Oven Mania in a New Apartment

oven originalIf you are reading this post in the U.S., go look at your oven.  I bet it’s about 60cm (24 inches, approximately) wide.  My oven in our very Western house was about that size up until last week, too.  However, last week, we moved house (into a more Japanese apartment) and our oven experience has been the most interesting part.

We’ve known for a while that due to circumstances beyond our control, we would have to move before mid-June, but it took us a while to find the perfect place.  In fact, when we first saw the place that we eventually took, I rejected it out of hand on the basis of the oven.  The oven when we looked at the apartment, a mere ten minute walk from our old house, was only 20cm wide.  Think about it.  That is just under 8 inches.  There’s no way I was going to cook in an oven that’s only 8 inches wide.  I’m an American, for heaven’s sake – there are lots of ooey gooey birthday cakes to be made, and roasts to be cooked and veggies to be roasted.  I cook a lot!

That being said, the oven was state-of-the art Japanese.  It had a control panel

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

that came out at you when you touched the door of the oven.  It had every button possible (not that I could read them all, but still.)  It just wasn’t good for the type of cooking that I want to do.  Japanese people generally don’t bake, and they don’t roast.  Most Japanese cooking is done on the stove top – or in a rice-cooker.

My husband Marc, however, is  a pretty smart guy.  He knew that the apartment would be perfect for us, but also that it had been empty for a while, and he told our leasing agent that we would be willing to move in very quickly if they changed the oven to something a bit more reasonable.  At first they thought we needed a Western oven and they wanted to charge us a few thousand dollars to cut the cabinet to fit it.  But we didn’t need a full-on European or American model – we needed better than was currently there.  Marc measured my largest few roasting pans and found that they were mostly just under 40 cm wide.  The good ones any way.  Then he went to the Internet and found a Japanese model oven that was around 40cm wide (almost 16 inches) and emailed our agent, who in turn, emailed the apartment owner.

My new oven!

My new oven!

Within a week the owner of the apartment had agreed to change out the oven and put in the one Marc recommended if we would move in prior to May 18th.  I’m not sure why that day was so urgent to him, but it doesn’t matter.  We now have a wonderful gas  oven that is 40cm wide.

The whole piece – oven, stove-top, fish grill – is state-of-the-art.  It has a sensor for pots so the gas can’t be left on too long, or cuts off in an earthquake.  It has true control of fire – and get this – battery backup in case of loss of power.

The battery backup!

The battery backup!

I can’t use my very largest roasting pan, and I can’t make a huge Thanksgiving turkey in this oven.  But beyond that, I can do everything I want to, and so far, it is pretty darn great.  I think we’re going to have a wonderful new life here – and now we’re really cooking!!

Education for Expat Kids – or: So I Entered A Blog Contest

Japan flagThis blog is lucky enough to be listed on a great site for expats across the globe called Expats Blog.  In fact, look at it on May 21st (don’t worry, I’ll remind you) and I’ll have a featured interview on the site.  But for today, please go look at it to see my entry in their blog contest.  The theme of the contest is International schools, a subject near to my heart since I have one child at Nishimachi and the other at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) so I can’t help but compare them sometimes.

For the contest, bloggers had to write about education abroad and/or international schools, but I wanted to focus on a more specific aspect of the kids’ schooling rather than writing a post about general education in Japan.  I chose to write about Japanese language skills.

I haven’t written much about our language abilities lately, but suffice to say, I’m rapidly becoming the dummy in the house as the kids’ language skills – writing, reading and speaking – improve rapidly with daily instruction and weekly tutor support.  But, as you will see in the post, the kids are learning different Japanese.  My son is learning Japanese as a foreign language at ASIJ and my daughter is taught more natively at NIS, which has a strong bilingual program.  It’s an interesting contrast as my daughter chats easily with friends, while my son corrects her grammar.  They’re both learning beautifully, but differently.  It’s neat to watch.

In entering these Expats Blog contests, I am eligible to win prizes.  One of the prizes is for comments on my post on their site.  So please click to read the post (here) and then, if you’re so moved, write a comment.

