Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tefillin: Espionage & Explosives

Many people were more than a little entertained by the suggestion that tefillin (phylacteries) are actually explosives. I laughed, because this actually isn't the first time tefillin have been mistaken for frightening military devices. Everyone should read The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War II by Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz. (Apparently, it is now also sold under the title Desperate Voyagers.) It's brilliant. For your edification and amusement, I offer the following excerpt from pages 148-152. And thanks so much to Dana, since I'm using her copy to type it up.


The two youths stepped out of the elevator at the roof level. They had tried to be casual about stepping into the elevator in the first place. But this was only Gershon's second ride in an elevator. The two youths grinned nervously and clutched the hand rail as the uniformed woman operator took the car up apparently without paying them any attention.

A typical Japanese department store, Daimaru had installed swings and slides up on the roof where children could play while their parents were shopping in the store below. But at this early hour, the play area was deserted. Self-consciously, Yankel introduced his friend to the fine and hitherto unknown joys of swinging on a swing and sliding down a slide. Childhood had never been like this! But gradually, as the elevator brought up a steady flow of young children, the boys began to feel their age. Standing off by themselves in a corner of the roof, Yankel pointed out the few landmarks that he knew: the main railway station, the big shopping area called Motomachi and the general area of Jewcom Headquarters, though the building itself was much too small to be picked out from this distance. Then, quietly, they began the rhythmic wrapping-on of the long leather boxes- one at the forehead, one on the inside of the left arm- which are worn during the recitation of morning prayers. The elevator came and went, the children played, the sun streamed down; and two young Jews praised God for having made the world and put them in it.

Twenty-five minutes later they were under arrest, behind locked doors at a police station.

When Michael Ionis arrived, summoned from Jewcom Headquarters by the police, he found Yankel and Gershom, pale with fear, seated motionless on hard wooden chairs, not comprehending any of the rapid Japanese exchanged by the policemen surrounding them and also bewildered by the English, which the sergeant in charge had been trying to speak. Ionis scarcely looked at them before asking the sergeant what the problem was.

"They were up on the roof of Daimaru Department Store this morning," police sergeant Okuda reported, "taking pictures of the dock area and the railway lines with some kind of camera on their foreheads. We think they also had a secret radio transmitter."

Ionis was relieved at the note of doubt in the voice of the sergeant. Obviously there was something in this that Okuda and the Japanese police didn't understand either. Ionis could not imagine yeshiva boys engaging in anything so worldly as military espionage. However, the truth would have to be brought to light very carefully to keep the sergeant, and by extension, the whole Kobe police force, from losing face.

"I see," he said, nodding gravely. "You have taken from them, of course, these, well, cameras and transmitters.

"Of course, Ionis-san." Okuda pointed to a table a few feet away. There were the embroidered bags, the tefillin (could anyone have mistaken the straps for antennae? Ionis wondered), two small prayer books (that had apparently been taken for the transmitters), two handkerchiefs and two nets of tangerines. "You realize, I am sure, that spying is a very serious business," the sergeant said.

"I do understand of course. If any of our people do any such thing, you are quite right to put them under arrest." He was silent for an instant, so as not even to seem to be taking charge, then said: "Perhaps if we merely asked the two young men about the camera and the transmitter...?"

"Please do so, Ionis-san. We have been unable to question them at all."

For the first time, Ionis turned to the two prisoners. He took care to speak calmly and carefully, in Yiddish. "This situation is, potentially, very serious. I want you to answer me calmly, with no hysterics, no gestures, just spoken words as I am speaking to you now. Do you understand?...Good. Now, they think you were spying from the roof of the Daimaru Department Store."

Yankel let out a small cry. People were executed for spying. Without doubt, they would be sent out of the country, back to Russia, for spying. He wasn't guilty of spying! But maybe this was God's way of punishing him for deeds he definitely was guilty of. Why had he done it? Why had he stolen from his friends? Lo tignov! Thou shalt not steal! Why had he tempted God by not obeying the commandment?

"Were you spying?" Ionis asked as Yankel began trembling almost uncontrollably.

"No, no!"

Behind Ionis, the police sergeant, comprehending the negative answer, pointed toward a table where the youths' phylacteries lay. "Just a second," the Jewcom official said in Japanese. Then, turning back to the two students, he asked, in Yiddish again, "What were you doing on the roof, then?"

"I didn't know it was...restricted," Yankel said, trying to keep his voice from trembling away entirely. "I took Gershon there for morning prayers and to show him the view...and to show him the swings. There are no signs. No one stopped us."

"no, it's not a restricted area. But the police say you were observed with a camera and a radio transmitter. Do you have such things?"

Yankel looked at Gershon who could not restrain himself from declaiming the impossibility of it all, from trying to show that his pockets were too small to contain anything as large as those objects. When Gershon stood up, several of the Japanese policemen started toward him. Terrified, Yankel grabbed his friend by the jacket, roughly pulling him back onto the chair.

