December 15, 2021
It’s that time of year again – when Jewish families make their traditional plans to indulge in Chinese food on Christmas. But if you think that’s the most significant intersection of Asian and Jewish cultures, think again.
Throughout history, members of the Jewish diaspora have called parts of Asia their home and members of the Asian community have made Judaism their spiritual home.
Five books published in 2021 explore that rich history. As we approach the holiday season, AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute is delighted to present this reading list for those looking to learn more about the fascinating ties between Asian and Jewish cultures.
The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties that Helped Create Modern China, by Jonathan Kaufman
Jonathan Kaufman’s acclaimed book traces the legacies of two rival Jewish dynasties in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, through the 19th and 20th centuries. Kaufman’s narrative is deeply compelling, weaving together world wars, family dramas, political intrigue, and more.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Kaufman is an expert at telling intimate personal stories against the backdrop of China’s turmoil and rise. Kaufman isn’t shy about pointing out some ethical and moral tensions, but he also highlights the generosity of the Sassoons and Kadoories, particularly in supporting the 18,000 Jewish refugees that fled to Shanghai during the Holocaust.
Soles of a Survivor: A Memoir, by Nhi Aronheim
Nhi Aronheim’s gripping memoir traces her escape as a young child from Communist Vietnam through the jungles of Cambodia, through a Thai refugee camp to adoption into a Christian family in Kentucky. She eventually marries a Jewish man and converts to Judaism soon after.
Throughout her story, Aronheim draws parallels between Jewish and Vietnamese cultures, values, and experiences. Despite the immense trials she faces, Aronheim’s narrative is deeply optimistic and full of life.
Matzo Ball-Wonton Thanksgiving, by Amelie Suskind Liu and Leslie Lewinter-Suskind
Amelie Suskind Liu and Leslie Lewinter-Suskind’s children’s book is beautifully compelling, detailing a young girl grappling with her American, Chinese, and Jewish identities during the Thanksgiving holiday when her Bubbe and Nai Nai come into town.
The book is gorgeously illustrated, thanks to the work of Maria Dmitrieva, and is a welcome addition to any children’s library celebrating the diversity of the American experience, as well as of the Jewish people.
Growing Up Jewish in India, by Ori Z. Soltes
Ori Z. Soltes, with the assistance of six contributors, provides a comprehensive overview of India’s long-standing Jewish communities, tracing the origins and cultures of the Bene Israel Jews in Mumbai, Baghdadi Jews in Calcutta, and Cochin Jews in Cochin. Soltes showcases the diversity and beauty of these communities not only through a detailed and well-researched narrative, but also through stunning images, including artwork, maps, and photographs of synagogues, artifacts, and customs.
Several chapters focus on Indian Jewish artist Siona Benjamin, through both personal memoir and artistic commentary, showcasing the distinct art inspired by her dual heritage.
Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews, by Esther David
If the history of the Jews in India piqued your curiosity, also check out Esther David’s newly-published cookbook. Bene Appetit, a pun on the Bene Israel community in India, includes 130 mouth-watering recipes from six Jewish communities across the Indian subcontinent.
David, who is herself Indian Jewish, weaves together history, tradition, and her own childhood memories to detail the particular cuisines of the Indian Jewish communities’ celebrations of both festivals and everyday life.
About AJC Asia Pacific Institute
At AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute, we strengthen Jewish-Asian relations every day. Our work in the Asia Pacific keeps us plugged into the Jewish communities across the region. In the U.S., we build mutual understanding and joint advocacy on issues of common concern to both the Jewish and Asian American communities. To learn more about our work, and to hear about many more stories of engagement between the Asian and Jewish communities, give us a follow on Twitter at @AJC_Asia.