I had my epiphany one summer night in 1983. A recently minted Ph.D. in cultural anthropology with zero employment prospects, I was stuck in a third-floor walk-up in West Philadelphia nursing bottle after bottle of Old Grand-Dad, when I saw the commercial. A confident guy my age was some place that looked like the very definition of “exotic,” surrounded by a crowd of smiling foreign faces. “I took my university degree and put it to work in the Peace Corps!” he said enthusiastically. And so at dawn, I set off to the Peace Corps office and filled out a few forms.
I was told three things upon arriving in the Philippines in the fall of 1984. The first was that I would love it beyond reason. The second was that I would never want to leave. And the third was that if I did leave, I would not be leaving alone. All turned out to be true. What I was not told was that I would reconnect with my Jewish roots in what I had imagined to be the least Jewish place on earth.
A nation of 7,107 islands in the western Pacific, north of Indonesia, the Philippines is truly unique. The Filipinos have more layers than a wedding cake. On top of the Southeast Asian indigenous base, there is a Spanish layer, thanks to 377 years as a colony that left 80 percent of the population Catholic and half with Spanish surnames. Especially during Easter Holy Week, flagellants stroll through the blazing hot, sun-bleached streets, whipping themselves bloody, while guys dressed as Roman centurions scourge other guys carrying crosses and dressed like Jesus.
Then there is an American-influenced layer that began when the U.S. Army captured the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and didn’t quite end after Filipino independence in 1942. In the 1980s Manila embodied American corporate capitalism run amok. Garishly lit outlets of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Dunkin’ Donuts beckoned, supermarkets overflowed with U.S. products, and radio stations played the same music I listened to at home. An unpopular president, Ferdinand Marcos, was propped up by the largest U.S. military presence in the world outside the homeland. Today, Filipinos of a nationalist bent recall their successive colonial experiences as “almost 400 years in a convent, followed by 50 years in a brothel.”
During my 13 years in the Philippines, I witnessed the final years of the Marcos dictatorship; the “People Power” revolution that deposed him; seven attempted coups d’ état against Marcos’ female successor, President Corazon Aquino, and natural disasters from typhoons to earthquakes. My Peace Corps service took me to a remote mountain village in Mindoro, where I met and married Agnes, a lovely Filipino social worker, and had a handsome son we named Daniel. Later, I became a trainer of Peace Corps volunteers in northern Luzon and worked in a camp for Vietnamese refugees in Bataan, where our daughter Rachel was born.
In 1994, after a decade of living in the provinces, I landed a job at the Philippine Department of Education, Culture and Sports and moved the family to Manila. One afternoon I was watching my son’s elementary school swimming race when I noticed another parent gazing at me. The woman strode over to me and asked if I was Jewish. When she saw that I was too stunned to reply, she told me that there was a Jewish community in Manila and that she expected to see me at the synagogue next Sabbath. She then vanished.
Jews in the Philippines? The idea seemed only slightly less incongruous than Jews living in igloos at the North Pole. Would these be Filipinos who somehow became Jewish or Jews who somehow ended up in the Philippines? I was fascinated.
The next Saturday, I made my way to the Bet Ya’akov synagogue. Hidden amid a thicket of high-rise office and apartment buildings, a squat concrete and glass building with a gold-colored dome stood behind a wrought-iron gate protected by two uniformed Filipino security guards with M-16 automatic rifles. Inside the small, elegantly simple sanctuary was a handsome Torah ark and plush chairs on a wooden bimah surrounded by concrete walls, cleverly striated to look like bamboo. The seating arrangement was reasonably Orthodox, with men—mostly Caucasian—sitting downstairs, and women—mostly Filipino—sitting slightly upstairs behind a very low, almost pro forma divider.
Children—mostly half Caucasian/half Filipino—ran around. A pale, thin young Haredi man wearing a white shirt tucked into black pants identified himself as Rabbi Haim Tamid and asked me in Israeli-accented English if this was my first visit to the synagogue. I replied that this was my first visit to any synagogue since the day of my bar mitzvah. He smiled, said, “Welcome home” and handed me a prayer book.
