The King’s Torah

Story by Ray Tsuchiyama. Photo by Kent Nishimura

At Honolulu’s Temple Emanu-El there is a large scroll of parchment handwritten in Hebrew: a Torah (from Hebrew meaning “teaching”). According to Jewish tradition, Moses transcribed God’s teachings to write the Torah, a.k.a. the five books of Moses. In the display case alongside the Torah is a silver yad, a metal pointer used when reading the Torah, as human hands may not touch the parchment. Every synagogue has its own Torah, but what makes this one unique is its erstwhile possessor, King David Kalākaua.

By 1886, Kalākaua had become the first sovereign of any nation to circumnavigate the globe. On his journey, Kalākaua had expanded his Christian learnings to include wisdom from many faiths, from Buddhism to Islam to Judaism. So when in the fall of 1886 Kalākaua got wind of a new arrival in Honolulu—a charming Jewish “scholar” from San Francisco—the monarch invited him to ‘Iolani Palace.

“Rabbi” Elias Abraham Rosenberg likely read from the Torah for the king. Flicking his silver pointer like a magician, he would have chanted in Hebrew. The two became friends, spending hours drinking together and sharing stories.In early 1887, Kalākaua appointed Eliaka Apelahama Loselabeka (his Hawaiian name) a kahuna kilokilo, a royal soothsayer, and gave him a room in the palace. Rosenberg prepared the king’s horoscopes, as the king was hopeful for any portents regarding the kingdom’s future—which was increasingly doubtful as antimonarchical conspirators were already plotting against the king.

However, “Rosey” (as he was called for his Pollyannaish horoscopes and bright demeanor) might not have been quite what he seemed. San Francisco newspapers reported that Rosenberg was suspected of selling illegal lottery tickets; earlier he’d departed London under dubious circumstances. There is also no evidence that he was, in fact, a rabbi. Rosenberg is said to have encouraged the king to revive the Hawaiian religion, which didn’t sit well with the sugar elite. A Honolulu newspaper mocked the royal appointee as “Holy Moses,” and the antimonarchical leader Lorrin A. Thurston noted that Rosenberg and Kalākaua “spent hours at a time in conversing for many days in succession.”

The Protestant sugar planters took a dim view of the king’s relationship with this white-bearded interloper, and when things got hot for him in Honolulu, Rosenberg left the Torah and yad with Kalākaua and hightailed it back to San Francisco, where he died shortly after. Meanwhile, the antimonarchical faction stripped Kalākaua of his powers by forcing him to sign the 1887 “Bayonet Constitution.” Six years later the monarchy was overthrown.

After his death Kalākaua’s widow, Queen Kapi‘olani, inherited his treasures, including the Torah and yad. These were passed on to the Kawānanakoa family, also of royal lineage. Through the twentieth century, Honolulu’s small Jewish community would borrow the Torah for holy days like Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, usually observed in September. In 1960 Princess Abigail Kekaulike Kawānanakoa donated the yad to Temple Emanu-El, the first synagogue built in Hawai‘i, but the Torah had gone missing. A decade later University of Hawai‘i professor Jacob Adler wrote about the lost Torah in The Hawaiian Journal of History. He asked plaintively: “Where is the scroll now? (Author to reader: help!)” The professor’s cry was heeded. After a Honolulu attorney reported that a client had found a scroll in his attic, Adler and a rabbi confirmed that it was indeed the long-lost Kalākaua Torah. The scroll’s owner was the late Flora Kaai Hayes, a Hollywood actress of royal Hawaiian descent. The Torah was too damaged to be used for services and has been on display at Emanu-El for the past three decades.

On November 16, 1886, the king’s fiftieth-birthday jubilee was held at ‘Iolani Palace. Hula was publicly performed, irking the Protestant missionaries. Rosenberg was there, too, a man familiar with the challenge of preserving Jewish culture and who encouraged Kalākaua to revive Hawaiian traditions despite the clucking tongues. Perhaps Hawaiian culture owes something to this mysterious Russian Jew—part grifter, part kahuna after all. HH