TAICHUNG, Taiwan – If you’re coming to the coastal city of Taichung on business, what better place to rest your head than at a hotel built on the ancient wisdom of the wealthiest and most successful people in the world?
This is the idea behind Taiwan’s Talmud Business Hotel, whose founder was apparently inspired by the rabbinic text (he declined to be interviewed for this article, citing religion as too sensitive an issue).
Its flagship location in Taichung’s central district is outfitted with deep red interiors “inspired by the Talmud theory,” according to its English-language website. Each room type is named after “world famous successful” individuals, only two of whom are actually Jewish: George Soros and Alan Greenspan (the others are named after John Rockefeller, Conrad Hilton, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates).
The Talmud’s “teachings,” authentic or not, seem to have helped the Talmud Hotel Group: It’s now “one of [the] fastest-growing and leading hotel groups in Taiwan,” by its own description, having expanded from one location in 2009 to a total of three brands and several branch hotels across the island.
While to the Western eye it all can look almost comically antisemitic, ideas about Jews like the ones displayed at the Talmud Hotel are commonplace in East Asia. They are not based on Western prejudices, but rather seem to be the result of genuine admiration.
In South Korea, havruta-style academies – emulating the way religious Jews study the Talmud, in small discussion groups – offer education in the Talmud to people of all ages. In China, many see in the Jewish people a shared history of oppression and overcoming hardships to rise to the top.
In East Asian countries, including Taiwan, the idea that Jews are naturally wise is often evidenced by a long list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners whose secrets, it’s believed, lie in their education practices and in ancient texts like the Talmud.
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Zhu I-Kang started noticing a rise in articles and books about the Talmud and Judaism in the late 1990s. Just a few years before, Israel had established formal diplomatic relations with China, loosening tensions and allowing for the establishment of a trade office across the strait in Taipei, and a Taiwanese office in Tel Aviv. Economic and cultural exchange, as well as tourism (especially of Taiwanese Christians to Israel), increased quickly.
Zhu, who was raised Protestant, went on to translate Adin Steinsaltz’s “The Essential Talmud” into traditional Chinese. Today, it’s considered to be one of the only reliable translations of the Talmud in Taiwan.
“Because most Taiwanese associate Jews with successful businessmen or intelligent scientists, when the columnists or authors noticed that there was an important Jewish canon other than the Bible, they pictured it as some kind of guidelines for business or education,” Zhu says.
Fewer than 1,000 Jews live in Taiwan – most of them expats in Taipei – but almost 100 books with “Talmud” in the title have appeared after 2000, Zhu says. Books about Jewish education, wealth management and business tactics, as well as versions of the Talmud, line shelves in nearly every Taiwanese bookstore. Many were originally published in China, and have been made available in the traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan.
Song Lihong, a professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University in China who researches how Jews are portrayed in the contemporary People’s Republic, says that most of the books that claim to reveal Jewish wisdom are “not so much real Talmud as an imagined Talmud, to which the Chinese projected their own aspirations and expectations.” This means that more direct translations of the Talmud like Zhu’s – though it exceeded expectations with sales of over 6,000 copies in Taiwan – don’t compare to the popularity of those like “The Business Wisdom of the Jews” or “The Jewish Laws of Getting Rich.”
Taipei Chabad Rabbi Shlomi Tabib is frequently invited to lecture about Judaism at local schools and universities. “The first question is always, why are you so good at business? I [have] encountered that so many times,” he says. The fascination has even inspired some Taiwanese to inquire about joining the tribe: “I get emails literally every week, people wanting to convert and wanting to be Jewish, and my first response is to ignore,” he says.
Part of this fascination in Taiwan, which has been embroiled for decades in political conflict with neighboring China, may lie in identity: Like Israel, Taiwan is a small state surrounded by unfriendly countries. “When we hear that many Jewish youths abroad even go back to Israel to [do] their military service, we are in awe,” Zhu says.
Song adds, “The very fact that despite China and Taiwan having taken different political paths they still share the same fascination about the Talmud attests that [their common] culture really matters.”
The wisdom everyone wants in on
When I stayed for a night in the Talmud Business Hotel, my room seemed to be wisdom-themed, as indicated by the bookshelf wallpaper. It costs just NT$1,300 ($46) per night, an average room for an average price in Taiwan. It was small and offered only the basics: queen-size bed, closet, desk and small balcony.
Its website had advertised that each room came with its own copy of “Talmud: Jewish Bible to Getting Rich” for each guest to enjoy. Sadly my room offered no such copy, and I had to borrow one from the lobby. The sticker on the cover reminding guests that it is hotel property suggested that they may have stopped the “hotel Bible” policy because people had been stealing them.
The book, which claims “the money of the world is in the pockets of the Americans, but the money of the Americans is in the pockets of the Jews,” was apparently written by the American writer Frank Hull, who, according to Google, doesn’t seem to actually exist, and later translated into Chinese.
The translator’s note in the back of the book admits: “some additions, deletions and modifications were made to the original book ... due to time being rushed, there will inevitably be mistakes and improprieties in the book. Readers are welcome to criticize and correct.”
On my search for Hull, I stumbled across a since-deleted news article from the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, which was republished on the social media site Douban in 2013 after some of the book’s readers raised suspicions about its content.
It offers a glimpse into what has become an industry that sells an idealized version of Jewish wisdom, one that everybody wants in on. “The Americans have never made reference to Frank Hull’s work [and] have never seen a foreign reference book similar to ‘The Talmud – A Jewish Businessmen’s Entrepreneurship Bible,’” the article states.
A similar version of Hull’s “Jewish Bible to Getting Rich” was the subject of a lawsuit in China, filed by two writers who claimed that almost the entire book was plagiarized from their own manuscript about “the Jewish mind.”
James Ross, a journalist and researcher who has written about the portrayals of Jews in Chinese media, says this type of copyright infringement is common in China due to poor intellectual property laws. In his research, he has found that the bestselling books about Jews are seldom factual, but based on a kernel of truth and expanded upon.
“Sure, there’s a lot of Jewish Nobel prize winners,” Ross says. “Does that make all Jews genetically smarter? No.”
Writers like He Xiongfei, whose books include “Talmud: The Jewish Life and Business Bible” and “Success Science of the Jews” among many others, take on pseudonyms and sell books like hotcakes – even if they’ve never met a Jewish person in real life.
“I don’t think [the phenomenon] has anything to do with the Talmud,” Ross says. “I just think [they say], here’s a stereotype, here’s the book that a lot of [Jews] read and study, so let’s just take some fake passages and put together a book about getting rich.”
Jordyn Haime is an American Fulbright fellow based in Taiwan