The High Holidays – At My Home Away From Home

The shofar made me cry this year.  I was sitting between Ellie and Steve like any good daughter, and the hush of readiness came over the sanctuary. The Rabbi chanted the first “Tekiah” and the shofar’s clarion call rose through the hall and touched the souls of those assembled.  Without warning the tears jerked forth from my eyes like a faucet turned up too high, too fast.  For centuries Jews have gathered together at this time of year to thank God for the gift of last year, pray for another year of life, confess sins and beg pardon.  It’s a part of my life as much as putting on shoes to go out – whether I’m thinking about it or not, being Jewish is part of my identity and heritage.

One of the things I love about being Jewish is the idea of continuity – of belonging.  I was hearing that shofar at 11am in Washington DC.  At 11am Tokyo time, thirteen hours prior, my husband and children had heard the same call, said the same prayers, heard the same call.  My tears, naturally, were for them, mourning that I was not with them to hear it, nor they with me.  I have such vivid memories of both of my children’s very first Rosh Hashanahs.  I held each of them as babies as the sudden blast of the shofar startled them and I comforted them, whispering the promise of connection they would feel whenever they hear that sound.  It connects them to generations past; it connects them to generations in the future. This year we are not connected physically, but with that shofar blast, I could feel them there with me, reminding me that with God’s good help, we will be together next year at this time.  And so, the tears.

Ellie and Steve’s synagogue, B’nai Israel in Rockville, is a big place – 1500 member families.  I had been there before for various events, so it was mildly familiar with its beautiful wood and stone sanctuary and center area from which the Torah is read.  Having grown up in a large, Conservative synagogue, the atmosphere, as well as the liturgy, was familiar.  In fact, I’d venture to say that despite its large size, the synagogue was welcoming to me.

The two rabbis of the synagogue welcomed everyone to services, and on erev Rosh Hashanah, (the night before – all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before) as well as on both days of Rosh Hashanah, spoke of welcoming – of belonging.  Their sermons sounded like they were written for me, aimed at me, spoken in light of my situation.  They spoke of gratitude, of making every second count.  Rabbi Schnitzer referenced a book by Joan Lunden, saying that people might not remember who won the Pulitzer Prize or the Heisman Trophy, but they do remember the kindness of a friend, the encouragement of a teacher or the touch of a loved one.  He gave us the number of seconds in every day and urged us to make every one of those seconds count – every single day.  He spoke of a righteous man on his deathbed not saying that life had been good to him, but rather, saying that he was good to the world.  Rabbi Safra continued the theme, discussing how God had made the world, but made it to be imperfect, and thus God shows faith in man in his ability to repair the world, and so we are in partnership with God. As we are faithful to God, so is God faithful to us.

Perhaps these sermons seem predictable to you, even proscribed. To me, fighting cancer every day, this entire holiday – indeed this SEASON of holidays – reminds me to be grateful for the people around me, the life that I have, and the self-awareness to be so thankful.  Jews around the world are listening to similar sermons, repeating the same exact prayers, and to me it’s a comfort.  These ideas and practices were around long before my birth, and will be around long after I’m gone.  Continuity.

My Grammy used to say that a human being’s greatest need is to belong.  I believe her.  At that moment, hearing the shofar in Maryland while sitting between two extra parents, even though I was sad because I wasn’t with my husband and my children, I still belonged.  Indeed, it was the community that sustained me and nurtured me to reach this point.  Ellie and Steve, my mom and dad, my friends, my family, my doctors – all of them are the community on which I rely for my very existence right now.  I am grateful to each person who comprises that community for helping me along this journey.  I welcome the year 5774 with a grateful heart – grateful to hear the shofar, and grateful to belong.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah –  may you be inscribed for a year of health, love prosperity and peace.

A Change in Summer and Autumn Plans

clockWell, just when  you think things are going along all right, life throws a curve ball.  More in tune to a writer however, as a friend of mine likes to say when things go wrong: PLOT TWIST!

I wasn’t feeling so well when I left Tokyo in June for a long visit to the U.S. and there was good reason why.  I have lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.  No panic necessary – it’s a curable form of cancer and I am tolerating the treatment – chemotherapy – quite well.  Oh, I don’t mean to imply that it’s all fun and games, but the good news is that treatment appears to be working already and I will be my regular reading, writing and raring-to-go self in a matter of months.  I have an excellent team of doctors at the George Washington University Hospital and my friends and family in the U.S. have been wonderful.  I have treatment every three weeks through October, and then post-treatment testing, so it is likely that I will not be back in Tokyo until after the December holidays, in January.