If you normally enjoy my posts, then you will really enjoy this one on Japanese language learning in international schools.  Give it a look and let me know what you think.  Expats Blog is a great site – and a wonderful place for expats to go for information.  I’m thrilled to be listed on their site!

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

clock2Writing has been part of my life since I could first use a pencil and left scraps of paper all over my grandmother’s house – my “notes” – when I visited.  She said that from the time I was about six years old, cleaning up after I had spent time with her was entertaining. She never wondered what was on my mind – I wrote everything down. I planned on being a writer all the way through college and graduate school when I realized that I needed a day job to pay the bills.  I resisted teaching for a long while because it was sort of my “family business” – Mom still teaches elementary school (finishing her 46th classroom!), my father was on the board of education for years, my uncle teaches law, another uncle was the vice-chancellor of a big university, and even my grandmother was assistant superintendent of schools in a system in Connecticut when I was little.  I didn’t want any part of it.  I tried advertising, public relations and even a computer firm until I finally caved in and got a doctorate in English education and started teaching writing on the college level.

As any woman knows, balancing the demands and rewards of work and family is no easy feat.  When our family moved to Japan, I was lucky enough to find part time work at Temple University where I could teach two courses a semester and still have plenty of time to not only be a participatory mother, but even volunteer in the kids’ schools and never miss an event.  Adjunct teaching isn’t for everyone, but I was lucky enough to have a husband with a steady job so my career didn’t have to be primary and I could focus on the kids.

Babies tend to do this funny thing: they grow.  A lot.  Quickly.  Though it seems like only seconds ago I walked down a street holding the hands of a toddler and a kindergartener, my current reality has one child graduating from middle school and the other graduating from elementary school.  Yep, in a few short months I will be the parent of a high schooler and middle schooler.

More often than not, the kids are busy after school these days and not home until close to dinner time.  I don’t always have to go with them to these activities because many of them are associated with the school and they have busing.  So that leads me to the question of what I’m going to do next.  It’s an interesting question for any woman at any time, but in Japan, where I’m a trailing spouse, sometimes the issues seem insurmountable.  I don’t speak or read the language, and most Japanese companies don’t want a foreigner working for them anyway.  In addition, with my children’s school schedules, I want to be able to take them to the US for a long summer holiday so they can reconnect with our extended family and American roots.  I can’t take just any full time job, so the Temple University position, for just two semesters a year, is ideal.

Luckily, as a writer I have a lot of other options too.  There are blog posts to read and write, contests to enter, and even English-language magazines for which to write.  I’ll do another posting on writing vs. editing and the challenges therein, but this leads me to another point – focus.  I can’t do everything.  I have to pick what it is that’s important to me and focus on those things, otherwise I’ll do many things and none of them very well or successfully.

So now it’s time to raise the bar and figure out what it is that will claim my focus going forward.  Teaching will hopefully be part of the equation, but what I choose to write and how I choose to organize my time in the next few months remains to be seen.

One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that what I want to be when I grow up is not a static thing.  The idea of it can grow and change as I grow and change – emotionally, physically and even situationally.  That same grandmother who found my scraps of paper when I was little used to tell me, “when I stop learning, that’s how you’ll know I’m dead.” I subscribe to that theory. I’m not sure what exactly I want to be when I grow up, but figuring it out is a great journey

A Plate Full of Goodies – But What Are They? Dessert!

acqua pazzaLast week a dear friend took me to Acqua Pazza – a great Italian restaurant in Hiroo for a special lunch.  While the company was lovely and the meal was delicious, what really stood out was the dessert.

As is usual in Tokyo, lunch consisted of a choice of three different set menus, all of which contained a pasta as the main course.  All of the sets started with Bagna Cauda – veggies and a hot anchovy dip.  Then there was an appetizer and a pasta dish (one of which was venison, but we had smoked fish pasta – yum!) and then dessert and coffee to finish it off.