Some of the prayers had the same melodies as those sung in the Boston synagogue I attended a handful of times a year in my youth. Most of the customs and prayer melodies, however, were from the Syrian Jewish traditions of Aleppo. Rabbi Tamid, I later found out, was from an Egyptian Jewish family in Bat Yam, Israel, and the congregation was run by wealthy Syrian Jews, managing clothing factories in and around Manila for even wealthier cousins in Deal, New Jersey.
The post-service Kiddush was nothing less than splendid, expertly prepared by a perpetually smiling Filipino woman known simply as Daday (pronounced DAH-Die), who has cooked and lived at the synagogue and kept its kitchen kosher since forever. Her shiny braided challah is still the best I have ever tasted.
Over a fusion lunch of pita covered with olive oil and zatar, along with cream cheese and lox, I asked one 40-ish-looking guy how long he had been in the Philippines. “I was born here,” he answered. Registering my shock, he calmly pointed to a very elderly couple seated at the head of the table and said, “Both of them were born here, too.” Not only was there a Jewish community right here in my Philippines, it had apparently been here far longer than I.
Fleeing the Inquisition
In the 16th century, it turns out, a handful of “New Christians,” Marranos and crypto-Jews attempted to escape the Inquisition in Spain by fleeing to Manila. For most of these daring individuals, it was a bad move. Not long after reaching Manila in 1590, “New Christian” brothers Jorge and Domingo Rodriguez were accused of “Judaizing” and shipped off to Mexico City in 1593, where they were tried, convicted and executed in an auto-da-fé.
It was not until the late 19th century that openly Jewish people settled in Manila. Leopold Kahn and three friends known simply as “the Levy brothers” arrived in 1870 from Alsace where the Franco-Prussian War raged. They founded La Estrella del Norte, which became the most renowned jewelry store in the country. The Spanish-American War, in which the United States captured the Philippines from a tired, weakened Spain, brought American Jews, who were well represented among the armed forces, to the Philippines in significant numbers. Like me, some of them just did not want to leave when it came time to go home.
The most famous of the many Jewish businessmen catering to the troops was William Walton Brown. A fastidious dresser, the rotund Brown was rarely seen without a freshly pressed suit, white shirt, loud tie, diamond pin and an orchid in his lapel. In Yokohama, Japan, at the start of the Spanish-American War, the flamboyant entrepreneur talked his way onto Admiral Dewey’s flagship in Hong Kong and watched as the entire Spanish fleet was sunk in Manila Bay. Landing in Manila, he immediately identified the basic needs of the U.S. soldiers and had his New York partners, R. Isaacs and Sons, send an urgent shipment of Schlitz and Budweiser beer. He opened the Alhambra, Manila’s most popular saloon, threw enormous house parties and generously contributed to charities. In recognition of his prominence in the capital, Brown became known as the “Mayor,” a title bestowed upon him by Dewey.
As years passed and the Philippines became a securely held colony under the benevolent if paternalistic rule of a series of American governors, Jewish entrepreneurs thrived. They are credited with establishing Manila’s first department store and automobile dealership, launching Manila’s first radio broadcasting station and founding the Manila Grand Opera House, which was the only concert venue in the city for 35 years.
American Jews were joined by Russian Jews fleeing World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War in the 1920s. In 1924 a small but ornate Moorish-style synagogue for the growing Jewish community was built on Manila’s William Howard Taft Avenue and named Temple Emil after philanthropist Emil Bachrach. The synagogue’s religious orientation was American-style Conservative Judaism. The Jewish cemetery was consecrated in 1925.
Haven From the Nazis
German and Austrian Jews fleeing Nazis found refuge and bolstered the community’s numbers in the 1930s. The Manila Bulletin, one of the country’s leading daily newspapers, thundered in editorial after editorial about the mistreatment of Jews and Catholics. Shortly after Kristallnacht, a Committee for Racial and Religious Tolerance was hurriedly organized in Manila, where more than 1,000 people attended an Indignation Rally.
