How Taiwan's sole rabbi keeps the faith

The Taiwanese are great admirers of Jews, whom they consider to have superior abilities and achievements.

Einhorn 88 (photo credit: )
Einhorn 88
(photo credit: )
The Landis Hotel is, on its glittering surface, just another luxury establishment in this city of 2.5 million. But it offers something unique in Taiwan - Shabbat services, kosher meals served on plates covered in silver foil, and bellboys who know to take Orthodox Jews up in the lift and let them into their rooms using that problematic electronic key. And it allows Jewish visitors to meet the remarkable Ephraim Einhorn, the country's only rabbi. I am here for several days as a guest of the Taiwanese Tourist Office, accompanying a group of Israeli travel agents. The aim is to open Taiwan up to Israelis seeking new vacation horizons, and we are traveling around a lot in a limited time. Back in Jerusalem, learning that there would be touring of various beauty spots over Shabbat, I sought an alternative - and stumbled upon what must be the country's best-kept secret: a place where observant Jews can have a Shabbat experience, though not at all the kind they are used to. (The Taiwanese authorities were assiduous in enabling my diversion from the group's planned itinerary, especially when I told them that many Jerusalem Post readers would be interested in reading about it.) Our local guide, Dennis Ma, takes very seriously my earnest plea that I be dropped at the Landis by 6 p.m. at the latest (Shabbat here comes in at 6:30). And, indeed, our domestic flight from Hualien, in the center of the country, arrives in Taipei at 5:35, and by 5:45 I am already alighting from a taxi outside the hotel. Before I can set foot in the lobby, a grey-suited reception clerk rushes to greet me. "Miss Judy? Please follow me." And she hustles me politely into a lift and up to my room, where my check-in is fast-tracked, again thanks to the indefatigable Mr. Ma. A couple of signatures, a little information about the room's amenities, accompanied by many smiles, and I still have time for a shower and change of clothes - though not before it is confirmed that I have a kosher meal reserved and I am asked what time I want it. Then it is down to the "Jewish prayer room" for the Friday night service. Shabbat services at the Landis Hotel are difficult to categorize. They are part prayer, part social club and part instruction in Judaism. In a tiny room annexed to the hotel, Rabbi Einhorn, astonishingly trim and energetic at 89, doesn't so much conduct the services as hold court to a colorful and changing mix of mostly young people and professionals. Several are Israelis living or studying in Taipei; some are people like me who have just dropped by, and quite a few are local Taiwanese. Some of these, the rabbi tells me later, have converted or hope to, while others are just "people who are attracted to Judaism." Many are Buddhists. He gets participants to introduce themselves. (I attended three services and had to do this three times.) An impressive-looking Taiwanese describes himself as born in Taipei "in this life," going on to explain that he is really "one of the unborn souls at Sinai." "He comes from a prominent family in Taiwan," the rabbi tells me, "and he studies Judaism laboriously." Will he convert? "I never ask them that," the rabbi answers. "But eventually I think he will." The Vienna-born rabbi has been in Taipei for 32 years. He has been holding Shabbat services here for 27 of them, and describes himself as the chief Jewish cook and bottle-washer - "rabbi, secretary, president and shammash." Living in the UK from age 14, and having served for a period as rabbi in the US, he came here on business and never went back. "It didn't take me long to start organizing the Shabbat services; before that, the American military chapel had been catering to Jews and Christians. We used to have 80-100 people on a Shabbat, mostly Syrian Jewish businessmen, and we used the Syrian Jewish prayer book. But labor in Taiwan became more expensive, and the businessmen moved on to the Philippines, Indonesia and China." Today, the Birnbaum siddur is used. Friday night, it falls to me to light the Shabbat candles for the congregation of what Einhorn calls his "quasi-synagogue." There is a draft, and one candle blows out immediately. I have recited the blessing, and know there is nothing I can do; nevertheless, I hover, distressed. "You have done your part," the rabbi intones graciously. As I sit down, the Taiwanese woman beside me leans over and says gravely, "You are not allowed to relight the Shabbat candles." Slim as a child, she is pregnant and wears a large diamond ring. "I converted her," the rabbi tells me later. "Her husband is Jewish and currently visiting the Czech Republic." At first, there is no minyan (nor will there be one for the Shabbat morning service). But eventually one or two more men turn up, and the rabbi is gratified. Kaddish can now be recited. He reads much of the service aloud, helped by the Israelis, and intersperses the prayers with religious homilies and often-lengthy personal reminiscences. Any name of a person or place sets him off. He has had a very rich public life and isn't shy about recounting it and listing the prominent figures who became his "close personal friends." In 1945-48, he was head of the Information Department of the Jewish Congress in London. He tells me later that he has "worked in all the Arab countries... I helped to get Jews out of Morocco, Tunisia and Cairo... I helped to organize the defense of Marzuk in the Lavon Affair." More recently, he confides, he has become known as "the father of relations between six governments" - Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, the Bahamas; and, latterly, also Estonia, having invited, on his own initiative, their most senior dignitaries to Taiwan and so helped develop relations between them and the local government. He shows me a 1996 letter from John H. Chang, minister of foreign affairs, which says: "I would like to thank you for the help you have made in promoting the substantial relations between the Republic of China and the Republic of Lithuania." He is also chairman of the US Republican Party in Taiwan. Rabbi Einhorn doesn't so much talk to his congregants as declaim to them, slowly and deliberately, using the measured cadences of a bygone era when ladies would rise after a meal and leave the men to their port and cigars. It takes a certain amount of patience, for this participant at least, to hear him out to the end. But his colorful flock clearly hold "Dr. Einhorn," as they call him, in the highest regard, an esteem bordering on awe. He has helped many of them with visa, money and legal problems, and says he recently got one fellow released from jail. A father figure indeed, and a beloved one. To Ernest W. Michel, author of Promises to Keep, he is (this from a personal letter) "rabbi, activist, businessman, diplomat, renaissance man, one of the most unusual and interesting personalities I have ever had the pleasure of working with." Doesn't he sometimes feel isolated, doesn't he long for a stable Jewish community, for other rabbis with whom he can sit and learn Torah of an evening? The question leaves him incredulous. "I am doing fabulous things. I have made the name and reputation and good will to Jewish people second to none in the world." And, indeed, the Taiwanese are great admirers of Israel, with whom they, as a country threatened by a powerful neighbor, identify; and of Jews generally, whom they consider to have superior abilities and achievements. Having met and talked with him, and witnessed his dedication and energy, I would not be surprised if that admiration had more than a little to do with Ephraim Einhorn, Taiwan's only rabbi.