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

  • Review
By – May 22, 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.

Relat­ed content:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions