If you thought of Chanukah as a holiday that unites Jews everywhere, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer has a message: Think again.
The Jews of India trace their lineage on the subcontinent back 2,200 years, “so they left before the Chanukah story,” Rabbi Tokayer told me by phone from his home on Long Island. So until recently, “They didn’t know about Chanukah.”
They also didn’t know about anti-Semitism, according to the rabbi — which in his view ought to make countries like India, as well as Japan and China, attractive destinations for Jewish explorers.
“No Hindu, no Buddhist, no Taoist would ever lift a finger toward a Jew,” Rabbi Tokayer affirmed. “There’s a fascinating 2,000-year-experience without a second of anti-Semitism — we’ve been treated with dignity. And we’ve enhanced [life] wherever we’ve lived.”
Rabbi Tokayer knows this first-hand, having personally enhanced Jewish communities from New Delhi to Hong Kong during a decades-long post as the Tokyo-based rabbi overseeing Jewish Asia. Today, the retired rabbi of Great Neck’s Cherry Lane Minyan is on a quest to encourage Jews to think beyond Europe toward what he considers the next great Jewish frontier — Asia.
Aside from a military stint in the Far East, Rabbi Tokayer knew little about the region — and had little interest in it — until fate intervened in the late 1960s during a chance series of meetings with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Chabad movement was at the dawn of its global outreach mission; with nobody in charge of the vast Asian East, the Brooklyn rebbe decided his worldly younger colleague was the man for the job.
Never mind that Rabbi Tokayer was not a Chabad rabbi — Cherry Lane, which he founded, is Modern Orthodox — or that “I didn’t want to go, I had no interest in going,” Rabbi Tokayer recalled with a laugh. But the Rebbe was persistent: “He said, ‘It’s your destiny.’”
And so, with the financial backing of the Rothschild Foundation, Rabbi Tokayer and his wife headed overseas for what they expected would be a two-year adventure. It turned into a glorious decade that spawned four children — and a lifelong fascination with the historic but little-tended Jewish communities of Japan, China, India, Singapore, and Southeast Asia.
Since moving back to New York, the rabbi has returned several times each year to lead tours for Americans eager to explore both Asia and its Semitic heritage — a legacy whose near-total obscurity for Western Jews only galvanizes the rabbi’s enthusiasm. “There are 126 Torah scrolls in Rangoon, Burma,” Rabbi Tokayer told me. “The first Prime Minister of Singapore was Jewish. The main street of Hong Kong was named for a Jew. The oldest Hebrew manuscript on paper anywhere was found on the China-Tibet border. There have been ethnic Chinese Jews for over 1,000 years.
“We don’t even know they’re there,” Rabbi Tokayer added. “It was all written out of history. They were waiting for somebody to ask them.”
And ask he has — uncovering story by story the millennia-old palimpsest that is Jewish Asia, and sharing that narrative in more than 20 books published over the decades. A number of those books are in Japanese, which he speaks fluently; Rabbi Tokayer is currently at work on a follow-up to last year’s volume, “Pepper, Silk & Ivory: Amazing Stories About Jews and the Far East,” written with Ellen Rodman.
For first-time Asia travelers, the rabbi recommends China and Japan, which combine user-friendliness with exotic thrills — especially regarding Asian-Jewish culture. “You don’t believe it until you see it with your own eyes,” he said. “And every day, you see something you didn’t expect.”
Such as the Japanese Hebrew-Yiddish choir belting out “My Yiddishe Mama.” Or the 100-year-old Singapore synagogue that serves superb kosher food, one of many such facilities that have blossomed across Asian capitals in the past decade.
Indeed, one of my first questions was about eating kosher overseas. Rabbi Tokayer told me breezily that it’s a non-issue today, given the plethora of kosher restaurants and meal services — many run by Chabad — in cities like Beijing, Bangkok, Kobe, and Hong Kong. “If there is no access to Chabad, we become Buddhists,” explained the rabbi. “We go to a restaurant in the temple, which is vegan. In Rangoon, you’re a vegetarian.”
His tours, which have been escorted for 30 years by China-based Lotus Tours, focus on culture rather than food: Shabbat with local Jews in Shanghai or New Delhi are opportunities to connect on a personal level. “I always say, don’t talk to me or your next-door neighbor,” Rabbi Tokayer said. “Talk to the guy whose family has been living here for 1,000 years.”
With bullet trains and air conditioning everywhere, Asia now offers traveler comforts on par with Europe. “But Europe is yesterday,” Rabbi Tokayer said more than once during our conversation. “The future is in Asia.
“It’s time to put India, Japan, China on the agenda. With Jewish eyes.”