The history and culture of European Jewry is widely known, but many people are unfamiliar with the Jews of Asia and the contributions that Jews made in Asian countries. For example, small pockets of Jewish communities peacefully existed in China over the last several centuries, and even today, there are active Jewish synagogues in India.
In a new book of essays, “Pepper, Silk & Ivory,” authors Marvin Tokayer and Ellen Rodman tell the stories of many of these Jews, some of whom were unsung heroes who played significant roles in government and politics, and some of whom were ordinary people who worked to better the lives of fellow Jews. Tokayer, who served as a rabbi in Japan between 1968 and 1976, collected tales over the years. He also wrote the well-known book “The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War II.”
The 23 essays in the book cover Jewish life in China, Japan, Singapore, India and Burma (now Myanmar), countries with religious tolerance and no history of Jewish persecution.
Many, if not most, of the subjects in the book were not Asian-born Jews, but European or American Jews who, for some reason or another, found their way to the heartland of Asia, stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the islands of Japan.
For example, we meet Moe Berg, an eccentric, Ivy League-educated, Major League baseball player, who sailed to Japan along with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1934. Moe became fluent in Japanese, and, on that trip, he snuck some photos of Tokyo harbor with a spy camera.
“Eight years later, 16 B-25 bombers had their first raid over Tokyo, and it is said that Moe’s photos were used to find targets to bomb in that first raid (known as the Doolittle Raid) by the Americans over Japan,” Tokayer writes. Later, Moe secured work with the CIA.
Other tidbits include a story about the author’s visit to Singapore in the late 1960s. On that trip, he was invited to the home of Mozelle Nissim, the daughter of Sir Manasseh Meyer, one of the first Jews to form a community in Singapore. The author was able to tour parts of Jewish Singapore, noting the historical connections to Jewish immigrants. On this trip, Tokayer also met David Marshall, the first chief minister of Singapore, who had also served as president of the Jewish community and expounded upon other noteworthy Jews who made significant contributions to this country.
The reader learns that Burma was home to the largest Jewish community in Southeast Asia, comprised primarily of Bene Israel Jews and Baghdadi Jews, and was the birthplace of actor Abraham Sofaer of “I Dream of Jeannie” fame.
Many women also had their place in Jewish-Asian history. There is Beate Sirota Gordon, who wrote the women’s rights section of the Japanese constitution, and Laura Margolis, who played a significant role in helping Jewish refugees in China during World War II. A separate chapter is devoted to Jewish women who played roles in Asian society, as either physicians, writers, photographers or artists.
Aimee Weinstein, a Jewish-American, has been living in central Tokyo for 10 of the past 12 years due to her husband’s job as an attorney; Weinstein teaches freshman English composition at Temple University’s Japan campus.
After having read the book, she had the opportunity to hear Tokayer speak just a few weeks ago with her book group at the Japanese Jewish Community, a 100-family synagogue in Tokyo.
“He was animated and interesting and told several stories from the book in a way that made them further come to life. He is also very dedicated to history and makes it clear that he thinks all Jews should be learning their history, especially those of us who live in Asia,” said Weinstein, adding that there was a lot more to Jewish history than she had ever considered.
“Historically, Japan has always been good to its Jews,” she said. “There are many stories of Japanese helping/rescuing Jewish people during the war. There was a contingent of Jews who came through the Trans-Siberian Railway via transit visas and came to the port city of Kobe.”
Even Jews who have not traveled through Asia nonetheless will be intrigued by the Jewish presence in Asia depicted in the book. The essays are told in a conversational style. With such a wide range of topics and countries, it is obvious that the book was painstakingly researched, and the author’s passion for his subject is obvious. Though some stories are so bogged down in detail that they border on the tedious, others are livelier.
The takeaway from the book is that the history and legacy of the Jewish people in the Diaspora is monumental and truly global. If you like political history coupled with related anecdotal stories, the book will appeal to you.
And with the rise in global power of such Asian countries as China, Japan and India and their inroads into the Middle East and the significant improvement of their relations with Israel, the book is both timely and relevant.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.