Pepper, Silk and Ivory: Amazing Stories About Jews and the Far East

Gefen Books  2014

 

This fine, surprising addition to the history of the Jewish people awakens readers from the Eurocentric and Near East visions of Jewish culture and influence. Researched by Rabbi Tokayer over many decades and narrated in his voice, the stories are wonderfully varied. Many focus on the achievements of important individuals while others uncover pockets of Jewish community life in unexpected places. Everywhere, the authors evidence their great passion for their subject.

Not many people know that Polish-born Morris Abraham Cohen, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in London, was awarded the rank of general by Chiang Kai-shek for his great contributions to China’s nation building during the 1920s. More may have heard of Moe Berg, the Jewish major leaguer who spied in Japan on behalf of the United States. But how many have heard of the once-thriving, influential Jewish community in Burma that had a major synagogue with 126 Torahs? Or of Wolf Ladejinsky’s efforts that helped modernize agriculture across Asia?

Though traditional Judaism is largely a man’s world in terms of decision-making and influence, many Jewish women earned significant influence in Asian communities. Find out about Beate Sirota Gordon, who wrote the women’s rights section of the post-War Japanese constitution, one of her many accomplishments. Discover Laura Margolis, “assigned to tackle one of the largest and most complicated migrations of refugees the world has ever seen.” Meet Emily Hahn, a prolific writer whose years in the Far East shed light on both China and the U. S. for readers in both countries.

Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo hold many of the stories about important Jewish contributors to the welfare of their adopted or, in so many cases, native homelands. There were even Jewish dynasties, such as the Kadoories and the Sassoons, in the Far East. Many important municipal and national posts were held by Jewish citizens.

Amazed as I am about this enormous area of ignorance in my own Jewish education, I am hopeful that this volume reaches every Jewish library and every library of Far East history. While I appreciate the relaxed scholarship that informs the book, it is valuable simply as a collection of highly flavorful stories. These stories, and others like them, must be retold for children.

Illustrations, index, notes.

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