambassador Hu Shih turned out to be a marvellous keynote speaker.''

This story is reproduced here with the kind permission of Hilde Lewis. I have slightly edited it, using information about Hu Shih's lecture provided by my uncle Ezra Finkelstein and information published in A Pragmatist and his Free Spirit: The Half-Century Romance of Hu Shi and Edith Clifford Williams by Susan Chan Egan and Zhiping Zhou, p. 502.

This story has been also published as an article (pp. 24-25) by Susan Chan Egan, in the November 25, 2010 issue of Hu Shi yanjiu tongxun,o a journal dedicated to the study of Hu Shi that comes out four times a year, based at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Other material about my grandfather