In 1935, the status of the Philippines was officially changed from colony to commonwealth, with an elected president and representatives, in preparation for independence. The Philippines was now free to set its own immigration policies. Amid increasingly chilling reports from Europe, President Manuel Quezon announced that Jews arriving in the Philippines would be permitted to stay.
Filipino historian and journalist Rodel Rodis gives some of the credit for the rescue to Jewish brothers Philip and Alex Frieder, who in 1918 moved their two-for-a-nickel cigar business from Manhattan to the Philippines. During the war, the brothers met European Jews from Shanghai fleeing Japanese rule in China and approached their poker buddies, Paul V. McNutt, the American High Commissioner for the Philippines, and Manuel Quezon about creating a haven in the Philippines for the thousands of their co-ethnics trapped in China. McNutt convinced an anti-Semitic State Department that was barring Jews from entering the U.S. to turn a blind eye as the Philippine dependency admitted them by the hundreds. Quezon himself donated some of his own property in suburban Marikina to be used as a community center for the Jewish refugees and even proposed a plan for settling as many as 10,000 on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao.
But the Japanese bombed the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Japanese planes appeared in the Philippine sky the day after. They destroyed the U.S. air fleet at Clark Field and started bombing raids on Manila. With the Japanese Navy approaching, General Douglas MacArthur began to withdraw American forces on December 26, vowing, “I shall return.” Quezon and his cabinet were evacuated to Washington, DC. The flow of Jews into the Philippines—which had reached an approximate total of 1,300—was abruptly halted. On January 2, 1942, the Japanese entered Manila.
Unlike their German allies, the Japanese made no distinction between Manila’s Jews and non-Jews. Jews and other foreigners with German, Austrian or neutral-country passports were allowed to continue their lives more or less unmolested, while those of “enemy” nationalities were interned at the University of Santo Tomas in makeshift barracks. Interestingly, the German and Austrian Jewish refugees were now “free,” while the American Jews were imprisoned. However, the synagogue continued to function, as did Manila’s first full-time rabbi and cantor—both refugees from Germany. Even the “enemy” American and other Jews were bussed from their barracks to attend holiday services at the synagogue with the rest of the community. Max Weissler, a Jewish Filipino, was 12 when the Japanese landed. His parents ran a small business selling homemade cakes and pastries, which Weissler delivered by bicycle after school. Overall, “the Japanese did not molest us. They treated us pretty well,” recalls Weissler, now 80 and living in Israel. “For example, a lot of things were scarce. We couldn’t get wheat flour, so my parents had to make their cakes with cassava flour. But the Japanese saw to it that the community had wheat flour on Passover to bake matzoh.”
In January 1945, American airplanes began dropping leaflets and packages of Chesterfield cigarettes, signaling their advance toward the islands. General MacArthur made good on his promise to return on February 4 when American tanks came crashing through the walls surrounding the University of Santo Tomas, freeing the internees who were struggling to survive with diminished food rations. Pat Dayan, one of the internees there, told me that if the Americans had come as little as one week later, “They would have found us all dead of starvation.”
Japanese and American forces fought street to street and house to house. And at the Manila Hotel, the prewar headquarters of General MacArthur, the fighting raged from room to room. Not far from the hotel, the family of Max Weissler sat huddled in their apartment, with all of the jalousie windows closed tight. “A truck full of Japanese soldiers got stuck on our street and couldn’t get through. I reached up and opened the window just a little, and the Japanese fired their guns into our apartment,” Weissler recalls. The retreating Japanese embarked on a massacre of the civilian population and a frenzy of destruction, including herding people into hospitals, which they then set alight, blowing up buildings and setting fire to everything in the path of their retreat. This, combined with American artillery shelling, left more than 100,000 Filipino civilians dead and Manila the second most destroyed city in World War II after Warsaw.
