The Jewish Traveler: Honolulu
Hawai’i’s capital city charms with its breathtaking scenery, laidback racial and religious harmony and the warmth of its people—natives and transplants.
Maybe Paradise isn’t a singular location but something like the poles, with two on opposite sides of the planet. That might explain why Hawai’i, which lies more than 8,000 miles from the likely Middle Eastern site of the Garden of Eden, is so idyllic.
For visitors, it is a tropical wonderland of warmth, sea breezes, flowers—and sometimes mystery. For residents, it is a racial and religious place of fraternity, where Jewish is one color of the rainbow, where all-men-are-created-equal was lived even before it was adopted as part of American heritage. It’s a place where a Jewish woman can become governor and a native son who refers to some canines as “mutts like me” can grow up to be president.
And in the middle of the Hawaiian archipelago lies Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, the seemingly perfect combination of laid-back beach resort and vibrant city of culture, history and shopping.
Considering Hawai’i’s remoteness from the Jewish starting point, it’s no surprise that the first, mysterious reference to Jews in the islands was delayed. According to the log of the whaling vessel Neptune, in 1798 the Hawaiian king came aboard and brought “a Jew cook with him.” No one knows today if the reference was true and, if so, where the Jewish chef might have come from.
By the middle of the 19th century, Jewish traders from England, Germany and the United States came to Hawai’i, some becoming coffee planters or suppliers to sugar plantations. An organized Jewish community emerged in 1901 with the founding of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The first permanent congregation was established in 1938, eventually becoming Temple Emanu-El. By 1941, the Army and Navy both had posted rabbis to Hawai’i; Navy Chaplain H. Cerf Straus and Army Chaplain Harry Richmond were present during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Jewish community grew slowly but steadily. Among the milestones in the community’s growth were the arrival of Jewish refugees from China after World War II and the return of G.I.’s who had passed through Hawai’i during World War II and the Vietnam war.
The generally accepted figure for Hawai’i’s Jewish population is 10,000, with about half in and around Honolulu and most of the rest on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawai’i. But most experts agree that the proportion of hidden Jews—those who are neither affiliated nor visibly identified with the community—is especially large. “Jews don’t come to Hawai’i to be Jewish,” observes Rabbi Peter Schaktman of Temple Emanu-El. “Mainland synagogues are sanctuaries for whatever spiritual journey you are on, but Hawai’i is a spiritual refuge of its own. Here, it’s as if you have to get off the highway to take part” in Jewish life.
For those who make the effort, Jewish life has blended nicely into the Hawaiian quilt. Local Jews have combined shalom with aloha (which means “hello,” “good-bye” and “love”) into their own greeting: shaloha. At every synagogue, membership reflects the state’s diverse racial makeup, with many Asian, Polynesian and hapa (mixed) faces. Many worshipers sport the shaloha kippa, with a tropical flora pattern.
In most respects, the Jewish community’s occupational profile is similar to that on the mainland, with doctors, lawyers and university professors, people in the entertainment industry, real estate and jewelers. The one additional element is military retirees.
The best single source for information on Jewish Hawai’i is the Alohacyberian Web site, https://home.att.net/~ keith.martin/zjHawaii.html, which provides background on Hawai’i’s Jewish community and history and also has up-to-date links to all of the congregations in the islands.
Honolulu has an active Hadassah group; for information about events, contact chapter president Robyne Bush (808-664-5735;firstname.lastname@example.org).
Arguably the most important landmark in Honolulu, Iolani Palace, which was the seat of the Hawaiian monarchy, is the only royal residence in the United States. Built by King David Kalakaua, the mansion served its intended purpose from 1882 until 1893, when Kalakaua’s sister and successor, Queen Lili’uokalani, was overthrown. In 1898, the Hawaiian Islands were annexed by the United States.
The Victorian façade of Iolani Palace is recognizable to many Americans because it was often featured in the television series Hawaii Five-0. Perhaps the most striking interior feature is wood, especially the stairways and doors made of Hawaiian koa.
Kalakaua was a progressive king and scholar. At a time when no sitting American president had ever visited a foreign country, the Hawaiian king traveled around the world. Iolani Palace had electricity and telephones installed before the White House did. And as tour guides routinely point out, the leader of a remote island kingdom kept up on world affairs by regularly receiving foreign visitors.
The most consequential Jewish visitor during Kalakaua’s reign was Elias Abram Rosenberg, a learned but possibly disreputable man who arrived in Honolulu in January 1887. Several theories have been advanced to explain the friendship that developed between the king and Rosenberg, most of which include an element of Kalakaua’s boundless curiosity. The king gave his new friend a job as a customs appraiser. According to a columnist in the Hawaiian Gazette, Rosenberg was teaching the king Hebrew and, possibly, reading his horoscope.
