That was out of nowhere. We came to say hello, and he says we should go to Japan. I looked at my fiancé, who did not understand Yiddish, and said, “The Rebbe suggests that we go to Japan.” Her reaction was that it may be closer to go to the moon.
But no matter what I said, the Rebbe boxed me into a corner and wouldn’t let me out. There’s a Peace Corps mentality, he said. We help the whole world, we also have to help ourselves. Go to Japan, represent the Jewish community to the government. Make sure they have a good school. Make sure the synagogue is functioning. Give some years to the Jewish people. Japan is a changing country. Go there and be their rabbi. It’ll be great for you, and it will be wonderful for the community.
Ultimately we said, “Thanks but no thanks. We’re not interested.” And he gave us a nice berachah. Bottom line: Within a year we decided to go to Japan.
Well, a couple of months after this meeting, I got a telephone call from somebody at Kennedy Airport. He said, “I’m in between planes and, sorry to impose, but I would appreciate if you could meet me at the airport. I want to talk to you about something.” I had never heard of this guy, but I was curious, so I went.
His name was Shaul Eisenberg, president of the Jewish community of Japan, and he said, “I’d like to offer you the position of rabbi of the Jewish community of Japan.” It came as a shock. I said, “You know, I heard this once before, and we’re really not interested.” He said, “I’m going to be back in New York in a couple of months, can I speak to you again?” I said yes, and we met again.
And then my wife and I gave it some thought. We were a newly married couple, and maybe the Rebbe knew something we didn’t. Maybe for a young couple to go so far away to be by ourselves and to open up to the world of China, Japan, Burma, and India would be an interesting honeymoon.
I was at a synagogue at the time, so I went to them and asked for a two-year leave of absence, knowing they wouldn’t give it to me – nobody gets a two-year leave of absence. But, surprisingly, they did. So we went and forgot to come home.
What year was this?
It was 1968. We spent ten years there. I was the only English-speaking university-trained rabbi from India to Japan. If anybody was interested in Jews, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the Bible, Judaism, I was the only number to contact. So it opened up many opportunities for me.
And it was fascinating to learn about the Jewish experience in the Far East – Jews have been in China, for example, for 1,800 years and in India for 2,200 years – from before the story of Chanukah.
What kind of Jews attended your shul in Japan?
They were third-generation, primarily Russian Jews who before or during the Russian Revolution went south from Siberia into China. They lived in northern China, which was called Manchuria at the time, and from there they went to Shanghai and Japan. In addition, there were some Sephardic Jews who came to Japan from Iraq via India and China.
These weren’t tourists or businessmen from America or Israel. That’s who’s there now, but not in my time.
In your book Pepper, Silk & Ivory, you mention a number of interesting minhagim you came across during your time in the Far East. Can you describe one or two?