Vodka and Japanese princes mingle with Tokyos tolerant Jews

tokyo | Shortly after its inception in 1953, the Jewish Community Center of Japan was raided by police during a “Monte Carlo Night.” Police believed that the Jews were reopening an illegal casino, which had been shuttered not long before in another part of the neighborhood. Two board members were among those arrested.

The center was founded by merchant Jews primarily from the Chinese cities of Harbin and Shanghai.

“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. In the half-century since it was founded, it has always prided itself on being able to accommodate any request for a minyan, even at short notice.

Flexibility and tolerance has been a theme 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 community’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 services.

“We had to find a way to live together, 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 synagogue was established in the 1890s in Nagasaki. Prior to World War II, the majority of Jews in Japan lived in Kobe and Yokohama. The Jewish cemetery in Yokohama has tombstones dating back to 1869.

During the early 1940s, Martin Ponve was among those who mobilized a massive effort to take care of Jewish refugees from Europe.

After the war, Ponve, the community’s first president, personally guaranteed a loan from Chase Manhattan Bank for the purchase of the land for the community center from a Japanese family in the upscale Hiroo District.

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 threatened to quit if the kitchen was not made kosher. In recent decades, the center’s kitchen has been under rabbinical supervision.

Founding members, while not very religiously observant, were enthusiastic about funding their fledgling community. At the initial fund-raiser in 1953, when the community ran out of items to auction, an empty box was successfully put up for bid.

The Jewish Community of Japan actually has a number of Japanese members, including spouses of Jewish members, some of whom have converted to Judaism. There also are a small number of Japanese who have converted for reasons unrelated to marriage.

Japan never has had a significant indigenous Jewish population, and there is little history of note between Japan and the Jewish people.

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 mountain to seek enlightenment from a “Buddhist monk.”

A Japanese aerospace business executive, befuddled by the skit, turned to his Jewish host after watching the faux monk and asked seriously, “Is that Jesus Christ?”

Jews in Japan are more likely to experience 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.

“He reads Hebrew well and, in his younger days, not infrequently visited our center, such as to participate in the Passover Seder,” Turk says.