It all ended quickly. After only six months in Honolulu, Rosenberg set sail for San Francisco, where he died a month later. Before leaving, however, he left in the king’s possession a Torah and a yad, possibly as collateral for a loan. After the monarchy was overthrown and an organized Jewish community formed, the king’s heirs routinely loaned the items to the community during the High Holidays. It is recorded that in the 1920s the Jewish congregation would return the Torah to Princess Abigail, Kalakaua’s niece, with a dozen roses. But sometime between 1930 and 1940, as royal possessions were divided among various descendants, the Torah and yad mysteriously disappeared. The yad surfaced in 1959 and was given to Temple Emanu-El, as was the Torah after it was found in 1972. Iolani Palace, on the corner of King and Richard Streets, offers tours daily (reservations advised; 808-522-0822;www.iolanipalace.org).
One block from the palace, on Beretania Street, is Washington Place, the official residence of Hawai’i’s governor. The Greek Revival mansion was built in 1847 and, though it is now a museum, it is still the governor’s ceremonial home. Linda Lingle, the state’s first Jewish governor, was also the first to begin her term in the new residence, built next to Washington Place. She hosts a Passover Seder every year at the older mansion. When she moved into the governor’s new home, Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky of Chabad nailed a mezuza to the doorpost.
A 20-minute drive from downtown Honolulu is Pearl Harbor. No visit to the United States naval base is complete without a pilgrimage to the memorial of the U.S.S. Arizona (808-422-0561;www.nps.gov/usar), which accounted for half of the 2,400 American deaths on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A ferry takes visitors to the swooping white structure that straddles the wreck of the battleship. On a plaque dedicated to the sailors who gave their lives are the words from the Priestly Blessing, “May God make His face to shine upon them and grant them peace.”
Pearl Harbor also has a Jewish landmark, the Aloha Jewish Chapel. Built in 1975—when the congregation transferred from quontset huts—the current sanctuary was the first chapel built exclusively by the United States government as a Jewish place of worship. The nondenominational congregation is located just inside the naval base’s Makalapa Gate, so visitors can enter only by arrangement and accompanied by someone with a military ID.
The building’s exterior is a series of arches. The ornate wooden doors were imported from Israel. The interior has a stucco ceiling, white-brick side walls and a wooden eastern wall with blue trim and blue velvet chairs on the bima. To one side are flags from the various armed services.
But the chapel is much more than just a building. It has a unique warmth that can be felt by anyone who visits. The best explanation is a combination of the Jewish ethic of helping one another, the military ethic of looking out for comrades as well as the transient membership (70 percent) in which congregants have to take care of each other because families are far away.
A fair number of the members are submariners, whose families stay behind when they are at sea and find support in the congregational embrace. It’s a moving sight when a naval officer arrives in khaki to show the sanctuary to a visitor, then ducks into the men’s room and emerges in his dress whites just so he can take the Torah out of the Ark. After a fund-raising campaign, the chapel dedicated a new Torah in October 2008. (An older Torah had been brought by Jews from China after World War II.)
The Aloha Jewish Chapel has services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings and Torah study on Monday evenings. To arrange a visit, call 808-473-3972.
There is one more mystery—also featuring Jews and Hawaiian royalty of a sort—involving the chapel. Clarissa Halili Nelson was a folk hero, a singer, hula dancer, actress, comedian and television star who, when she died in 1979, left behind a small empire of Hawaiian-themed gift stores. She also endowed a classroom at the Aloha Jewish Chapel. Some congregants believe she was Jewish, though there is no evidence to support the theory, and no one seems to know the story behind the bequest.
Closer to downtown, Honolulu’s civilian Jewish core is along Pali Highway. Temple Emanu-El is the largest congregation in the state, with 280 member families. The Reform synagogue’s two-story brick building has a sloping roof that looks vaguely Japanese—two near neighbors include a Buddhist and Shinto temple—and covered walkways. The sanctuary is mostly wood with muted yellow stained-glass windows. Shabbat services (held every Friday night and at least one or two Saturday mornings per month) are casual; don’t be surprised to see kids running around barefoot.
To the left of the bima, in a place of honor, is a glass case—decorated with the crest of the Hawaiian royal family—containing the Kalakaua Torah and yad. The Torah, no longer fit for use, is said to be slightly yellowed only around the chapters read between Rosh Hashana and Sukkot, which is when the scroll was typically loaned to the Jewish community; the rest is close to the original white.
Temple Emanu-El (2550 Pali Highway; 808-595-7521;www.shaloha.com) is also notable for its garden, with olive and ironwood trees, various species of palm, staghorn ferns, bougainvillea and plumeria.