In the meantime, as I undertake this treatment, I am going to try to do some writing about not the ins and outs of cancer treatment, but more like what’s happening in my brain as I go through it.  What happens in my brain is much more interesting (and less..um…gross!) than what’s up with my body.

So, dear reader, I hope you will forgive my many-month digression away from solely Japan-based writing and continue to read my blog for other reasons as well.  Don’t worry – I’ll be back in Tokyo and writing about it with fresh eyes in no time.

Happy summer, wherever you are.

Multicultural Parties for Kids

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Right after the war, in 1945, a Jewish man named Ernie Solomon started an orphanage in Japan.  He had escaped Eastern Europe and came through Japan, living most of the rest of his life in Tokyo.  He saw a need for care for children who had lost their parents during the war, and he made it happen.  He and his family have supported the Wakabaryo orphanage ever since its inception.  A man with strong Jewish roots, Ernie always arranged for the Jewish Community of Japan to have a joint holiday party with the orphans and the children of the JCJ.  Ernie passed away two years ago, but the tradition continues.  This year, I had the opportunity to go to the orphanage with my children and it was a joyous holiday experience for everyone.

Everyone at Wakabaryo was truly excited to see the group of five adults (including the rabbi) and the ten kids who arrived around 6pm.  Like everywhere traditionally Japanese, we were instructed to first remove our shoes then go upstairs to the party room.  In the room stood about 30 young people and ten or so staff waiting to welcome us.  The tables were laden with cakes and other sweets and not one of the children, from the youngest (age 1 or so) to the teenagers touched any of it.  There were a few speeches welcoming us, and then a rousing rendition of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer in Japanese.  They asked each of our kids to introduce themselves, which they did in proper Japanese.  But for four of the Jewish kids, ours were not Japanese speakers, but they all take Japanese lessons, so they were able to tell everyone their names and ages in Japanese.  Then we got to eat the sweets.  Our kids really tried hard to interact with the Japanese kids.  Once again, I learned the lesson that silliness among children has no language barriers.

After eating, we cleared the tables and moved them out of the room so everyone could sit down and play the dreidel game.  It was 2012-12-06 07.09.10great fun to teach these kids about the game and its meaning – all in Japanese.  There were shrieks of laughter and even some boo-ing as the kids enjoyed the game together. Mr. Solomon’s widow gave each child a small gift and the children presented our JCJ kids with a small gift as well.  After a group picture, it was time for us to leave.

Those Japanese youngsters were so appreciative that they formed a line down the stairs and out the door to see us off properly.  There were shouts of “sayonara!” and even “see you!” from a few of the kids.  It was hard to leave.

The experience awed my own children.  It inspired feelings of gratitude and appreciation for all of their many gifts, including the large family that loves them so well.  But it also reminded them, as it did for me, that children are children, and games and celebrations transcend language and culture.  Add in holidays and special sweets, and there’s a recipe for instant friendship.  I hope this is the first of many visits.

Post Trick or Treat – or “Now What?” with Teens

My son, Bailey, is a young teen, having just turned 13 and in the 8th grade.  He and his friends, however, never ones to miss an opportunity to get free candy, put on costumes and hit the street,  just as they had for years on October 31st.  This time, though, they didn’t have parents or any other supervisors with them.  As I have mentioned before, Tokyo is a relatively safe place.  The biggest danger on Halloween here is getting hit by a car due to the swarms of kids on the streets and the refusal of the police to block off said streets to accommodate said kids.

Since we don’t have daylight savings here in Japan (another topic – don’t get me started) it gets dark by 5 already.  By 5:30 the boys were ready to meet up.  One of Bailey’s friends met him here at the house, and a few more would meet up with them at a nearby spot.  I had attempted to get food into the kids before heading out the door, but the excitement was too high – no one wanted to eat before candy-fest 2012.

I told Bailey that he should be home between 6:45 and 7pm at the latest.  An hour and a half of procuring candy should be enough, I felt.  The phone rang at 6:40 and my heart leaped into my throat.  Of course it was Bailey calling, but not for the reason I expected.  I had a whole speech ready about how he should come home and not be out later and he needed to get some decent food in him…blah, blah blah.

“Mom,” my son said, “We’re done and near the house.  Is it okay if the guys just come over to hang out for a while before they go home?”

This was my mother-dream come true.  Some people might not want a group of smelly, gangly boys in their house, but I can’t think of anything better.  To me, if the boys are in my house where I can see and hear them, then they are automatically not on the street and not getting into trouble.

