No Siegels, but I did meet a Cohen (Serge Cohen-Solal, the Israeli consul in Tahiti) and a lot of Levys. Levy is a prestigious Jewish name, referring to the tribe of Israel whose ancient function was to provide musical accompaniment to the sacrifices made by the Cohen priests in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The Levys of Tahiti are the descendants of Emile Levy, a French Jewish merchant who sailed to Papeete in 1888 to acquire pearls for the Levy family bijouterie on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
The irrepressibly ebullient Dorothy Levy was eager to talk about her great-grandfather and to introduce me to other Levys who might add to the tale of Tahiti’s famed Jew. “He spoke Hebrew,” she claimed, “as well as Tahitian, both languages fluently.”
Although Dorothy is well aware that, according to orthodox dictates, she is not, given her gentile maternal lineage, Jewish, she voiced a sentimental appreciation of her ancestry. Her daughter, Sabrina, an artist, spoke of Judaic imagery in her paintings that had come to her in dreams. Both feel that they are the beneficiaries of what they believe to be spiritual affinities between Tahitian and Jewish cultural traditions.
Just as it had in my conversation at the Christmas party, so again the notion that the Tahitians are one of the lost tribes of Israel came up in my discussions with various descendants of assimilated Jews in Tahiti. “Theword for ‘Jew’ is ‘Ati iuta’ in Tahitian,” I was informed. “It means ‘descendants of the tribe of Judah,’ one of the tribes of Israel. Tahitians are the descendants of one of the other Hebrew tribes.” For those who believe that, one of the proofs of it is that both Tahitians and Jews, in ancient times and still today, practice circumcision.
Proud of both her Jewish and Tahitian blood, another woman had a wackier theory: “The Tahitians are not one of the lost tribes of Israel. No, the Jews are one of the lost tribes of Polynesia, separated from Tahiti, their original Paradise, by the flood.” She maintained that the six-pointed Star of David had its origins in the recurrent triangles in traditional Tahitian tattoos.
While none of the people I spoke to had ever heard of Captain Cook’s comrade Mr. Jew, several noted that Edgar Leeteg, who had lived for many years on Cook’s Bay, was Jewish. And Leeteg, much to my astonishment and even pride, turned out to be none other than the artist who had come up with the idea of painting naked Polynesian women on black velvet—yes, the very master who had immortalized the bare breasts of Tahitian women in Trader Vic’s. “The Jewish Gauguin,” one connoisseur of his masterpieces dubbed him. If only I had known that fifty years ago, I would probably have been able to convince my father to buy the painting in the gift shop.
Dorothy Levy took me to meet her convivial octogenarian uncle, Guy Brault, at his home in Papara. A painted portrait of Emile hangs on a wall there. Guy regaled us with anecdotes about his mother’s father as an astute merchant, expert in pearls, high-ranking Freemason, lover of horses, card shark and a loyal friend to Tahitians. With a racy wink, Guy took me aside to disclose in whispers that not only was Emile a brilliant business-man, he was also quite the ladies’ man. When asked specifically about his relationship to Judaism, Guy assured me that “he wasn’t ashamed to be Jewish, but he loved to sing hymns in the Cathedral and he was a very close friend of the archbishop of Tahiti. And there wasn’t any synagogue back then.”
People in Papeete at the time hadn’t, apparently, thought much about Levy being Jewish—it had been inconsequential until Jack London published a story called “The House of Mapuhi,” in which an avaricious Jew, a pearl merchant named Levy, cheats a poor and humble Tahitian pearl diver out of an extraordinarily large and almost priceless pearl. Denouncing London as an anti-Semite, Levy sued him for defamation of character.
That Emile Levy’s tomb is elaborately embellished with Masonic symbols suggested to me that Freemasonry, and not Judaism, had provided him with the rituals and doctrines that gave a sense of meaning and significance to his life. There was no Star of David there, the symbol that would have marked the grave of a person who wished to be remembered as a Jew.