Directly across the street from Temple Emanu-El is the First Unitarian Church, which houses Honolulu’s Conservative congregation, Sof Ma’arav (2500 Pali Highway;www.sofmaarav.org). The havura-style group takes its name from the Judah Halevi poem that says, “My heart is in the east and I am at the end of the west [sof ma’arav].” The 50-family congregation holds Saturday morning services with a high level of member participation and an ambience that may be even more casual than neighboring Temple Emanu-El. Don’t be surprised if the Torah reader is barefoot.
The congregation most convenient to the Waikiki hotels where most tourists stay is Chabad of Hawaii, located in the Ala Moana Hotel at 410 Atkinson Street. Chabad (808-735-8161; www.chabadofha waii.com) is also the only place in Honolulu to find weekday Shaharit services as well as Shabbat Friday evening and Saturday morning services.
In Waikiki, at the intersection of Kalakaua Avenue and Olohana Street, is the Brothers in Valor Monument, dedicated to Japanese-American troops who served in World War II. The monument, which consists of plaques near the street and a sculpture in the adjacent park of Fort DeRussy, has at least two Jewish angles.
The plaque dedicated to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (the most highly decorated unit of the war) notes that part of the 442nd liberated Dachau and other concentrations camps in March 1945. A small stone next to the plaques near the street is in honor of Judith M. Weightman, a law professor who conceived the monument after she interviewed some of the troops involved in the liberation of Dachau for a documentary film.
The central sculpture of the memorial, by Bumpei Akaji, a 442nd veteran, is in the shape of an eternal flame, but from some angles looks like the Hebrew letter shin.
The island of Maui is home to as many as 3,000 Jews. The largest concentration is on the southwest coast, especially in Kihei, where the Jewish Congregation of Maui is located (634 Alulike Street; 808-874-5397; www.mauijews.org). “Our numbers are growing, but there’s always an ebb and flow and a tiny volunteer base,” says Rabbi David Glickman, who first came to the island as part of a research team studying whales.
The 135-member congregation is not affiliated with any movement. It encourages worshipers to use any prayer book they like, though the page numbers given during services are from the Conservative Sim Shalom siddur. Glickman refers to the synagogue’s ritual as “minhag Maui.” A typical Shabbat service draws about 20 people in June and 50 in the winter. High Holiday services attract 400 to 500.
The synagogue is one block from the beach. Though its garden is not as neatly landscaped as Temple Emanu-El’s in Honolulu, it is more diverse, with figs and pomegranates, areka palms, kukui nuts, orange, banana, papaya, plumbago, plumeria, hibiscus and night-blooming jasmine.
The Maui Mitzvah Center (808-249-8770; www.jewishmaui.com), a congregation following Chabad tradition, has Shabbat services and Friday night dinners in the upcountry town of Kula as well as a center for classes and holiday events in Kahului, on the island’s north shore.
The Big Island has a Jewish community in Kona. For details on services and events, go to www.konabeth shalom.org. For a Jewish connection on Kauai, go to www.jewishcommuni tyofkauai.org or call the president, Martin Kahn, at 808-822-5281.
Hawai’i’s Jewish community is known best through its daughters. In addition to Governor Lingle, there is Bette Midler, whose family attended the Aloha Chapel. Allegra Goodman’s parents were among the founders of Sof Ma’arav; her books with Hawaiian settings include Total Immersion and Paradise Park (both Dial Press). The dance magnate Arthur Murray spent much of his retirement in Hawai’i and endowed a fund, administered by the Jewish Community Services of Hawai’i, to help Jews in need.
Other prominent Jews are Brian Schatz, chairman of the state Democratic Party; Mark Bennett, state attorney general; and Stephen Little, director of Honolulu Academy of Arts.
There are no kosher restaurants in Hawai’i, though fish and vegetarian dishes are easy to find. In Honolulu, Chabad’s Friday night communal dinner welcomes tourists who make advance reservations. The Web site www.oahu kosher.com can supply kosher meals to hotels. Kosher products can be found in various supermarkets, including Safeway, Star Market, Foodland and Times.
Even if you are just staying on Oahu, you still have a hard choice. You should explore all over the island, looking not only for sun and sand but also for music and museums. One hour north of Honolulu is the Polynesian Cultural Center (www.polynesia.com), which showcases the lifeways and arts of peoples across the Pacific, from Hawai’i to Tahiti to New Zealand. On the other hand, you can just stay on Waikiki Beach, where the music is soothing, ubiquitous and almost always free.
A convenient place to start your orientation is with the Oahu Visitors Bureau (www.visit-oahu.com).
On Maui, the resort area closest to the synagogue in Kihei is Wailea, and a good choice there is the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort and Spa (www.marriott.com). In Honolulu, there’s no place more entrancing than the Moana Surfrider (www.moana-surfrider.com), the queen of Waikiki hotels. It’s a perfect place to sit under a banyan tree or on the beach and wonder if the Garden of Eden consists of two poles. H