FRIDAY afternoon. I’m screaming through the streets of Papeete, Tahiti, in an unwilling manual Ford Focus. In hot pursuit of a middle-aged man on a motorbike. He surges ahead. Left. Right. Left. Across two lanes. I lose him. I find him. We’ve arrived at the shul.
The man on the motorbike dismounts, squeezes off his helmet. “OK,” he says, glancing to his right at the late-afternoon sun, on the island’s mountainous interior.
“I’ll let you in, but I have to go home and get ready for sSabbat. I’ll see you in half an hour.”
About 50 Jewish families live on the island of Tahiti. Almost all are of French-North African descent, but there are two Ashkenazi men. Eight families keep kosher, with meat from Melbourne. Five order from Solomon; three order from Continental. One of the three is the man on the motorbike, Gilles Chichiportiche.
Apart from a low, blue fence and a few locked doors, Tahiti’s beautiful two-level Jewish centre has no security. A community hall, with a kitchen, small library, a mikveh and a kosher canteen, comprise the lower level.
On the upper level is the rabbi’s quarters. For 20 years of Yamim Noraim it was Sydney’s Rabbi Yosef Ben David’s home away from home.
The shul is also upstairs. Late in the day, the low sun catches the stained glass, beaming red on a plaque bearing the Modim prayer.
The 18 or so men who turn up for the Maghrebi kabbalat shabbat are welcoming and generous. There’s not a great deal of English spoken, and yet, after the service, a near-fight erupts over who gets to have me for dinner.
In the end, Gilles adopts me, as his 25-year-old son Raphael speaks fluent English. Joel Fellous, who had also offered to have me, kisses me goodbye on both cheeks. Gilles and I walk the short distance to his flat in central Papeete. We join his wife Corinne, and Raphael, as well as Corinne’s brother Bernard for a lively, delicious evening, in a mish-mash of French and English.
The meal’s centrepiece is a succulent, roasted lamb shoulder -— I travel a lot for work, and kosher meat in the middle of the Pacific is nothing short of a miracle.
On Sunday morning, I meet the community’s Ashkenazi counterpoint, the bearded English-speaking Dr Francois Yonah Poul, for coffee in the hall. Joel’s there too. They take me upstairs to photograph the seven sifrei torah in the aron, and then, armed with kosher biscuits from the US, we sit down to chat.
In 1985, with the aim of earning some quick cash in a few years, Francois Yonah Poul enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as a physician, and flew to the remote atoll of Hao, in the Tuamotu Archipelago. But after only a year, he was back in France to work in intensive care.
“And I was very sad,” he says. The pull of the tropics was strong. Yonah went back to the Tuamotus, and spent 10 years as a sort of flying doctor, before moving to the island of Tahiti, where he met Dr Joseph Sebbag, an endocrinologist and Chabad rabbi, and became interested in Judaism.
“In the Tuamotus, it’s impossible to be Jewish — you don’t have any [kosher] food, you don’t have any Jews, it’s impossible.”
Yonah’s father, orginally from Duvno, Ukraine, and a survivor of the Shoah, had always been anti-religious.
“He hated rabbis, he hated religion, he hated God.” Dr Sebbag brought him to Judaism, Yonah says.
Yonah found one other Jew in the Tuamotus on Fakarava, a lady by the name of Lulu Steiner. In the Society Islands, of which Tahiti is a part, there are two or three on Moorea, and one on Bora Bora, as well as two on Raiatea: a radiologist named Dr Joseph Sabbah, who spends weekends in Los Angeles, and Katherine Pelle, a talented Bordeaux-trained jeweller and artist.
And in the remote Austral islands, on Ruuruutu, lives a survivor of the Shoah, Madelaine, who once ran a small hotel there, and married a Tahitian. According to Joel, she’s still there. Much of the community retains its knowledge of Arabic, including Joel, who left Tunis at 10, 40 years ago, as a wave of Jews were leaving French North Africa — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia. Most went to France, some to Canada and Israel, and a lucky few, maybe 20, ended up in French Polynesia, organised themselves and rented a house for their shul.
They weren’t Orthodox, most married Tahitian women. “Most of them didn’t know how to read the sefer torah,” Yonah says. “It was on the seaside … they told me when they were doing the Amidah, there were girls on the beach, in bikinis. Very special.”
With the advent of French nuclear testing in the 1980s, with the many military and scientific staff and support crews came a number of Jews. Among them were Andre Amouyal and Salvador Assael, who became involved in the black pearl industry.
The two went halves on the synagogue and community centre, which was opened in 1994. The land was donated by a Tahitian oleh, Jacob Amar. Amouyal, while still involved in the community, spends every sSabbat in Los Angeles with his family.
For the size of the community, simchas are fairly regular. There’s usually a brit milah every year, and there have been five or six bnei mitzvot. At Neilah, there are 150 people in shul. Still, there has been only one chuppah, and that was 10 years ago. “They went back to France,” Yonah adds, “and they divorced.”
The community is at ease within Tahitian society. “With Tahitian people, there isn’t any problem,” Yonah says. “You can go with a kippah and nobody says anything. That’s why we’re happy here.”
Papeete by the numbers
PAPEETE, the capital of French Polynesia (population: 270,000), is on Tahiti (population: 170,000), which is located in the Society Islands, one of the country’s six island groups, which span 130 islands.
Papeete’s shul is on Rue Morenhout, on the inland edge of the city centre. Email Yonah Poul on [email protected]
Kosher meat is available through the shul, and usually also in the Carrefour supermarket in Faaa, near the airport, which also stocks kosher products from the US
Air Tahiti Nui offers three weekly one-stop flights from Australia to Papeete. Bookings: 1300 732 415 or visit www.airtahitinui.com.au
Located 18 kilometres from Papeete, the picturesque self-contained Taaroa Lodge (www.taaroalodge.com) is a fine mid-range option; while the Manava Suite Resort (www.spmhotels.com/resort/tahiti) is an excellent, upmarket choice.