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November 21, 2003 - Image 129

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-11-21

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I Island Of Jews







Tolerance and respect for tradition are
the hallmarks of Jews living in Japan.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

n the half-century since it was
founded, the Jewish Community
Center of Japan has always prided
itself on being able to accommo-
date any request for a minyan, even at
short notice.
Community members say that many
visiting Jews, who may not be religious-
ly observant at home, suddenly seem to
yearn for a connection with their
brethren in an exotic land.
Actor Edward G. Robinson once
called the center saying, "I need a min-
yan," recalls Bernard Valier, who spent
17 years in Japan starting in 1953. The
small but diverse congregation that
makes up the center's community was
able to give Robinson — born
Emmanuel Goldenberg — his minyan,
as it did for other visiting notables on
short notice, says Valier, who now lives
in London.
Flexibility and tolerance have been
themes at the center, known simply as
the Jewish Community of Japan, for 50
years. "We do not describe ourselves as
Conservative or Reform or Orthodox,
but simply as Jewish," says the commu-
nity's president, Daniel Turk. "We have
services in different formats, languages
and levels of participation."
The overwhelming majority of
Tokyo's Jews prefer services that do not
make ritualistic distinction between
men and women. A smaller group of
the center's members hold Orthodox
"We had to find a way to live togeth-
er, pray together and fight together,
says Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of New
York, who was the popular spiritual
leader of the community for 10 years.
The first known minyan in Japan
took place in 1889 and the first syna-
gogue was established in the 1890s in
Prior to World War II, the majority
()flews in Japan lived in Kobe and
Yokohama. The Jewish cemetery in
Yokohama has tombstones dating back


to 1869.
The Jewish Community of Japan, in
Tokyo, was established March 21,
1953, founded by merchants primarily
from the Chinese cities of Harbin and
"The criteria to be a member was to
be able to speak Russian, play poker
and drink vodka," remembers former
community president Ernie Salomon, a
Tokyo resident since 1950.
The founder of Tokyo's organized
Jewish community was a Russian textile
businessman, Anatole Ponve, who
established the Kobe synagogue in
1937. During the early 1940s, Ponve
was among those who mobilized a mas-
sive effort to take care of Jewish refugees
from Europe.
After the war, Ponve, the communi-
ty's first president, personally guaran-
teed a loan from Chase Manhattan
Bank for the purchase of the land for
the community center in the upscale
Hiroo District.
The Jewish Community of Japan,
which serves 150 families, is foremost a
religious institution with a synagogue
known as Beth David, named for the
father of one the community's early
leaders and benefactors, Shoul
Eisenberg, who later became a leading
industrialist in Israel.

More Observant

In the early years, the dining room at
the center was not kosher — beef
stroganoff was a favorite dish — but
that changed when a new rabbi threat-
ened to quit if the kitchen was not
made kosher. In recent decades, the
center's kitchen has been under rabbini-
cal supervision.
Founding members, while not reli-
giously observant, were enthusiastic
about funding their fledgling communi-
ty. At the initial fund-raiser in 1953,
when the community ran out of items
to auction, an empty box was success-
fully put up for bid.
That charitable spirit was evident at
the community center's 50th anniver-
sary gala celebration. A bottle of "slightly

Children attend a Purim party at the Jewish Community Japan in 2002.

used" mineral water was auctioned off
for about $140 and then graciously
donated back to the synagogue. The
winner of a $2,200 cash lottery also
donated the money back to the com-
The money raised by the gala, held
Nov. 1 at the Tokyo American Club,
likely will mean the community center
will be in the black for the first time in
"Our endowment has diminished sig-
nificantly over the years," Turk says.
"Recently, we have been focusing con-
siderable attention and effort trying to
manage our revenue and expenses to a
point where our normal operations are
The celebration drew about 200 peo-
ple, including current or former com-
munity members from across Japan,
Europe and North America. A number
of Japanese guests also attended.
The Jewish Community of Japan
actually has a number of Japanese mem-
bers, including spouses of Jewish mem-
bers, some of whom have converted to
Judaism. There also are a small number
of Japanese who have converted for rea-
sons unrelated to marriage.
Japan never has had a significant
indigenous Jewish population, and
there is little history between Japan and
the Jewish people.
"It is probably fair to say that even
educated Japanese people have only a
fragmentary and superficial knowledge
of the Jewish people," Turk says.
That lack of familiarity was evident
during a comedy routine at the gala
evening, which featured a "Jewish
acolyte" trekking to the top of a moun-
tain to seek enlightenment from a

"Buddhist monk."
A Japanese aerospace business execu-
tive, befuddled by the skit, turned to his
Jewish host after watching the faux
monk and asked seriously, "Is that Jesus

Little Knowledge

The lack of encounters between Jews
and Japanese also has meant that there
has been little of the hostility experi-
enced by Jews in many other lands.
During World War II, the Japanese
were encouraged by their Nazi allies to
exterminate Jews under their control,
especially those in Shanghai, but t
Japanese had no inclination to comply.
"In fact, Jews who made it to Japan
were saved as a result," Turk says.
Jews in Japan are more likely to expe-
rience philo-Semitism, with magazine
articles expressing admiration for Jewish
talent, intelligence and success.
Prince Mikasa, the youngest brother
of the late Emperor Hirohito, is among
-the notable friends of the Jews in Japan.
A number of Japanese members speak
fluent Hebrew and are synagogue regu-
lars. The current rabbi, Henri Noach, is
still learning Japanese, but he is fluent
in French, Hebrew and English, which
helps him serve the center's families,
who are diverse in nationalities and
native languages.
Rabbi Noach is frequently asked what
people thought when he told them he
was moving from Belgium to Japan to
take over the pulpit in Tokyo
"My family thought that I was
meshuggene [crazy]," Rabbi Noach says.
"My friends and colleagues, however,
generally thought it was cool. Maybe
they're both right." it

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