Pepper, Silk & Ivory

By Marvin Tokayer and Ellen Rodman

2014, Gefen Publishing House, 316 pages


Most people, Jews and Orientals included, know little or nothing about the enormous contributions that Jews made in the Near East, including China and Japan. Tokayer and Rodman fill this lacuna wonderfully. Their more than two dozen stories of what Jews did are fascinating.  Also fascinating, perhaps even remarkable, is the fact that the eastern world did not have a history of anti-Semitism or persecution; it was blessed with the concepts of tolerance and cultural pluralism.

Among many other people portrayed in this book, there is two-gun Cohen, a Jewish general in the Chinese army. Cohen was born in 1887 in Poland. He was very influential in China and was responsible for persuading China not to vote against the partition of Israel in 1947, contrary to China’s original intent, resulting in the creation of Israel. In 1966, when Palestinians were using Chinese land mines against Israel, Ben-Gurion asked Cohn to speak to the Chinese, and the Palestinians ceased using these bombs. Cohen’s contributions to China were so many that his funeral was the only time that representatives of the two Chinas appeared together.

Shell Oil Company has its roots in Japan in 1900, and Marcus Samuel, Jr., creator and founder of Shell Oil was the creator of the first oil tanker later used by other companies. He named his oil company after his hobby, collecting sea shells. He was born in 1863 in London. In 1913, after becoming successful and after making a significant contribution to world finance and culture, the “Times of London” attacked and mocked Marcus solely because he was a Jew. When he died in 1927, less than twenty-four hours after his beloved wife died, Shell Oil was the largest oil enterprise in the world.

Moe Berg was an American baseball catcher from 1923 to 1940, who unlike fellow players graduated from Princeton and was highly educated. He had an uncanny ability with languages. He had about a dozen degrees, including a law degree. Fellow students at Princeton called him “Hebrew,” and he had no friends there. One of the languages Berg learned was Japanese. The US government sent him to spy the Tokyo harbor as well as warships, military installations, factories, and other items of military importance, which he did. Eight years later the US used his information to bomb Tokyo. He was also sent to Germany on a mission because he could speak German.

Readers will learn about a Jewish woman, Beate Sirota Gordon, who was so respected in Japan that while women were generally not included in rooms where men discussed politics and law, as her 1997 book states she was “The Only Woman in the Room.”  She was responsible for writing the historic women’s rights section of the Japanese Constitution after World War II. General MacArthur said in his reminiscences, “Of all the reforms accomplished by the Occupation in Japan, none was more heartwarming to me than the change in the status of women.”

These are just four of the twenty-three chapters telling about extraordinary people, but some of the chapters relate tales of more than a single person. Among much else readers will learn about the ancient history of Jews in India, India’s Bene Israel people who came to India in biblical times; a Jew who taught psychology in China and is considered to have made a momentous impact upon Chinese psychiatry; a Jewish woman who wrote a best seller in China; a Jewish woman who was a member of the Chinese government, and much more.