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jews and asia

05/20/2021 12:42:21 PM


Aileen Grossberg, Librarian

By chance Jewish American Heritage Month shares  space with Asian Pacific Heritage Month. While the connection might seem tenuous, it’s a lot stronger than one may think.  After all, Israel is in Asia.

There have been Jews in Asia for hundreds-even thousands- of years, even if Jews in what is now Israel are not counted.

Countries that now have few if any Jews had large, vibrant communities with a culture that included literature, language, and ritual. Countries such as  India, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and more  had flourishing communities until modern times while the countries of Europe and North America were mere backwaters.

Most of these ancient communities were established either in port cities or along the Spice Road in central Asia. In fact, legend says that the Jewish community in India dates back to at least 562 BCE.  

Today’s Asian Jews are usually those from countries such as Japan and China which also have a history. The Jewish community in China can be documented  back to at least 1126 when the first synagogue was established in Kaifeng.   

Jews—though not necessarily native born—made an impact on the Asian countries throughout history. Morris Cohen was Sun Yat Sen’s bodyguard; Zhao Vingcheng ( born 1619) was a Ming Dynasty mandarin; Beate Sirota Gordon helped write the post World War II constitution of Japan which including voting privileges for women; Jewish banking families like the Sassoons helped make Singapore a financial power.

There was little overt anti-Semitism in the East Asia countries. Singapore became a haven for Jews and established a flourishing refugee community tens of thousands strong; the Japanese mostly did not buy into the diabolical plans for Jews although after Singapore was captured, the Jews were confined to a ghetto.

A more modern phenomenon was the frequent adoption of Asian- often Chinese or Korean- babies in the 60s and 70s and beyond.  At that time the goal was to totally assimilate these children, in effect denying their multicultural backgrounds.  Today through organizations such as Be’chol Lashon,*  Jews by birth, Jews by adoption and Jews by choice embrace their complex identities and are finding a place in the Jewish community along with the growing Black community of Jews.

In fact, the latest Pew poll of Jewish demographics, shows that overall about 8 percent of American adult Jews identify with an ethnic or racial category rather than white Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Even more telling is that about 15 per cent of the 18-29 year old age group identifies with an ethnic or racial group other than white. 

Asian Jews are showing up in all aspects of modern American  Jewish life including the rabbinate where Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York is the first Asian American rabbi.

Just as the United States is becoming a country with many ethnic and racial groups, so is the Jewish people. As the community grows, so will the literature both factual and creative.  May we all grow stronger  and be enriched by this.

*Be’chol Lashon  websites states that (Hebrew for “in every language”) strengthens Jewish identity by raising awareness about the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. Be’chol Lashon brings the historic Jewish commitment to civil rights and racial justice forward into the 21st century. Embracing the historical diversity of the Jewish people and, more importantly, the growing diversity of the community today is the most important step toward securing relevancy in an exciting American future.

This list only scratches the surface of books relating to the Jewish experience in Asia.

Buck Peony. An historical novel about the decline of the community of Kaifeng, China. 

DeWoskin Someday We Will Fly. Performers in the Warsaw Circus flee to Shanghai to save their lives. (YA)

Fernandes The Last Jews of Kerala: the two thousand year history of India’s forgotten Jewish community

Freedman My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. On the verge of age thirteen, a multi-ethnic girl ponders her relationship to Judaism. (J)

Gottesfeld No Steps Behind: Beate Sirota Gordon’s battle for women’s right in Japan A brief picture book biography of the American born woman who helped bring democracy to Japan. (J)

HiranandaniThe Whole Story of Half a Girl. When she has to go to a  new school, Sonia, whose father is Indian and mother is Jewish, faces an  identity crisis. (J)

Hyde Shanghai Sukkah.Marcus escapes Berlin and finds safety in Singapore but must find a way to celebrate Sukkot in a new environment. (J)

Kacer Shanghai Escape: a Holocaust remembrance for young readers. (J)

Kaufman The Last of the Kings: the rival Jewish dynasties that helped create modern China, The story of the competition between the banking powers of Sassoon and Kadoorie.

Kim JewAsian: race , religion and identity of America’s newest Jews.

Levine In Search of Sugihara: the elusive Japanese diplomat who risked his life to rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

Mochizuki Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story. The dramatic story of the Japanese diplomat who saved the lives of 10,000 Jews.(J)

Pollak Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries: the Jewish experience in the Chinses Empire.

Shang/ Rosenberg This is Not a Test. A Chinese Jewish American pre-teen  tries to reconcile his multiple identities in a period fraught with tension. (J)

Shulevitz The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela: through the continents in the 12th century. The Jewish Marco Polo. (J)

Tokayer The Fugu Plan: the untold story of the Japanese and the Jews during World War II.

Pepper, Silk and Ivory: amazing stories about Jews and the Far East.

Xu Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng. Legends and stories from the oral tradition.

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784