Rabbi Helen Plotkin, '08, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, sees a natural flow between her interest in ancient Chinese texts and her love of Jewish texts.
Before beginning her rabbinical studies, Plotkin received a graduate degree in Chinese language and thought. She says she was looking for an antidote to the individualism and isolation of Western culture when she traveled to Taipei in 1979-80 as a participant in an international program sponsored by Stanford University. While there, she became enamored of ancient texts, noting that the pages were illustrated with beautiful calligraphy and annotated with commentary below.
A friend suggested to her that in her quest for an antidote to Western culture, perhaps she had gone too far east; perhaps she should take a closer look at her own heritage.
Two years later, when she began her formal study of Judaism and Jewish texts at Pardes in Jerusalem, she was struck by the similarities between the layout of a page of Chinese text and the layout of a page in the Talmud. But differences in how the Chinese and Jewish cultures have used their texts brought her closer to her Jewish roots.
"Jews have taken the ancient texts and made them live in every epoch of their civilization, always creating something that is both old and new at the same time. We have never lost our connection to our earliest roots, and we have used them to connect our people together across time and space."
Today, as a teacher, Plotkin says she loves "to help people thicken their own Jewish and personal identity and to help them find their own connections to the texts." Plotkin is the founding director of Mekom Torah: A Community Jewish Learning Program. She also is an accomplished cellist and has played in string quartets and Klezmer groups.