Keeping Judaism alive in the beauty of the South Pacific

Keeping Judaism alive in the beauty of the South Pacific

The marketplace in Papeete, Tahiti is a combination of great food and vibrant colors. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)
The marketplace in Papeete, Tahiti is a combination of great food and vibrant colors. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)

God truly must have formed Tahiti and French Polynesia and placed coral necklaces around them. They are too perfect: bright morning sunshine, calming breezes, turquoise lagoons, spectacular waterfalls, towering mountains, verdant fields and friendly people.  

Indeed, Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora — to name just three of these 118 volcanic and coral islands — are a state of mind. You never forget them.  

More than 100 years ago, artist Paul Gauguin knew a good thing; he was willing to spend 63 days on a ship from France to reach Tahiti.

Today, the islands are more accessible. I flew nonstop from JFK airport in New York in slightly over 12 hours. The plane was full of honeymooners, adults renewing their vows and vacationers seeking an uncrowded tourist destination.  

And what a destination it turned out to be. Scenic beauty, blue lagoons and emerald green, clear waters inspire one to swim, snorkel, shark feed and fish.

On the islands, the most popular occupancies remain “overwater bungalows,” a perfect haven for lovers.  A thatched roof, a spacious, luxury bedroom, a sitting room to look through a partial, glass-bottomed floor to observe multicolored fish swimming below, a luxurious bathroom and a private balcony. High, rugged mountain peaks enhance the mystique of these South Pacific wonders.

Though you live directly above the water, you have nothing to fear, even on a stormy night. The protection of the reef breaks the waters to shelter the bungalows on stilts from the winds and currents of the open sea.

Because the nearby isles are so attractive, many tourists use Tahiti as a stopover, though one should visit the market place, the gem museum, the pearl shops and the Gauguin Museum, Motor 45 minutes past the peaks and slopes of Tahiti and you arrive at the Gauguin Museum, a one-story building in a lovely setting.  Gauguin, perhaps more than any other artist, successfully captured the sun-splashed colors, dreamlike atmosphere and pervasive serenity of this island.  

Moorea, a 45-minute ferry-boat ride or seven-minute flight from Tahiti contains mountain ranges. Tourists ascend via jeep safari to view Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay.

Moorea offers the traveler an opportunity to walk, hike or rent a scooter to enjoy the passing scenery. If you take the jeep safari, a 4-by-4 will drive you past plantations, across streams, into deep valleys and up to waterfalls. If you prefer traveling on foot, it’s best to go with a guide along rain forest trails.

Bora Bora, the center of tourism in French Polynesia, remains an island of rare beauty. “Wild, impetuous, lovely Bora Bora,” author James Michener wrote.   

Still, Tahiti flaunts its own charm, including cosmopolitan Papeete, capital of French Polynesia with its urban area population of about 133,000. This is a municipality that embraces all its citizens, the so-called demis — half-Europeans, Europeans, Chinese and Polynesian peoples. While Papeete somewhat resembles a town in France with its narrow streets where French is heard and touches of  French architecture abound, the municipality only came into its own when the French  built the international airport in the 1960s.

While there are fine restaurants on the island many tourists in town head for the roulottes at Vai’ete Square, in the colorful waterfront area. This is like an outdoor food court, where tourists mingle with locals who sit at long picnic tables and order hot meals from colorful food vans and trucks.  

There are Jews on the exotic island of Tahiti as well as a synagogue located on rue Morenhout, Quartier Farripiti in Papeete.

“Ahava v’Ahava” (Love and Friendship) is the name of the congregation built in 1993. The title, it was explained to me, helps nourish the Tahitian tradition of love.

Standing there in front of the synagogue, I could see that its exterior meshed nicely with island paradise atmosphere. Here was this whitewashed house of prayer nestled in the midst of lush, tilting palm and mango trees.

The Jews here formed ACISPO, a French acronym for Cultural Association for Israelites and Polynesian Friends. Sponsored by ACISPO, the congregation claims a membership of about 200 people, a pretty reliable figure, because that is the number of Jews who show up for Yom Kippur services. Even though this congregation functions thousands of miles from its nearest neighbors, it desperately tries to keep Judaism alive. And it does so without a full-time rabbi and cantor, except occasionally for the High Holidays. Kosher food products arrive from Australia and are sold at the synagogue, though some supermarkets stock kosher food.

Most of the Jews here hail from Morocco and Algeria via France.

The first Jewish person probably arrived with Capt. James Cook in the 18th century. According to Virtual Jewish History Tour, Alexander Salmon, a Jew, moved to Tahiti in 1791 and later entered the Tahitian royal family when he married Arrioehau, a Polynesian princess. With the arrival of Catholic priests, most Jews assimilated or converted to Catholicism. The community was dormant until the arrival of French Jews in the 1960s.

Synagogue members say there is scant evidence of anti-Semitism in Tahiti. “Polynesians believe in God and understand that everyone has his or her own religion,” a member of the community told me.

Entering or leaving Tahiti will always bring you memories.

Custom has it that as an act of Tahitian hospitality, a tourist receives a tiare, Tahiti’s national blossom, which is a white gardenia redolent with intoxicating perfume. The flower is to be worn over the ear. I learned that if the tiare is worn behind the left ear, on the side of the heart, it signals that your love has been won.  If it’s worn behind the right ear, it indicates that you are unmarried and open to proposals.

Departing the islands, I realized James Michener was right when he wrote the following in his book “Tales of the South Pacific,” later adapted into the Broadway show, “South Pacific”:

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific, the way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specs of coral we call islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description.

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer, is the author of the recently published “Klara’s Journey, A Novel” (Marion Street Press); “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press); and other Jewish travel guides.