"Shush, shaa, Gershon! Don't get them excited!"

Gershon reetreated. "We have no radio," he said, and was quiet.

Ionis nodded and turned to Okuda. "Please excuse his outburst. They say they were not spying. They say they went up to the roof to pray- they wanted to be closer to God, just as Shinto shrines are so often on top of hills to be closer to heaven."

Ionis knew the analogy was not entirely accurate. But it seemed to have the desired effect on Okuda who seemed willing at least to listen to an explanation.

"Sergeant, these boys are country boys. They don't know anything about cameras or radio transmitters. Perhaps there may possibly have been...ummm, some confusion in this matter."

"What are those?" Okuda asked, pointing to but not touching the phylacteries.

Ionis picked up one of the leather boxes, explaining how it was placed on the head and the arm, explaining that it was definitely not a mechanical device of any kind. Okuda took it gingerly, shook it, and signaled to one of his men to bring tools to open it with. When the officer returned with a hammer and a chisel, both the students started to protest. A gesture from Ionis silenced them. Better to lose the phylacteries than their lives.

After Okuda had satisfied himself that, as IOnis had said, the leather boxes contained only inscribed parchment, he stood in silence for a moment.

No one said a word. The two boys looked cautiously at each other again. Yankel silently vowed if he ever got out of this, he would never again venture further than the front door of the yeshiva.

"Who was it who observed these boys on the roof?" Ionis asked.

"The elevator operator," the sergeant replied. "A Japanese lady."

The emphasis on 'Japanese' confirmed Ionis's understanding of the nature of the problem. A Japanese would not be wrong when making an accusation against a foreigner. If it should turn out that the foreigner was in the right, Japan would lose face. The overwhelming nationalism that had been growing since the early thirties had infected even small encounters like this. It was utter nonsense. But this was no time to discuss reality.

"Certainly a Japanese lady would never wrongly accuse anyone," Ionis said. "Could it be, Okuda-san, that perhaps she had never before seen someone wearing these leather boxes and long straps? No doubt, they do look a bit strange. And she would have been quite right in calling it to the attention of the police...just to investigate even if not actually to accuse anyone of spying."

Okuda's eyes narrowed with suspicion, but Ionis continued.

"Of course, it is we ourselves who have made the mistake. We have brought these people here without sufficient introduction to the people of Kobe. Do you think we could rectify this mistake by explaining who these people are and explaining that they have come to Japan because Japan has been the only country in the world humane and kind enough to let them come?" Okuda crossed his arms over his chest. Ionis did have a point. Japan was indeed the most humane country in the world. But she might not appear so if he clapped these two in jail without being able to prove they were spying. Foreigners were nothing but trouble. He had been specifically ordered on the one hand to look out for spies, but on the other hand, word had come down, all the way from Gaimusho he had heard, to treat them with respect and understanding and even some latitude as far as applying the precise letter of the law to every small infraction.

At least, he thought, this foreigner was wise enough to take the responsibility for the mistake.

"All right, he decided. "Do that- do a better job of telling people who these visitors are. Japanese are very patriotic, Ionis-san .If they see anything strange from a foreigner, they will definitely report it to us."

Having ended comfortably with a threat, Okuda felt free to dismiss all three of them. At a gesture, one of the guards unlocked the door. Ionis bowed. Okuda nodded in return Gershon and Yankel fairly flew from the police station. No one said a word till they had returned to the Jewcom office. Then both exploded in loud, tension-releasing expositions of their absolute innocence in the entire matter while Ionis recounted the story to Ponve.


Dana said...

So sad... if Gd forbid I ever found myself in such a situation and needed a diplomatic person to sort things out like Ionis did, then Chana, you'd be the first.
You are the only person I know who can speak with clarity and finesse while conveying the absolute truth.

Lion of Zion said...

with all due respect, instead of wasting your time typing up such a long passage next time why don't you just scan it in? then you acn use the time saved to post more on the revel bible class.

Chana said...


Thanks for the compliment; I think you'd be better off with a trained lawyer, though. Hurrah for Ionis.


a) 'With all due respect' is a phrase that conveys precisely the opposite. One of the reasons I personally choose never to use it.

b) You make the assumption I have a scanner. (I do, but it's not hooked up to my computer.) Or that it is convenient for me to go find a scanner (it isn't, as I'd have to walk all the way to Gottesman with a book I already have in my house, then back.)

c) I haven't had another Bible class yet (it's Sunday, for God's sake) and even if I had, there's no reason to think I'm necessarily typing it up for everyone.

d) I type quickly.

Lion of Zion said...


"'With all due respect' is a phrase that conveys precisely the opposite"

i really had no intention to convey the opposite. i sincerely await the next bible class installment, if you should so choose do post it (i get a kick out of seeing this material again), and i wouldn't want busy work like typing to be the only thing standing in its way.
i really hope that was less insulting.

(i personally think scanning is a pain. when i post "scans" i find it much faster to use a digital camera.)

kol tuv. seriously.

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