When Japan opened for trade in the middle of the 19th century, many foreign traders arrived at the port cities of Japan, mainly to Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. Among them were also Jewish merchants and businessmen, who established small but vibrant Jewish communities.
The first synagogue in Kobe was built in 1912. World War II saw the influx of thousands of Jewish refugees (some arriving with the Sugihara visas), who received aid from the local community. Some of the refugees stayed behind after the war and made Kobe their home.
One of the pillars of the community since the 1930s was the Choueke family. Ezra Choueke arrived here from Aleppo, Syria. After a few years, he went back to Aleppo to marry Polissa, and they returned to Japan and lived in the Kitano neighbourhood, home to many foreigners. During World War II they moved to another part of the city and, when the bombing got intense, they move northwards across the mountain to Arima, along with other Jewish families. After the war they moved back to Kobe, to the Yamamotodori neighbourhood, living in a house with 3 other families.
The Choueke Family Residence was bought by Ezra and Polissa in 1954 and stands to this day in Kobe. It has been named a National Cultural Asset by the Government of Japan. The house is on the same street we live on, Ijinkan Dori, a couple of minutes away on foot. Polissa Choueke, now 96 years old, still lives in it. The house is unfortunately no longer open to the public.
I was fortunate enough to have met the son, Jack Choueke, who was on a visit to Japan recently, and he was gracious enough to grant me a private tour of the residence. I also had the honour and pleasure of meeting Polissa Choueke, and speaking to her for a few minutes about the history of the family and the local Jewish community. She struck me as a lucid, bright and strong-willed woman.
Here are some of the pictures I took of the house:
The house is more a museum today than a house. The ground floor is a huge exhibit of art items collected by the Choueke family over the years, mostly by the father Ezra and the son Tony. It houses the biggest collection of a very particular sort of Japanese art: woodblock prints depicting foreigners in Japan. With the arrival of foreigners here in the 17th century, local artists were fascinated by their appearance – clothes, manners, etc. – and they put down these impressions in their prints. This collection includes items that span from the Nagasaki era (17th century) to the Meiji era (ended early 20th century). Most foreigners are depicted with the same face. I guess that just as Japanese all look the same to some Westerners, the opposite also holds true…
The back of the house is even more impressive than the front. A big, well-kept, Japanese garden provides an island of tranquility, although one can imagine the bustle of activity here when the community numbered tens of families. Jack told me that the house was always full for dinner parties and weekend activities.
Since my visit to the house and meeting the Choueke family, every shabbat when I see the rows of honorary seats next to the Torah ark, I pause for a second on the seat bearing the name Choueke and say a silent prayer thanking the Jews who built and maintained this synagogue.
Thank you Jack Choueke (pictured below), for letting me visit the Choueke House and providing information about the history of the Jewish Community of Kobe.