Shalom + Aloha = Shaloha
OR What Hawai’i taught me about the Lloyd Street Synagogue
While being a Navy wife can have its ups and downs, last week was a definite up. Chief Petty Officer Guy-Decker had temporary duty orders that sent him to the island of Oahu in the state of Hawaii.
He was to be busy with some super-secret operations of which we mere mortals may not know. To support his world-saving activities, the US Navy provided a plane ticket, a hotel room in Waikiki, a rental car and a per diem food allowance. What can I say? I tagged along.
I found Hawai’i to be among the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I had my breath taken away by the beauty of the landscape more times than I can count. I also found it to be instructive in ways I could never have anticipated.
On my second full day on the island, I decided to take in some history. My husband had the rental car with him on the Naval station, so I hopped a city bus into downtown Honolulu. My destination was the Iolani Palace. This magnificent residence, completed in 1882 is the only royal residence on American soil.
Taking a tour of an historic building, how could I not think of the LSS? I first noted the cool lanyard-encased iPods the palace handed all of the visitors. Along with a set of headphones, this device allowed me to take a self-directed tour of the building.
But the content of the tour is what really affected my thinking.
As I entered the ornate building, my feet clad in the provided booties to protect the floors, the helpful guide in my headset pointed out the etched glass windows, imported from France, the inlaid wood with hardwoods imported from Italy, the fine china, imported from England. “What the Heck!” I thought. “He had so many amazing natural resources right here in Hawai’i. Why did King Kalakaua use all of that European stuff?”
Just as I was disdaining this 19th-century royal, my iPod guide invited me to stand at what was the front door in 1882 and imagine myself a visiting dignitary from Europe. Look at the grand staircase and up at the electric lights. Electric lights, my digital host, pointed out, in 1882—before either the White House or Buckingham Palace could boast of electricity.
I apologized to his majesty Kalakaua in my mind. “I get it! You had to prove that Hawaiians were not ‘savages.’ You had to prove to the white Europeans who coveted your land that you were equals.”
And immediately I thought of our beloved Lloyd Street Synagogue, with its imposing columns. As you would learn if you were to take our All American Synagogue, Bell, Book and Candle tour, the synagogue was designed by non-Jewish architect, Robert Cary Long, Jr., a professionally-trained architect who was known for designing beautiful churches.
I’ve sometimes wondered that this church-building non-Jew was the architect of choice. But of course, Baltimore’s Jewish community also felt the need to prove they were not “savages.” When LSS was completed, it was fewer than 20 years after Maryland’s “Jew Bill” passed, allowing non-Christian (or at least Jewish) individuals to enjoy the same rights as Christian citizens. And only 15 years earlier, in 1830, the governor had had to intervene against obstructionist lawmakers to allow the congregation to officially incorporate.
In the case of the 19th-century Hawaiians, as with the Jewish community of Baltimore about 40 years prior, they were working to prove themselves to be not just as “civilized,” as the Europeans and their Christian neighbors, but twice as “civilized.”
The difference between the two communities is that the Baltimore Jewish community more-or-less succeeded; the Hawaiians’ story is more complicated. King Kalakaua’s successor, his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani (notably, the composer of possibly the most famous Hawaiian song, “Alaho Oe”) was deposed by a coalition of “Hawaiian-born citizens of American parents, naturalized citizens and foreign nationals” (i.e. no Hawaiian natives) with the support of the American Minister to Hawaii. Two years later, after a defeated uprising in her defense, Lili’oukalani was imprisoned in her own Iolani Palace by her opponents. It wasn’t long before the islands were formally annexed by the United States.
Perhaps because of my Lloyd Street Synagogue-Iolani Palace epiphany earlier in the week, when we attended one of the many luaus that take place every night, I felt the sense that I was in a place I didn’t really belong. I was keenly aware that the version of the culture I was viewing was caricaturized and then commodified for my benefit.
I kept imagining what the Jewish equivalent of a luau might be. As our host on the bus ride to the beach-location taught us words in Hawaiian (“’aloha’ means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ It also means ‘love’”), I started to imagine the “oneg” party we might throw for tourists. “’Shalom’ means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ It also means ‘peace.’” I imagined the costumed dancers doing the horah; the giant pots of cholent and chicken soup and mounds of challah loaves.
My imagination replaced the dancing hula dolls intended for dashboards with davening yeshivah boys, and it made me a little nauseated. I felt in my bones how one-dimensional the Judaism of this tourist party would be. My beloved, rich, thick, complicated religion/culture/ethnicity reduced to slogans and bobble heads.
And yet, even (especially?) in its caricaturized, commodified form, the Hawaiian picture is so pretty, so pleasant. I couldn’t resist getting a selfie with the smiling hula dancers who waited by the hotel bus for just that purpose.
A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.