“Sure,” I said. “I have lots of frozen pizza.  I’ll start heating it up now.”

There was a heartfelt “thanks, Mom” from my son before he severed the connection.

The boys came in, sat in the living room sorting candy, and then occupied the dining room to eat, once I had everything ready.  I put the food on the table and promptly removed myself.  I took a seat by my husband in the living room, and we had our backs to the boys, though with the open layout of the house, they could see us.  The kids ignored us, as we hoped they would, and kept talking.

They had some really funny conversations about girls, some pretty serious ones about soccer and then some talk of school.  When they finished eating, my son directed everyone to bring their plates and cups to the kitchen sink before they all repaired to the computer area to watch some funny videos.  My husband and I snuck back into the kitchen to eat our own dinner.  We were quiet as we listened to the videos the boys watched and then couldn’t help laughing at their hysterical laughter.

The boys were all out of the house before 8:15pm, having only been there about 90 minutes.  They all thanked me politely as they left.

Bailey shut the door on his friends, turned to me and said, “thanks, Mom.  That was great.”

“Bailey,” I told him, “you bring your friends here any time you want.  We’ll always have pizza in the freezer.”

My son is still just a young teen and has a lot of growing up and experimenting to do yet, but I feel that if we can start out this way, with him feeling comfortable bringing his friends around all the time, then we are headed in the right direction.  A lot of pizza and a little luck will hopefully get us through the teen years.

A Book to Make You Consider…

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful,  is meant to take you on a journey, both literally and figuratively.  In this memoir, the author himself is on a journey of self-discovery and takes the reader along with him on what turns out to be quite a ride.

Lewis-Kraus paints a picture of himself at the beginning of the book as a person who is rootless and unsure of where he wants to go with his life.  He’s young, he’s flexible, and he has a career, writing, that can take him anywhere in the world.  Beginnings like this, particularly when the author is young (nearing thirty as he writes), have the potential to reek of self-pity and extreme overindulgence.  When I started, I was concerned that it would be like the first fifty or so pages of Eat, Pray, Love, in which the author reveals herself to be selfish and self-indulgent enough to walk away from a marriage to “find herself.”  Throughout Eat, Pray, Love, I was annoyed with the character (so ably played by Julia Roberts in the movie, though – this was a case where the book was better than the move) for neither considering nor mentioning anyone but herself at any point of the journey.  But Lewis-Kraus has taken a completely different approach to the journey novel than Elizabeth Gilbert since his narrative is inclusive, rather than exclusive of others, most notably his family, most of whom he clearly adores.

The book begins with Lewis-Kraus living with his younger brother, Micah, in San Francisco since Micah has a great job and a nice apartment.  He flounders around there for a while, then decides to move to Germany to the art scene in Berlin.  Here the book does get a little indulgent with descriptions of parties, drinking and other incriminating behaviors.  But then everything takes a turn to the left as Lewis-Kraus and his friend decide to take a walking pilgrimage through Spain.  Lewis-Kraus is a master descriptor.  His visions of color, sensation and feeling really come alive.  When he talks about the people he meets on the month-long journey, he introduces them with a finesse and insight that make the people walk right off the page.

After the journey through Spain, Lewis-Kraus spends a bit more time with Micah before trying a different, more difficult type of pilgrimage in Japan on the Island of Shikoku.  This trek is harder both mentally and physically and the tone of the chapters takes on a more menacing feel.  The author isn’t mean, just brutally honest.

Throughout the book, one of Lewis-Kraus’s main struggles is with his relationship with his father, and so for the final pilgrimage of the book, he invites his father to take a trip with him to the Ukraine at the Jewish New Year where annually, a huge group of Orthodox Jewish men from around the world go to purify themselves for the coming year.  His brother goes with them, and the three men learn a lot with and from each other on the trip.

When Lewis-Kraus relays dialogue, the voice is snappy and somewhat theoretical.  In various portions of the book, he lapses into his own thoughts in a very academic  way that shows him to be a thinker as well as a do-er.  He has rational discussions of the idea of expiation of sin. He goes into great detail about the physical and social idea of a community. He explores the social psychologist Wittgenstein along with the famous Lubavitcher Rebbe Nachman as they relate to various parts of his journey – in the physical and emotional realms.  However, just when you think you cannot take a moment more of his theorizing, he puts in a  completely inane comment that relaxes the scenario and lets the reader know that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

A reader doesn’t have to be on an actual journey to appreciate this book. It helps, though, if you can imagine your own life as a personal journey and relate to the idea of self-exploration as a positive trait that exists beyond mere navel-gazing, going toward true discovery.

