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The Mysterious Journey of the King Kalakaua Torah

August 19, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

The Journal of Hawaiian History: Elias Abraham Rosenberg, King Kalakaua's Soothsayer

This summer, I attended a bat mitzvah or a “coming of age” ceremony for a girl of the Jewish faith. I had never attended a bar mitzvah (for boys) nor a bat mitzvah. I enjoyed the fascinating ceremony – with many songs and readings (in Hebrew) at a Jewish synagogue in a Honolulu neighborhood.

In the synagogue in a splendid glass case was a Torah, a large rolled manuscript hand-written in Hebrew, along with a “yad”, a Jewish ritual pointer used to read the Torah. The Torah (in English "Instruction" or "Teaching") is the Jewish name for the first five books of the Bible. The words of the Torah are written on a scroll on parchment in Hebrew. According to Jewish tradition, God gave to Moses all the laws found in the Torah, and Moses wrote down all the teachings, which resulted in the Torah (just like the one in the Honolulu temple).

This particular encased Torah, called the “King Kalakaua Torah” (See Photos, with the Hawaiian Kingdom Royal Crest), has a fascinating history, best detailed in an essay in The Journal of Hawaiian History in 1970 by Dr. Jacob Adler, a University of Hawai’i professor:

Two decades after the enormous strife of the Civil War in the United States, there was a growing group of Hawai’i residents (holding U.S. passports, and speaking American English, some with still New England accents) who, as children of American missionaries arriving to the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 1820s -30s and other business immigrants (what we would now call “entrepreneurs”), behaved like a state within the state. That is, King David Kalakaua was head (an elected monarch) of the Hawaiian Kingdom, an independent country, yet was challenged by a vocal minority who wanted regulations and laws changed to their benefit, especially in land use, water rights, voting, customs, police, taxes, etc. In fact, the group was plotting to re-structure the Kingdom via a new constitution (resulting in the “Bayonet Constitution” of 1887) that would allow non-Hawaii citizens (what Americans in 2012 would call “foreign resident aliens”) to vote and install their own representatives and strip Hawaiian citizens of voting rights – in hindsight, essentially, a slow-moving take-over by non- Kingdom citizens.

Barely a year before the political and constitutional crisis summer of 1887, in fall 1886 a Russian immigrant with a wispy beard named Elias Abraham Rosenberg appeared in Honolulu. He had been a resident of San Francisco and perhaps London, and he called himself “Rabbi”, although, as Dr. Jacob points out, his Jewish religious ordination “cannot be verified”.

By this time, the fifty-year old King Kalakaua was an accomplished leader, having studied at the Chiefs’ Children’s School (later named the Royal School), by a missionary couple – Amos Starr Cooke and Juliette Montague Cooke. He was fluent in English and Hawaiian, knowledgeable about American culture (or more specifically, New England Protestant culture), government operations, and even had a law studies background, which was excellent training when he was later appointed the Kingdom’s postmaster general.

But he was also tired and frustrated, having completed a round-the-world journey that took him and his entourage (including Hawaii’s first diplomat Colonel Curtis Iaukea, barely 30 years old when he traveled throughout Europe) to meet the Japanese Emperor, the King of Siam, Queen Victoria, the Pope, and U.S. President Chester Arthur. (The King must have noted bitterly that he was met and greeted as an “equal” to these global leaders as sovereign of an independent Kingdom yet the Hawaiian League, his political rival group, would accuse him of incompetence and unworthy of leadership).

How Rosenberg met King Kalakaua is unknown, but 1880s Honolulu was not a huge city. Iolani Palace faced the docks, filled with steamships and fishing boats, and anybody coming off a ship would immediately see the King’s palace, built only four years before, probably ringed by lobbyists and individuals holding papers seeking government jobs and land claims (although we think of the White House and Buckingham Palace as symbols of advanced Anglo-Saxon civilization, since 1886 Iolani Palace was lit up at night, wired with electricity, before both buildings -- King Kalakaua read widely and knew about the latest technological inventions as anybody in Washington D.C. or London).

There was no Waikiki filled with hotels and shops, so Rosenberg most probably stayed in what was called a “boarding house” in the harbor area of Honolulu, like Smith or Bethel streets, close to the heart of the Kingdom’s capital. Perhaps he became friends with a member of the Court, and this led to an invitation to a reception, then the King began to ask him to visit him at the Palace.

Most likely the European-sounding, well-travelled, erudite Rosenberg was a calming, neutral figure to the King, not connected to the elite missionary-related economic and political network throughout Hawai’i. The King probably listened avidly to Rosenberg’s Torah stories and Hebrew teachings, and Rosenberg supported the King’s revival of the Hawaiian religion (he certainly knew about the Czarist-led Russian pogroms documented in Zionist newspapers; Jewish homeland, and Hebrew language and cultural revival were all emerging, especially in Eastern Europe). Displacement, suppression of culture and language, the search for a homeland, always a minority status globally -- these were not unfamiliar themes to Rosenberg, and the King must have viewed Rosenberg as a what we would call a counselor, even a psychiatrist, as the King must have suffered -- viewing from the lens of 2012 -- from depression, loneliness, and powerlessness.

