The Four Corners of the Earth
The story of the Jewish communities of Bahrain and Tahiti.
When the average person thinks “Jewish” a few places pop up. Israel, Miami Beach, Los Angeles and of course, New York City. In the words of the late comic Lenny Bruce: “If you’re from New York and you’re Catholic, you’re still Jewish. If you’re from Butte Montana and you’re Jewish, you’re still goyish.”
Growing up in New York, I did believe that most of the world – my world – was Jewish.
In fact, in many ways it was. With over two million Jews in New York, second only to Israel in Jewish population, my friends, neighbors, and of course the deli man, was Jewish. Little did I know then, that We Jews comprise a tiny percentage of the world’s population (13.9 million or a little over 0.2%).
Israel and the United States are home to 82% of our core Jewish population. Other countries/places with far smaller but mighty Jewish populations are: the European Union, France, Canada, the United Kingdom and Argentina. Yet, not so ironically, We Jews are “well-traveled” having been forced to run from place to place for thousands of years.
As a journalist always looking for the “doughnut” hole, I asked myself, “Hmmm, where are the most unusual places We Jews call home?” Here are two fascinating places I found, even if finding a minyan is a week’s work.
BARHAIN: AN ARAB STATE WITH A JEWISH AMBASSADOR
Not surprisingly Bahraini Jews, all 36 to perhaps 50 of them, constitute one of the world's smallest Jewish communities. There is, however, one synagogue and small Jewish cemetery. It is the only Arab Persian Gulf State with a synagogue and a former Jewish ambassador.
According to Jewish researcher, Ariel Scheib, Jews have lived in the region since the times of the Talmud. However, the modern Jewish community, primarily immigrants from Baghdad, started at the start of the 20th century. Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews suffered assaults and lootings across the Arab world and in Bahrain during a pogrom on December 5, 1947. However, investigation seems to bear out the theory that outsiders were responsible, and many Beharainis protected their Jewish neighbors. By 1948, there were about 1,500 of us in the country. After the riots and the establishment of Israel about 1,000 emigrated to the Holy Land, the U.S. and the U.K. Most of the remaining Jews emigrated during the riots following the 1967 Six-Day War.
Today: Despite the numbers, Jews are active in the middle-classes and even politics. Jewish businessman, Ebrahim Daoud Nonoo, sat on the upper house of parliament. His niece, Houda Ezra Nonoo was the Bahraini Ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2013. Talk about record-breaking, not only was Nonoo the first Jew to be appointed, she is also the first Jewish ambassador of any Middle East Arab country! Today, while We Jews live in peace on the Island, there are no official laws protecting the rights of Jews, however a boycott of Israeli products ended in 2004.
TAHITI: A FAR-FLUNG PARADISE
Ask most people what place other than heaven they would call “paradise” and most would say “Tahiti.” Part of the Polynesian Triangle, Tahiti is almost a cliché for an earthly Eden, known for its laid back intoxicating beauty and the famous who drew inspiration from the island, such as Paul Gauguin, Herman Melville and James Michener.
True, We Jews know from palm trees, beaches, and fruit. But imagine living in such a country without sirens, border guards and rotten neighbors.
Brief History: The Pacific Islands have actually been populated for thousands of years. However fascination grew during the explorations in the 1500s as tales of the mutiny of the H.M.S. Bounty spread, along with Captain James Cook’s illustrations of the magnificent fauna and flora. With the arrival of both French and British whalers, missionaries, and military in the 1800s, there was French-British rivalry over of the islands. The Pomare Dynasty ruled Tahiti when, in 1847 Queen Pomare accepted French protection of the islands of Tahiti and Moorea.
While there is some mystery, it is believed that the first Jew probably arrived with Captain Cook in 1769. Alexander Salmon, according to Virtual Jewish History, moved to Tahiti, and later married Arrioehau, a Polynesian princess. Most Tahitian Jews, originated from North Africa and say they are French, Sephardic and Orthodox.
With the arrival of Catholic priests, most Jews either converted or assimilated. In the 1960s, Algerian Jews created a practicing Jewish community.
There are approximately 200 Jews living in Tahiti. Acclaimed journalist and author Ben Frank, author of "The Scattered Tribe: Traveling to the Diaspora From Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond" has described his Jewish experience in Tahiti. Its synagogue, “Ahavah v’Achvah,” located in the Capitol, Papeete, means “love and friendship.” Built in 1993, nestled against palm and fruit trees the synagogue has a mikveh and social hall. A Shamash does live on the premises.
An active Committee of Ten devotees organizes traditional rites and the Sunday school. Kashrut is kept and food flown in to an island market that stocks kosher foods.
Finding Jewish clergy is a critical task for the High Holy Days in a place thousands of miles from its Jewish neighbors. During his trip in 2007, Frank reported that they considered hiring an Israeli rabbi but the costs were prohibitive for the small group. Shul members took the role of leading the congregation.
Jews in Tahiti are mostly business people, many involved in selling Tahitian pearls.
More than beauty, as the Polynesians are a peaceful people who respect others’ beliefs, there is no anti-Semitism to be found. And given the small Jewish population, they know one another, and are friends.
All in all, a great place to visit, for Jews and non-Jews alike!