Book Review: The Jews of the Far East

A fascinating volume reveals the tales of Two-Gun Cohen, the Sephardim of Shanghai and Chinese Torah scrolls in Texas.

Drawing of a prominent Chinese Jew in Kaifeng. (photo credit: FROM 'PEPPER, SILK AND IVORY')
Drawing of a prominent Chinese Jew in Kaifeng.
(photo credit: FROM 'PEPPER, SILK AND IVORY')
Little is known about the vast individual Jewish contribution to the development and history of the modern Far East. Two American authors reveal this missing page in Jewish history in their work, based on 40 years of research.
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, a US Air Force chaplain and the only English-speaking, university-educated rabbi of the Jewish communities in the Far East until 1976, previously co-authored The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War II with Mary Swartz. Tokayer now teams up with Dr.
Ellen Rodman, a writer and TV producer, on Pepper, Silk and Ivory: Amazing Stories About Jews and the Far East, recalling the biographies and stories of all those Jews who both benefited from and contributed to the Far East.
They begin with the tale of “Two-Gun Cohen: A Jewish General in the Chinese Army,” known as the “uncrowned Jewish king of China.” Born Morris Abraham Cohen in Radzanow, Poland, on August 23, 1887, he was classified by the London police as a truant, petty thief, pickpocket and future criminal.
Morris settled in Canada, where, washing dishes, he identified himself with a Chinese intellectual who came to pan for gold. They both came from ancient cultures and were away from their homelands.
If Cohen saw someone mistreating a Chinese person, he did not hesitate to use his powerful fists.
To cut a long story short, Cohen became the personal guard, adviser, friend and arms purchaser of Sun Yat-sen, a prominent revolutionary leader who dreamed of returning China to its ancient glory. Dr. Sun did not trust foreigners, but the Canadian Chinese argued that Cohen was one of their own. Cohen went on to purchase arms and ammunition for Sun, which he smuggled in boxes labeled “Singer sewing machines.” In China to this day light machine guns are called “Singer,” though no one remembers why.
But Cohen became a national hero.
He was friendly with local Jews, and supported the Zionist movement. In 1927, he became president of the Bank of China, and Chiang Kai-shek promoted him to the rank of general. In November 1947, he persuaded the Chinese government not to vote against partition. In 1966, when he visited Israel, David Ben-Gurion asked him to persuade premier Zhou Enlai to stop the supply of Chinese mines to Palestinian terrorists, and this was done.
Cohen, who always carried two guns on his body (hence his nickname), was the only person who could fly directly from Beijing to Taiwan, where he settled and died. His funeral in September 1970 was the only time that representatives of Nationalist and Communist China appeared together.
WE ALSO learn all about Marcus Samuel (1853-1927), the founder of the mighty Shell Transport and Trading Company (now Shell Oil), its logos and how it changed from 1900 to 1999. There is the story of Moe Berg (1902-1972), the famous American baseball player who became a CIA spy in Japan. Beate Sirota Gordon (1923-2012), we read, wrote the historic women’s rights section of the Japanese Constitution after World War II, and the best-seller The Only Woman in the Room.
There are fascinating stories of Jewish chaplains who served from Iwo Jima to the Bridge on the River Kwai. We learn how Jacob Schiff (1847-1920) and his $196,250,000 changed Japanese history in 1904. How did Chinese Torah scrolls end up in Texas and elsewhere? There is also the history of Bene Israel, their beauty queens and military heroes.
A separate chapter recalls the story of Lord Lawrence Kadoorie (1899-1993), and of the amazing Sephardim of Shanghai.
The authors met Laura Margolis (1903- 1997) in Teaneck, New Jersey, and recall how she took care of 20,000 Jewish refugees in the Chinese city. The history of Shanghai’s Jewish community and of the lost communities of Chinese Jews receives special attention; there were important and influential Jews in Mao Tse-tung’s circle (including a sex therapist).
Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany are said to have introduced classical music to the Far East, to Japan in particular.
Several Jews played large, positive roles in the occupation of Japan after World War II. Wolf Ladejinsky (1899-1975) spent 30 years of his life explaining, reforming and advising Japan on its most vital land reform. As an American official he later suffered slander, “as the Soviet- born expert not equipped to represent American agriculture abroad.” The absurd charge was lifted, but the bitter taste remained.
David Marshall (1908-1995), the first chief minister of Singapore, intervened with Zhou Enlai to allow Jews who remained in China to emigrate to Israel.
Lt.-Gen. Jack Jacob, the greatest living national hero of India, is currently president of the Jewish community of New Delhi.
There is also a story about Garcia de Orta, his contribution to science, medicine and statesmanship, and of the militant marranos of India. Sir Marc Aurel Stein was a scholar, philologist, archeologist, explorer, geographer and cartographer, who led four expeditions to Central Asia and found the oldest Judeo-Persian manuscript of the eighth century CE.
The vast compendium of research dedicates at least a few paragraphs to the scores of Jewish doctors, performers, musicians and inventors, many of them refugees from Nazi Germany, who by their own initiative and hard work achieved prominence and made a name for themselves in the Far East – a territory of paramount interest to Israel today.