Rosenberg also promoted himself as a soothsayer (what we would call now a “psychic” who could foretell the future*). He focused on the Biblical story of King David (Kalakaua’s first name, coincidently) – the King of Israel, a “righteous king”, a multi-tasker who was a warrior, musician, and poet (Book of Psalms). The latter point must have inspired the King, as he also composed poems and songs -- his composition "Hawaii Pono'i" is the State official song.

The King was also searching for a “way out”, how to defuse the political situation, and to retain the monarchy, Hawaiian language and culture, and independent Kingdom in the face of a coup d’état, and desperately listened to any positive news about the future. He must have found some solace in his conversations about the Torah, revival of Hawaiian religion, his political future: he named Rosenberg to the post of kahuna-kilokilo or royal soothsayer and customs appraiser – actions which annoyed the King’s political opponents.

By June 1887, Rosenberg saw the writing on the wall -- he must have been harassed by sugar planter-hired guards, perhaps he read letters delivered to his hostel listing terrible outcomes for staying on in Honolulu. Upon buying his one-way steamship ticket back to San Francisco, he left his Torah and yad with the King, so that the King may be aware of Jewish religion and culture, of inclusivity (Rosenberg also received some presents from the King) or more likely, he thought that he shall return to Honolulu and continue his political life in Hawai’i (in a will, he bequeathed his Torah and yad to his son, but the items were in Honolulu). Barely a month after arriving in San Francisco, Rosenberg passed away.

Back in Honolulu in Bayonet Constitution was signed, under pressure, by King Kalakaua. Broken-hearted, the King would die four years later in San Francisco – he was only 54 years old.

After the Overthrow that ended the Kingdom in 1893 the scroll and yad, along with other artifacts of King Kalakaua (who had no children), came into the possession of the Kawananakoa family (descendants of Kaumualii, King of Kauai) through Queen Kapiolani (the King's spouse).

What occurred next in the first half of the 20th century was that representatives from the tiny Honolulu Jewish community would come to the stately Kawananakoa home and “borrow” the Torah and pointer for services.

Imagine the formal, perhaps strained telephone calls to the Kawananakoa home, then two or three men wearing hats or yarmulkes (skullcaps) arriving in a Ford Model T in bright sunlight to this noble Hawaiian family house, bowing and perhaps bringing kosher food as presents, and then returning to a small chapel on Young Street that was converted into a Jewish Community Center, which also served later as Honolulu's first permanent synagogue. I wonder what the Kawananakoa children, peeking through windows, must have asked their parents what all the fuss about an old scroll and a strange pointer.

During World War II, the Torah may have been borrowed by Jewish Army or Navy chaplains stationed at Ft. Shafter or Pearl Harbor, or taken to a then-new section of Oahu Cemetery in Nu’uanu that became a Jewish cemetery.

Fast-forward to Princess Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike III Kawananakoa, the granddaughter of Princess Abigail Campbell Kawananakoa (who was only eleven years old in the year of the Overthrow), who gave the pointer to a friend. It was then donated to Rabbi Roy Rosenberg (no relation to the soothsayer), who coincidently was assigned to a new Jewish synagogue in Honolulu -- Temple Emanu-El. At the dedicatory services of Temple Emanu-El in 1960, Rabbi Rosenberg also dedicated the pointer to the temple.

A decade later when Dr. Adler wrote his essay on the King Kalakaua Torah, the professor wondered what happened to the Torah (he even asked the reader: “Help!”). In the 1940s the Torah was left with a Jewish man, but his son, who did not practice Judaism, donated it in 1972 to the Temple Emanu-El, and now the scroll and pointer are together in a glass display case – where I saw them a few weeks ago during the bat mitzvah service. So 85 years later the King Kalakaua Torah's long journey ended.

In a footnote, when King Kalakaua passed away in San Francisco, his remains were returned to be buried in the Royal Mausoleum of Hawai'i, known as Mauna 'Ala (“Fragrant Hills”), the graves of Hawaii's two prominent royal families: the Kamehameha Dynasty and the Kalakaua Dynasty. During his conversations with the mysterious, soothing soothsayer Rosenberg the King contemplated donating land for a synagogue in Hawai’i; again, by coincidence, his final resting place is barely a half-mile southwest of Temple Emanu-El in leafy Nu’uanu.

*In 2012 high tech Americans follow the “Long Island Psychic” avidly on television, so not much has changed regarding human interest in the future since the 19th century.

Note: Hawai'i – with a small Jewish population (approximately 10,000) -- has a wide range of Jewish contributors to society, including the late famous radio announcer Hal Lewis (aka J. Akuhead Pupule), former Governor Linda Lingle, Lt. Governor Brian Schatz, Representative Mark Moses, Nissen Osterneck (Maui-born martial arts fighter), Bette Midler (Hollywood star and singer), Ken Solin (singer), Dr. Dorian Paskowitz (surfing guru), and the “Happiest Man in America”. Others include Paul Neumann, attorney general of the Kingdom under King Kalakaua; three State attorneys-general were Jewish. In 1798 (barely two decades after Captain Cook visited Hawai’i) a sailor on the whaling ship Neptune wrote that the local Hawaiian “king” employed a Jewish cook – this has not been confirmed, but this mention occurred before the first Japanese, Portuguese or Chinese individual ever arrived in Hawai’i.


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