This book is clearly a labor of love. For over forty years, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer has been collecting anecdotes and histories of Jews in the Far East. With the help of Dr. Ellen Rodman, the rich information he has gathered is presented in the 23 chapters of Pepper, Silk & Ivory: Amazing Stories about Jews and the Far East.
Rabbi Tokayer is uniquely suited to author a book like this. He served as a chaplain in the US Air Force, and was stationed in Japan in 1962. He returned to Japan in 1968 and served until 1976 as the only English-speaking university educated rabbi for the Jewish communities in the Far East. He has written twenty books in Japanese (!!) on Judaism and Jewish life, as well as The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews during World War II.
Before receiving the book, I assumed that most of the content would focus on Jews of Asian descent. While there are some chapters dedicated to communities like the Bene Israel in India, and the Jews of Kaifeng, China, the vast majority of the book consists of tales of Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews who found themselves living in Asia.
I read about a baseball player turned spy, a case of mistaken identity leading to the discovery of an ancient Chinese Jewish community, the story behind the logo of a major corporation, a Jewish general in the Chinese Army, a banker who saved Japan, and a place where no one can really say when Shabbos starts. And that’s not even half of what Rabbi Tokayer shares with us.
The early part of the book focuses on one notable character per chapter, with three of those chapters dedicated to remarkable women. These stories are packed with historical details and colorful descriptions of people and places. With each successive chapter, I began to notice certain influential people reappearing, giving the book a feeling of unity. It felt a little like Jewish geography, just in a different time and place than I’m used to!
Many different time periods are represented in the book, ranging from the story of Garcia d’Orta in the 1500s to profiles of contemporary Jews. Some of the accounts from the WWII era felt familiar to me, as the stories of how the Mir yeshivah escaped Europe via Shanghai are popular in frum circles. Rabbi Tokayer focused on very different subjects than the members of the yeshivah, however, providing a more complete picture of the era.
The stories from the cultural revolution in China were compelling and tragic. Many of those loyal to the cause of the revolution found themselves serving lengthy and unjust prison sentences. I noticed in the Jewish support of the Chinese revolution a parallel with the Jewish support given to the Russian revolution and was amazed to see how some of those among the wrongly accused remained loyal to the government which imprisoned them.
Most interesting to me were the chapters on the Jews whose ethnic roots came from Asian soil. The Bene Israel in India trace their origins to Jews who fled from Israel during the time of Hellenistic Greek rule, around 2200 years ago. Even though they were separated from the bulk of the diaspora for such a long time, they maintained some observance of Shabbos, dietary laws and circumcision. They recited one line of the Shema before a religious ceremony or event. It wasn’t until the middle of the eighteenth century that any other Jew discovered their existence. Recently, many of the Bene Israel have settled in Israel.
Another chapter introduced me to the Jews of Kaifeng, China. The way their community was discovered is through a very amusing case of mistaken identity. Like the Bene Israel, they existed without discovery for hundreds of years. Their origin is Persian tradesman, and some of today’s Chinese Jews still know some ancient words of Farsi. Their siddurim and haggados contain Farsi, and there are similarities in ritual to that of Persian communities. Unfortunately, after a number of natural disasters and the death of the last rabbi around 1810, the community withered, though the Jews of China still hope to someday rebuild their synagogue.
Some of the later chapters were a sort of smorgasbord of personalities, and while I appreciate the desire to include the many interesting anecdotes or escapades, I found these chapters difficult to follow. Many of the stories blended together for me in an overload of information.
While I found many of the stories very intriguing and informative, some of the stories contained details which the more discerning Orthodox readers will consider unsavory. Additionally, I was saddened by the stories where the characters rushed headlong into assimilation. It was like the history of Ashkenazi immigration to America in the 1800s, just on a different continent. That was difficult for me to read.
On the whole, this book is brimming with fascinating tales and little-known histories of the Jewish people. Many of us are familiar with the stories of Eastern and Western Europe, and some of us know about the lives of those from the Middle East, but here is a book which enriches the picture of the Jewish diaspora. Rabbi Tokayer has given us a gift of information from his decades of experience and life spent in the Far East.
(I did receive a copy of the book for review, but was not compensated in any other way.)