JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review August 9, 2002 / 1 Elul, 5762


A down-home davening ... in Taiwan

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Dr. Ephraim F. Einhorn digs four business cards out of his pockets and hands them over, one after the other. They reflect his capacities as senior vice president of the World Trade Center, Warsaw; honorary representative of the Polish Chamber of Commerce for Asia and the Pacific region; president of the World Patent Trading Co. Ltd. and--most significantly at the moment--rabbi of the only synagogue in the Republic of China, which holds its services in Room 419 in the Ritz Landis Hotel on Min Chuan East Road.

It is a cramped, narrow hotel room--two dozen or so banquet chairs, facing a modest table with candlesticks, a lectern set between two elegant lamps, a small Holy Ark. Books are piled everywhere. In the bathroom, cases of kosher wine are stacked in the bathtub.

I must admit that running to Sabbath services would not normally be my first impulse on a Friday night in a foreign country. But my Taiwanese hosts, ever gracious, thought I might enjoy it and added it to my schedule, and I, for reasons of--in descending order of importance-- politeness, curiosity and residual religious faith, did not decline.

As soon as I walk in the door, I am propelled up to meet the rabbi--look, a new person! Rabbi Einhorn produces his four business cards. He might have more; he seems to be fishing in his pockets for a fifth when he realizes that the newcomer had not yet seen his books.

"What will interest you is that I maintain in the hotel one of the largest collections of historical Jewish books in Asia,'' he says, plucking up a large volume bound in soft brown letter.

"Look at the year,'' he exalts, in a precise, refined tone that reminds me of a 1930s radio announcer. "1727.'' He reaches for another book. "Here, I will show you a fine example. This one, Vienna, 1810.''

More books, with elaborate title page engravings, old dates, references to obscure kings and princes. Rabbi Einhorn shows the books off with an unmistakable pride. Handing over the reprint of an academic paper, he says, "You'll see my name on every page. Interesting, eh?''

Rabbi Einhorn has been conducting services in Taipei for 26 years, 15 in this very room. "Before that in the Presidential Hotel,'' he says. "Before that in the U.S. Military Chapel.'' That, of course, was before the United States de-recognized Taiwan in 1979. "Jimmy Carter isn't very popular around here,'' the rabbi says.

The congregation, about 100 people total, is made up of embassy personnel, business executives posted in Taipei, plus their families and the occasional stray such as myself. There are children. Last Saturday, he says with pride, they had a bar mitzvah. We talk of the challenges of performing circumcisions in Asia--there is a mohel in Tokyo, he says, who swings through town to do the job when needed.

This night, about a dozen people crowd the room. Mostly men, plus a few wives, children, and a baby. This is not just a religious service, but also a support group--Jews Far From Home Anonymous. We settle in, and Rabbi Einhorn goes around the room, asking us our names, our places of origin. Everyone is from somewhere else --Israel, South Africa, the United States. Every location draws a few lines of commentary from Rabbi Einhorn. A visitor from Padua, Italy, elicits memories of his days as a student at what sounds to me like "Instituto Superiora del Torah. "I had a relationship with the chief rabbi in Italy,'' he says.

Never before in my life have I yearned for a tape recorder the way I yearn for one while Rabbi Einhorn is speaking. A tumbling cascade of erudition, bravado and pure verbiage that I despair to capture in my notebook. He mentions a certain noble lady--a marchesa--and conducts a brief exposition on the titles of nobility. A marchesa, he begins, is the wife of a marquis, but then he spirals upward, through dukes and duchesses, counts and viscounts, all the way up to the king and queen, a virtuoso performance, a jazz riff of obscure titles that I vainly try to capture with a mere pen.

We then zip through the Mincha service, the familiar prayers. Rabbi Einhorn calls on various congregants for help. "Doctor, do you know how to light the candles?'' he asks, then, in an aside to me, "Here, it is not the ladies who light the candles.''

Rabbi Einhorn offers commentary. "If you can bear it, there's so much to say, so much I want to tell you,'' he says, taking out a speech. "I worked on this for 48 hours.''

He reads a fervent, pro-Israel tract. "The whole world is wrong, and Israel is right,'' he concludes.

The Sabbath service ends in socializing. Regulars catch up and each in turn greets me. Several want to know if I'll be back. Even after I say I'm going home in a few days, they still want to know: Will I return? Will I bring my children to the services? "My kids are in the United States,'' I tell someone. "That's OK,'' he says. "Bring them anyway.''

When it comes time to go, I stand in the entranceway of the little room, for a long time, reluctant to leave, looking at the people milling around. So unbearably sad and sweet, a desperate need to connect, born of distance, longing and loss. I feel, at the same time, the service is something both already fading and permanently etched in my heart.

  —   Neil Steinberg

JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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