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Riches from the East

Barbara Bensoussan

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer took a pulpit in Japan, and returned with historic treasures

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

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In 1968, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer arrived in Tokyo to serve as rabbi. He found himself in the midst of a highly unusual congregation. While not Japanese by race, most of his flock were descendants of families that had lived in Japan or China for three generations (Photos: Amir Levy)

Writer Leo Rosten tells the story of a Jewish businessman who travels to Tokyo. Friday night comes, and he manages to find a shul, but when he walks in, to his surprise the rabbi and the entire congregation are Japanese.

But the tefillah is letter-perfect, so afterward he seeks out the rabbi. “It’s such a pleasure to find a minyan so far from home, and meet so many fellow Jews!” he tells him.

The Japanese rabbi looks at him dubiously. “You’re Jewish?” he asks.

“Of course!” the businessman says.

The rabbi clucks his tongue. “Funny,” he mutters, “you don’t look Jewish.”

In 1968, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer arrived in Tokyo to serve as rabbi. Like the businessman in the story, he found himself in the midst of a highly unusual congregation. While not Japanese by race, most of his flock were descendants of families that had lived in Japan or China for three generations. Some had come through Siberia or Mongolia; others were Sephardim from Baghdad. He had what to teach them about Torah, but they had what to teach him about Asia.

Once on the job, Tokayer didn’t simply perform weddings and funerals, or verify kashrus: He became an expert on the history of Jews in the Far East. His journey to historical scholarship was spurred by the discovery that he was leading a congregation of “talking books,” Jews who had stumbled into Tokyo through the vicissitudes of world wars, Communist upheavals, and cultural exchanges. He authored two books on the subject, Pepper, Silk and Ivory and The Fugu Plan, and is currently working on a third, a sequel to Pepper, Silk and Ivory. He also became a popularizer of Jewish culture in the Japanese language, writing books that became best sellers.

Rabbi Tokayer currently lives in a modest but comfortable home in the suburban tranquility of Great Neck. While the walls of his home are hung with attractive Jewish art, less typically, they’re also adorned with many fine examples of Oriental art, souvenirs of a ten-year tenure in the Far East, and later as a Jewish tour guide there.

And it hints to his personal narrative: how a Yeshiva University graduate of Hungarian parentage ended up the only Orthodox rabbi in the entire Far East.

A Circuitous Path

Rabbi Tokayer’s parents left Hungary before World War II, and settled in Youngstown, Ohio (the rest of the family remained in Europe, and over 40 members were killed during the Holocaust). Youngstown was a steel mill town.

Rabbi Tokayer with Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. The Japanese had their suspicions, but Jews were viewed as gifted

“In the days before plastics, even garbage cans were made of steel,” he reminds us. The sooty air was damaging to the health of his polio-afflicted brother, and the family moved east to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He was sent to the Crown Heights Yeshiva, and then to Yeshiva University for high school and university, where he majored in chemistry and philosophy.

“I was always very interested in the world of ideas,” he says. “I was open to hearing new ideas in all domains — science, philosophy, religion.” It was that omnivorous intellectual curiosity that drew his attention to a notice on a bulletin board announcing a class on Thursday nights at 9:00 p.m. in Lubavitch philosophy and Tanya. Tokayer wasn’t sure what Tanya was, but his interest was piqued and he showed up. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 684)

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