Normally with these sets, you get a small taste of dessert just as a tiny, post-meal-sweet-satisfier.  But not this.  This set dessert arrived on a huge plate with seven small tastes.

Starting from about 12 o’clock, they are:

  1.  strawberries with pepper on top
  2. sweet fruit tomato on a bed of soft cheese
  3. hazelnut cake with a touch of cream
  4. mini-napoleon
  5. sweet cream ice cream
  6. (center) dried fruit biscotti
  7. candied ginger

Each item was so different from the others.  The tomato really did taste like a fruit and the cake was nutty and creamy.  The ice cream had a cookie spoon and a regular spoon at the side. And the candied ginger finished everything off perfectly with a spot of sweet and sour.

I’d highly recommend Acqua Pazza for a special lunch.  It’s not cheap, but not wildly expensive either.  It’s good for a fun occasion, and it’s excellent for dessert.

Molecular Gastronomy – Flatiron Grill

flatiron aimeeThe words “molecular gastronomy” are fairly new in the English lexicon, but the combination of food and science that they invoke are a delight of the senses.  The chefs experiment with various tastes and textures, cooking methods and sensations in the mouth and out comes this spectacularly EXPERIENTIAL meal. In Japan, the Tokyo American Club just opened such a restaurant called Flatiron, which they describe as “Part interactive show, FLATiRON is a two-hour culinary journey that presents mouthwatering ingredients in eye-poppingly creative ways.”  Indeed, we enjoyed every second of the three-hour experience.  Instead of just writing, I’ll tell the tale of our culinary flight of fancy in pictures.

First, the menu, which includes the wine pairing list – ten courses and pairings! There was an option to cut down on the wines, which we did.  None of us wanted ten full glasses of wine.  As it was, with a few sly refills, we had more than our allotted five glasses. To that end, please note that my photos and my written notes become less and less clear as the wine helped along the yummy courses and the night progressed!

flatiron1Next, our own private chef starting to prepare our first course

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The first course: a small spoonful of black pork, dried strawberry, and a coffee-flavored marshmallow and a second spoon of hazelnut powder on a basil leaf.

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Course number two: a buckwheat crepe that held a real treat inside – salmon with violet mustard and a cheese called burrata that is specially handmade – it is only fresh for seven days. It’s a sinful mixture of mozzarella and cream that somewhat melts the salmon into itself. The chef had already jellied some port wine and drizzled it over the “burrito” in a ribbon.

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The next course consisted of a few clams surrounded by caviar with a special foam on top made of curry.

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Here is a shot of our personal chef grilling vegetables and salting them lightly with a special instrument that shines a light where the salt is going to land.

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This is a photo of the truffle paste Flatiron makes – you may have heard of truffle oil, but this is the paste!  Diners can squeeze on as much or as little as they’d like of the elixir.

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This is my friend with the cheese drizzler and truffle paste, preparing to create her own “reverse” fondue.

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This next course involved fruit flambe!

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With the fruit, we had something the chef called “the thirty-second” flavor.  He tested us on why it was so named.  I’ll leave you to guess a little bit too – but think of the places where an American in particular might buy ice cream – a place right by National Azabu in Tokyo….  Anyway, the thirty second flavor involves putting foie gras on an “anti-griddle” which looks like a regular griddle but is really NEGATIVE fifty degrees.  The foie gras turned into ice cream!  Unexpectedly delectable.

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For the next course, the chef wrapped fish in a sakura leaf and placed it on a large ice cube that had an LED light in it.

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Then he added smoke.  Real smoke – to smoke the fish.  The smoke had a cherry wood element in it for a divine smell and flavor.

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Next we had a lamb course served with a bit of mushroom flavored cappuccino.

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Here’s a great photo of the grill – the chef poured a little chardonnay on it so we could watch it dance around!

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After giving us the chardonnay in a bowl, the chef added some liquid nitrogen so we had to stir stir stir very quickly to create the chardonnay juice ourselves.

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Here is the finished product – chardonnay as a solid with black Hawaiian volcano salt on it. Somehow it melted in the mouth in a mass of salty, wine goodness.

