April 3, 2023

One Shalem Graduate, 700 Books, and the History of a Jewish Community

Mordy Miller ’18 in the main synagogue of Singapore

In a well-known Jewish folk tale by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a man hears a voice in his dreams that tells him to go to the capital city.  There, he’s instructed to look for treasure under a bridge, although—unsurprisingly—he finds none. What he does find, however, is far more remarkable—namely, the knowledge that the true treasure has been at home all along.

While Mordy Miller’s story doesn’t match up precisely, the Shalem graduate does concede the similarities—namely, a journey far from his native Israel, only to end up engaged in the history of a little-known Jewish community.

Residing temporarily in Singapore on account of his wife’s job, Miller was lingering one morning after prayers in the city’s central synagogue. “Since most of the Jews in Singapore are businessmen, they’re in and out pretty quickly,” he grins. “But I’m working on a Ph.D., so browsing books goes with the territory.”

The book he had picked up, he realized, was more than a hundred years old: Printed in Baghdad—the origin of most Singaporean Jews, who arrived from their then-home in Calcutta in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—it told the history of Singapore’s Jewish community, but from a religious standpoint.

“There’s lots of research about this community, but almost exclusively from an economic, political, or sociological point of view,” explains Miller, who is pursuing his doctoral thesis on Kabbalah and Israeli politics as a Kreitman Scholar at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “This book, though, described the community’s unique religious traditions; so far as I knew, there was nothing else like it. I asked the synagogue’s rabbi if there might be any more, and when he said yes—I couldn’t resist.”

What happened next was a months-long “real” treasure hunt, Miller says, to boxes underneath stairwells and in the synagogue’s basement. The search—since titled the Singapore Genizah Project—eventually extended to the city’s other synagogue, too. In the end, Mordy and a team of community volunteers managed to unearth nearly 700 volumes—the world’s most authoritative collection on the city’s Jewish history.

“There’s a growing field of research called ‘history of the book,’ which studies the physical attributes of books and the processes by which they were made to learn about the cultures that produced them, and also that read them,” Miller says. “That’s very much what I’m doing with this project, especially,” he laughs, “as I’m not fluent in Arabic.”

Explaining that the first Jews to come to Singapore often wrote in transliteration—that is, they used their native Arabic letters to write in Hebrew, and vice versa—Mordy says that if finding the books wasn’t hard enough, reading them will be a far greater challenge. “If Shalem students from the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies want to help me decipher these books, they are more than welcome,” he smiles. “I need people with their skills.”

In the meantime, the work of categorizing the books keeps him plenty busy, especially as the bulk of his time is devoted to his Ph.D. (“If anyone is looking for a great Ph.D. topic, by the way, you couldn’t choose a better one than this,” Miller points out.) Fortunately, he’s received several offers of assistance, first from Jewish undergraduates from Princeton, who are developing a collection catalogue, and later from Prof. Ian McGonigle from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. A renowned biologist and anthropologist who also researches the role of science in nation building, McGonigle did his postdoctoral work in Tel Aviv. “Ian granted me one of his research assistants, a Chinese graduate student who’s been critical to moving the project forward,” he says. “A Chinese student, helping an Israeli to uncover the history of Baghdadi Jews who moved to India and settled in Singapore. It’s wild.”

Alongside help with what Miller calls “grunt work,” members of the city’s 2,500-strong Jewish community have come forward with contributions of different kinds: One person donated the glass-fronted cabinet that currently houses the collection, and another is assisting Mordy—whose work on the project is all pro-bono—with requests for government and private funding for the project. Miller has also been invited to speak at the Philosophy Department of the National University of Singapore, and several times for the Jewish community.

The most moving of the requests he’s received, however, came—not surprisingly—from Israel.

“An Israeli who heard about the project wrote to say that her grandfather grew up in Singapore, and she was grateful that I was documenting his history. I did some digging, and found a notebook that had her grandfather’s name in it. He must have used it for Hebrew school,” Miller says. “The response I got when I sent her a photo of that notebook—it was really something.”

As for what he’s learned about the community’s spirituality, Miller says that one of the most surprising insights was how prominent a role Kabbalah played in their lives: Having found numerous copies of the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah, he realized that members of the community must have been learning it—just as he is, for his Ph.D. The realization led to Miller’s decision to establish a weekly Kabbalah study group in one of the city’s high-tech companies.

“This group marks the first time in 150 years that Jews have studied their mystical texts in Singapore. I think it’s fitting that the students are tech executives: The Jews of this city have always been able to combine tradition and modernity in a seamless way. I’m pretty sure,” he concludes reflectively, “that the community’s founders would approve.”

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