The New York Times has another charming entry in its long-running series of what Slate’s Jack Shafer has termed “hey-folks-we’ve-found-some-Jews-living-in-a-strange-place” series (Tablet Magazine has also published its share of contributions). This time it’s Manado, on one of the northern islands of Indonesia, otherwise known as the country with the most Muslims living in it.
The explanation? A colony of Dutch Jewish merchants here dated at least to the 19th century; their descendants practiced the faith until Indonesia achieved independence in 1949, at which point most converted to Islam or Christianity for safety’s sake; about a decade ago, during an argument (what else?), somebody’s great-aunt (who else?) let slip what several other elders knew: That many Manado residents are descended from Jews. The Chabad rabbi in Singapore was notified (who else?), and he did the rest. “We’re just trying to be good Jews,” says Toar Palilinigan, a.k.a., Yaakov Baruch. “But if you compare us to Jews in Jerusalem or Brooklyn, we’re not there yet.” Oh, I dunno about that.
The interesting side-note is that this renaissance could probably not have occurred were it not for the strong Christian presence in Manado.
Increasingly strong pro-Jewish sentiments also appear to be an outgrowth of an evangelical and charismatic Christian movement that with the help of American and European missionaries has taken root here in the past decade. Some experts regard this movement as a reaction against the growing role of orthodox Islam in much of the rest of Indonesia.
“In Manado, Christianity has always had a strong identity mark in the belief that it’s opposed to the surrounding sea of Islam,” said Theo Kamsma, a scholar at The Hague University who has studied Manado’s Jewish legacy. Christianity and a reemerging Judaism share a “rebellious” nature, he added.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.