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Please note: this next photo does NOT contain saran wrap. Regular saran wrap would melt on the grill. In order to cook the pork for the next course, the chef covers it with a saran-thin sheet of glass.  Yes, that is glass over the pork on the grill.

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Here is the course he was cooking.  It may have been the most flavorful of the night.  It’s pork that was marinated in chamomile tea for 4 hours drizzled with a surprising combination of cassis and beets with Sambucca. It’s sitting on a bed of Savoy cabbage, adding to the mix of flavors.

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The final course, dessert, gave us some real giggles.  First of all, when was the last time you had pop rocks???  Here’s the initial photo of the panna cotta with the very still pop rocks on top.

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Next, the chef mixed lychee juice with liquid nitrogen.

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Here’s the pour-over!  The chef made us all wear protective eye-wear because the pop rocks danced around in the bowl reacting to the nitrogen! It was so delightfully playful.

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And finally, dessert as a whole – almost too good to eat – but not quite.  We managed to really enjoy it with the cold sensation mixing with the popping in our mouths.

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Here is a shot of the four of us, celebrating a fun birthday dinner – in goggles.

flatiron goggles

The whole thing took about 3 hours from our special “welcome drink” to the end, when we had a cup of tea to finish the night.  It was expensive, but a real treat for a food and entertainment. You do not need to be a member of The American Club to go – it’s open to the public.  Go for your next special occasion and let me know what you get – the menu changes seasonally.  Food and fun!

Setting Up Yoroi Kabuto for Kodomo No Hi

kabuto4Kodomo No Hi, Children’s Day, in Japan is May 5th.  Beyond the Koinobori flags that many homes display, some people set up Yoroi Kabuto, ancient Japanese armor.  The o-yoroi is an example of the suit worn by ancient feudal Samurai warriors.  It’s extremely heavy!  It has chest and arm covers, as well as an iron mask and the crowning kabuto. It was fine in the 10th century when warfare consisted mostly of archery, but by the 15th century when infantry tactics became more popular, the cumbersome armor fell out of favor.  Nishimachi International School has its own set, and in preparation for the day, the women of the cultural committee set it up.  It took

Here's the stand on which the whole thing rests.

Here’s the stand on which the whole thing rests.

Putting it together took 6 women half an hour!

six of us just half an hour to get it put together, but it was comprised of many little parts and had to be done just right.  After May 5th, the whole thing will get taken down and stored for another year. So enjoy the  displays while they last!

A close-up of the Kabuto

Where Can You Find The Fake Food in the Window?

kappabashi7Any restaurant in Tokyo might owe its existence, at least its accoutrements, to Kappabashi.  Kappabashi is an area of Tokyo between Ueno and Asakusa that is dedicated completely to the restaurant business, comprising hundreds of stores selling everything from knives to pots to dishware and flatware, and everything in between.  There are even stores that sell restaurant decorations, cold cases, and tables and chairs as well as signs. While the stores sell mostly to restaurants, they’re happy to have any regular person as a customer, too.

However, a big part of the charm of Kappabashi is finally solving the mystery of the plastic food that so many Japanese restaurants proudly display in their windows.  Kappabashi has shop after shop of fake food for sale – plastic versions of main dishes, side dishes and desserts, ranging from pasta, to soba, to meats to crepes.  It’s a wonderland of plastic food!

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Those cases above are full of sandwiches – all fake.  Restauranteurs can buy the entire sandwich or its component parts to show customers what is available at their establishment.

 

 

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This one above is one of my favorites – look at all of that marbleized and FAKE beef.  I don’t like my beef like that in real life and I definitely don’t like it in plastic.  However, if I owned a teppanyaki or shabu shabu restaurant in Japan, I would want to show my customers how wonderful my beef is – and this is how the Japanese love their beef.  Also, check out that sushi. Every possible shape, fish and form is available in plastic, so the sushi shops can display the very best outside in their windows.