On the first night of Passover, 1945, the survivors of Manila’s Jewish community invited 4,000 American Jewish servicemen and women to an open-air seder amid the rubble of the San Lazaro racetrack. Seeing and talking to the thousands of Jewish soldiers, Manila’s Jews felt as if they were walking through a dream. The Americans were likewise surprised to find a Jewish community in this faraway land. On November 9, they gathered again at Temple Emil for a memorial service. Used as a munitions dump during the final months of the occupation, the synagogue was bombed and burned by the Japanese, with only parts of the outer walls left. Standing amid the ash and the rubble, the Americans pledged to raise funds to build a new synagogue, and on August 17, 1947, the second Temple Emil was rededicated on the site of the first one.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the synagogue became the new center of the capital’s Jewish life. But the once-stately Taft Avenue began deteriorating into a run-down, crowded ghost of its former self, its magnificent acacia trees replaced by the grimy girders of an elevated commuter light-rail transit system. So in 1983, the Jewish community, now centered in newer, more upscale parts of town, built a third synagogue in the heart of the emerging business district of Makati, renting out the second Temple Emil to Avon, the cosmetics company. The new synagogue, Bet Ya’akov, was the one I visited.
It was at Bet Ya’akov that I attended services with my family, studied with the rabbi, partook in the life of the Jewish community and gradually became more observant. After a mere month of synagogue attendance, my Catholic wife had an epiphany of her own. She started becoming Jewish—attending services, talking to people during Kiddush, reading, studying, applying what she was learning to her everyday life and becoming as kosher as she knew how to be at that point. My kids were small and enthusiastic. They loved going to synagogue. One day my wife announced that she wanted to become Jewish, along with our kids.
"Man plans, God Laughs"
But as the old Yiddish saying goes, “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.” Translation: “Man plans, God laughs.” Although conversion would probably have posed no problem back in the days of the American-dominated, Conservative Jewish pre- and postwar Temple Emil, this could not even be contemplated in the Syrian-dominated, Aleppo-style Orthodox Bet Ya’akov of 1994. Syrian Jews are famously not into conversion.
Thus we were off to Israel, where an equal measure of Zionism and utter inertia have kept us. My children became Israeli almost overnight. My wife, who went through the Jewish Agency’s conversion program for non-Jewish spouses of Jewish immigrants, has thrived here. She is a social worker, employed with one of the agencies that supply foreign, mostly Filipino, caregivers to the elderly and chronically ill. She makes sure that Israelis receive good care and Filipino workers don’t end up locked in a closet. Daniel is now out of the army; he fought in both Lebanon and Gaza and is now working in high tech. Rachel is coming to the end of her national service in the oncology ward at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem and is gearing up for her second year with an organization that provides food to needy families.
And me? Well, I teach, I write, I listen. We keep Shabbat and my wife is still very serious, but I have long since returned to seeing Judaism as I did before the Philippines—a fascinating cluster of academic subjects, religion, history, archeology of Israel, folklore, philosophy, etc. I find myself missing the Philippines, today an even more diverse array of Jews: Israeli businessmen, diplomats, representatives of multinational corporations, employees of the World Health Organization—and all of their families—as well as adventurers, colorful characters and social desperados with whom “Mayor” W.W. Brown would have gotten along nicely. They can be spotted in the morning, after the Sabbath service at Bet Ya’akov, sitting around the social hall, carrying on conversations in Hebrew and Tagalog, Chinese and French, Arabic and every imaginable dialect of English. They talk about Bengino Aquino III, the son of the former president Corazon Aquino, who was elected president in 2010, and the dynamic young rabbi from Chicago, Eliyahu Azara and Miriam, his equally engaging wife at the synagogue that is now more generally Sephardi than Syrian. They grouse about the new Chabad House and the old Taft Avenue synagogue, once rented by Avon Cosmetics but now vacant, forcing the new synagogue to tighten its belt.
I find I especially miss the Philippines during the Jewish holidays. After all, where are you likely to feel more Jewish? In the Jewish State of Israel, where you’re constantly surrounded by Jews aplenty, many of whom seem a lot more outwardly Jewish than you are? Or in a place where you’re living in a little Jewish island surrounded by 92 million people who barely know what a Jew is? Yup, if you want to feel Jewish, there’s no place like the Philippines.
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