Passover in Tokyo
The Jewish Community of Japan is a terrific place that aims to be “home” to the entire Jewish population of Tokyo. Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes it is not. The common wisdom is: “two Jews, three opinions.” But at times like these, when I am away from home for the holiday, I appreciate its existence more than usual.
For those of you who don’t know, Passover is one of the “majors” in the Jewish religion, up there with Easter and Christmas. It celebrates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt – out of bondage and into freedom. It’s a festival of spring that celebrates liberty. We don’t necessarily go to services on the holiday at the synagogue, but we do have family meals called seders at home, where we retell the story and eat ritual foods. Each Jew is commanded to remember the exodus from Egypt as if he had been there himself – the book from which we read, the Haggadah states that “it is that which the Holy One did for me for which I am grateful.” We are aware that if not for the interceding of G-d, through Moses, we would still be slaves.
To digress for a moment, the food for Passover involves only matzah as a carbohydrate; nothing with flour in it is allowed. This is because when they left Egypt, Moses and the Jews were concerned that the Pharaoh would change his mind about them leaving and they went in a hurry, so they did not have time for their bread to rise before the trip. Therefore, in commemoration, Jews do not eat anything leavened for eight days. For seder in my home on Tuesday night I have already begun cooking. I made matzah balls (soup dumplings) and chicken soup, carrot souffle, chocolate matzah, honey cake, and apple cake. I hard boiled eggs as a symbol of spring. Today I will finish up with matzah stuffing, potato kugel (casserole) and the main dish – lamb. All in all, I have already used about forty eggs and three large packages of butter. It’s the holiday of cholesterol. This week we celebrate and eat – next week we diet.
So my mother and father are in New York this week celebrating with my aunt and uncle and grandmother and other various family members. My husband’s parents are in Connecticut with his brother and other various family members. And we are in Tokyo.
This is where the friends and the JCJ come into play. Through the JCJ I’ve met some wonderful people – all of whom are in the same situation as I am. We have formed a community of friends who are, by extension, family. We support each other, care for each other in times of need, and on days like today, celebrate holidays with each other. The community is made up of mostly expatriates, most of whom are of American or European or Australian. There are very few native Asian Jews. While there is a large community of converts, the Japanese are not familiar with a monotheistic concept of religion, so the ideas of Judaism are confusing at best. So most members of the community are from elsewhere.
I’ve written extensively about the Jewish Community in Japan – notably in two magazines here in Asia – Asian Jewish Life and the Jewish Times of Asia. But those articles don’t necessarily capture the true feeling of community shared by the people who live here. We are a family in the best sense of the word. We decorate the sukkah for sukkot, we dance with the Torahs at Simchat Torah, and we say the prayers for forgiveness at Yom Kippur – we are together in worship and celebration no matter from where we hail originally.
I am very lucky this year that my cousin Julia Ledewitz will fly in from Boston with her boyfriend in time for seder, so I will have a blood relative at the table tonight. But that doesn’t change the fact that my family of friends is one for which I am eternally grateful. A sincere and loving thank you to the Bajaj and Hozack families for Monday night’s seder. And many hugs and much love in advance to the Stephenson and Kapner families, and David Cohen, who will celebrate with me tonight in my home.
To my greater readership, I hope that whatever holidays you celebrate this spring, that you can do it with those whom you hold dear.