story by Lee Seigel
photos by Dana Edmunds
At last I’ve been to Tahiti. It was something I had wanted to do for some fifty years, ever since the night I first went to dinner with my parents at Trader Vic’s South Seas restaurant in Beverly Hills.
I remember two monumental wooden tikis, one installed on each side of the entry into that culinary temple and cocktail lounge. The air was scented with frangipani and tiare, and the walls, covered with woven palm-frond matting and tapa, were warmly illuminated by hurricane lamps and blowfish with light bulbs in their bellies. Bamboo-framed travel posters evoked the faraway island’s lush terrain—indigo lagoons, cloud-haloed peaks, dark calderas and cascades of cool mountain waters.
Most wonderful of all, there were black velvet paintings of Tahitian vahine. One leaned languorously against a palm tree, wearing a pareu about her hips, a lei around her neck and nothing on her breasts. Trader Vic’s was, I imagined, a plot of Tahiti transplanted into Southern California. The restaurant assured me that the island was a carefree place where drinks were served in hollowed-out pineapples, food was sprinkled with coconut shavings and beautiful girls lolled about topless.
My parents started with mai tais. “Mai tai,” the Chinese waiter echoed with an approving smile. “Mai tai roa ae. That’s Tahitian for ‘Out of this world! The very best! A real knock-out!’” I ordered a virgin mai tai with extra maraschino cherries, and it arrived not only with the cherries, a pineapple chunk, a tropical flower and a little blue paper umbrella, but also with a green plastic souvenir tiki stirring stick. It was out of this world.
The pleasure of pretending to be in Tahiti was abruptly compromised when my father insisted on asking the waiter if the South Seas Spring Rolls that I had ordered contained any pork. “We’re Jewish,” he proudly announced. “We don’t eat ham, bacon or pork.” Of course, and much to my chagrin, the flambéed Tahitian spare ribs were taboo. The whole experience made me question my religion. Why, I wondered, doesn’t our god allow us to enjoy Trader Vic’s bacon-wrapped Raiatea Rumaki? The Lord of Israel seemed unreasonably stern to me and all too serious about the little things. He was always smiting people and giving us, His people, more and more demanding laws and hard-to-keep commandments. Tiki, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care what people ate. He wanted everyone to enjoy themselves. He was, I believed, the great and one true God of Fun. In the restaurant’s gift shop after our porkless dinner, I tried to talk my father into purchasing a black velvet painting of a Tahitian woman. Unmoved by the beauty of that marvelous work, he wouldn’t do it. He did, however (as a consolation, I suppose), at least buy a tiki for me, a miniature replica of the awe-inspiring idols outside. Cast in a black plastic that looked like carved teak, it had bright red eyes that looked almost like real rubies. I hung it from a black leather cord around my neck, right next to the gold Star of David my father had given me for Chanukah.
My father was, at the time, consid-ering taking us to Israel. I argued that Tahiti would be a lot more fun. To my disappointment, he had not the slightest interest in that idyllic isle of my sweet dreams. “I’ll never go to Tahiti,” he said with conviction. That might not have been the case if only he had known about the Jews of Tahiti. Of course I didn’t know anything about them either—I didn’t even know there were any, not until about a year ago.