The end made me cry in a beautiful way.

Enjoy the book.

Thanksgiving in Tokyo, Take 2

I say “take 2” but that is just because it’s my second blog posting on the topic.  In reality, this is our seventh (!) turkey day in Tokyo.  Each year has been a little different and this year is no exception.

Our lives are different this year, having been through a number of new beginnings in September.  One of the biggest was my return to work.  It has been an interesting experience from start to finish, but one of the biggest things I’ve found is that teachers at a secondary school are different than those at a university, most notably regarding the formation of a collegial atmosphere.  I love the camaraderie and sharing.  I love the community.  I love being able to run next door to ask another teacher a question if I have one.

Since much of the faculty and staff is American, we are celebrating Thanksgiving Day together.  To be sure, we will all work a full day and then have an early dinner so we can get up Friday morning to head back to work.  The Japanese have not embraced the Thanksgiving spirit like they have for Halloween and Christmas, which is really fine with me.  It’s not the same having a truly American holiday while NOT in America and I don’t want to pretend that it is even close.

We are going to a restaurant called Addis.  Here’s the menu:

  • Brown Lentil Fresh Thyme Soup
  • Cranberry mustard and cream cheese canape
  • Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese and Fennel salad
  • Roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce
  • Pumpkin Cheese cake
  • and of course a vegetarian option that’s very Japanese: Grilled tofu wrapped with eggplant in a port wine cardamon reduction

We will have bottle after bottle of wine, I am certain.  We’ll be about 12 for dinner. The cafe is close to school, and pretty casual.  It should be a wonderful time.

I am thankful for so many things this year, many of which are new and different, so mostly I am thankful for the wonderful things that ARE new and different.  I am delighted to spend the holiday with the people with whom I work, along with my husband and kids.  What a year it has been.

Wherever and however you are celebrating, I wish you a dinner full of love and peace.

Guest blogger: Larry Greenberg

My friend, long-term resident of Tokyo and Jewish Community of Japan Board Member Larry Greenberg has remained in Tokyo throughout the earthquake and tsunami disaster, as well as the ongoing concerns about the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Larry reflected on his reasons for choosing to stay in Tokyo despite the quick exodus of many other foreign residents.

At 2:46 pm on Friday afternoon March 11th I was seated in a narration booth at a studio in downtown Tokyo.  As I read out the lines of my narration script the microphone in front of me began to shake.  “Earthquake!”  That word flashed into my mind and I looked out through the glass window that separated me from the director and the sound technician. Our eyes met and in a flash we shared the same thought “Everything is fine.  Let’s keep on going.”

So, we carried on for 15 seconds or so until the entire room began to shake and we all knew that “this was a big one” and that it was time to get outside.  As we walked down the steps the entire building was rocked by tremors and when we finally got outside we saw crowds of people rushing out of the surrounding buildings.  We all knew that this was a serious quake and that something bad was happening and that this was going to affect us all.

After about 15 minutes the intensity of the tremors fell off somewhat and I looked at the director and the sound techie and simultaneously we all said the same thing: “Let’s go back in and get it done!”  And so we went back inside and over the next 90 minutes we finished the project despite the constant aftershocks.  Afterwards, as I walked 90 minutes back to my office amidst the crowds of people who were calmly walking home, I thought back on how spontaneously and naturally my Japanese colleagues and I each knew that something big had happened, that this was serious, but that right now we each had something important to do.  And we did it.

It’s been 19 days since the disaster struck. During these 19 days we have learned that close to 30,000 people have lost their lives.  We have seen images of entire towns being swallowed by walls of water.  We have learned that in fact the Earth was shifted into a new orbit.  We have watched as selfless heroes have struggled to bring the situation at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant under control.  We have been concerned about an array of indices that have shown that there is radiation contamination across a wide range.

And yet there has been calm.  People in Tokyo have gotten up, watched the news, eaten breakfast and gone to work.  Some people have chosen to send their children away and many entire families have gone.  But the overwhelming response on the part of the people of Tokyo has been to get on with it, to do what we each need to do and to stay calm and ask ourselves one by one what each of us can and should do.

And that is why I am here, why I am glad to be here and why I am proud of Japan and proud of her people.  It is also why I am confident that once again Japan will recover from the challenge that it currently faces.