04 March 2007

Manila: The Jewish presence

In February, the synagogue in Manila hosted a lecture by San Diego Jewish Historical society archivist Bonnie M. Harris, who recovered the papers of Cantor Cysner, who was part of the Manila community during WWII. Cysner's widow provided boxes of material to the society.

The Philippines have a fascinating Jewish history.

A Web site sponsored by the Embassy of Israel in the Philippines provides an excellent exhibit that tells the little-known story of the history of Manila community from Spanish colonial days through to contemporary times, The community provided aid to so many refugees during the war years.

The islands were a Spanish colony from 1521-1898, and conversos accompanied Spanish adventurers who settled the islands, according to Harvard University history professor Jonathan Goldstein, who wrote a paper on Jewish merchants in Far Eastern ports.

New Christians Jorge and Domingo Rodriguez are the first recorded Jews to have arrived, reaching Manila in the 1590s. In 1593, both were tried and convicted at a Mexico City trial (called an auto-da-fe) because the Inquisition was not operating in the Philippines. At least eight other New Christians were also tried and convicted. Others with Jewish roots kept very quiet, settling in rural areas, living a precarious existence and keeping their traditions very secret in a very Catholic colony.

The Suez Canal opened in March 1869, cutting the travel time from Europe to the Philippines from three months to 40 days. In 1870, brothers Adolf, Charles and Rafael Levy arrived from Alsace-Lorraine, fleeing the Franco-Prussian War, and established a Manila jewelry store famous throughout the Philippines, La Estrella del Norte (The Northern Star). Their businesses eventually included general merchandise, gems, pharmaceuticals and automobiles. Leopold Kahn, also from Alsace, arrived in 1909 and joined them in business.

Later, Syrian Jew A.N. Hashim arrived with watches to sell and also established a jewelry business; Turkish and Egyptian Jews also came to Manila.

The community expanded during the period that the Philippines were under American control and during the Holocaust the community rescued many refugees. The community increased with SephardicBagdadi Jews from India, as well as an American/European Ashkenazi community, each with their own synagogues.

The exhibit was organized with the help of the San Diego Jewish Historical Society, Manila community members, archives of the Americal Historical Collection (Rizal LIbrary, Ateneo de Manila University), Archives of the Main Library at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, and the Israeli Embassy staff in the Philippines.

Click here to read the story of Cantor Cysner and more.

Some Sephardic discussion groups, such as Sephardim.org have messages from Filipinos discussing their Jewish backgrounds.

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