 

 

 

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This one above is so interesting – fruits and desserts – all plastic.  What I didn’t count on is the high price.  One of those parfaits was 5,000 JPY – upwards of $50!  The restaurant owners have to be careful and creative when choosing what t0 display.

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!

There are stores dedicated to throw-away packaging!

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This particular shop had everything – and I mean everything – one might need in a kitchen to cook with. Stainless steel pots, copper pots, bamboo steamers, spatulas, and whisks, just to name a few items.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

Shop after shop full of dishes for every type of restaurant or occasion.

You have to imagine block after block of these stores.  Some were fancy and some were casual.  Some were expensive and some were less so. (Nothing is cheap in Tokyo) We walked down one side of the street and back up the other side.  It was something else.  If you have any cooking inclination at all,  I’d highly recommend a trip to Kappabashi.

 

 

Where Do You Take Your Visitors to Japan?

The Daibutsu Buddha set against the hillside backdrop

The Daibutsu Buddha set against the hillside backdrop

When I have guests from out of the country visiting us here in Tokyo, my favorite place to take them is Kamakura.  Often, since I’ve done a lot of the common sites before, I send visitors to certain places to see themselves, but when it comes to Kamakura, I want to show them everything I can.  Today was no exception. We have good family friends in town, and I took them to see the sights.

Kamakura is a small, seaside town whose claim to fame is that of an ancient kamakura3capital of Japan with the shogun government of Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192.  He wanted to establish a capital as far from Kyoto as he could, and found Kamakura ideal because it’s surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on another . The Kyoto shogunate sent warriors to crush the Kamakura rulers in 1333 and power returned to Kyoto.

There are 65 temples and 19 shrines to be seen in Kamakura, but by this time I have my favorites in the Hachimingu Shrine, the Daibutsu Buddha and the Hase Kannon Temple.  In between there Kamakura2are delightful shops to explore, landscapes to admire and sweet treats to eat.

We had wonderful weather which made for a glorious day.  Just an hour outside of central Tokyo, don’t miss this beautiful testament to Japan’s rich history.

Dr. Roger Spott respectfully washes his hands before entering the shrine

Dr. Roger Spott respectfully washes his hands before entering the shrine

Why Do The Japanese Love Cherry Blossoms So Much? Finally, A Decent Answer!

hanami1This is a bit of a teaser post because I’m going to send you over to another blog to find the answer, but I promise you, it’s worth the click.

CLICK HERE!

Writer and friend Alice Gordenker has been in Tokyo for quite a long time and has always pondered the question of why the Sakura (cherry blossoms) are such a huge part of Japanese life and lore.  Finally she has discovered a wonderful answer and it will surprise and delight you.

Be sure to check out this post as well as the rest of Ms. Gordenker’s blog, and look for her column in the Japan Times.

Enjoy!

A Journey of Lessons (A Hopeful Sign)

Please see my latest posting on the e-zine A Hopeful Sign about being in Southeast Asia and experiencing the 5-star hotels juxtaposed with the extreme poverty of the region, as well as its affects on our kids.  To be fair, it’s also about bringing the lessons of the world in which they do not live to them and making it accessible via experiences right here in Tokyo as well as the tie-in to the Jewish holiday of Passover, that happened while we were visiting Cambodia.

The E-zine is called A Hopeful Sign for a reason – the messages of hope and positivity it brings are a breath of fresh air in today’s increasingly negative and pessimistic world.  Go see my posting, but also go to see all of the other wonderful writers who post there.  Click HERE.

Here’s the body of the text:

Our Journey of Lessons Travelling in Southeast Asia

Photo: Child begging for money from her little “boat”, a pot (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

(Post by AIMEE LEDEWITZ WEINSTEIN)

I never doubt that my kids are indeed children of privilege, which is not necessarily bad, because the important thing, I believe, is what one does with that privilege.  In recent weeks my kids have had many lessons in humility and giving, and the grace that comes along with the ability to recognize the gifts of humanity, no matter how they are packaged.

We started our journey of lessons at the Asian University for Women (AUW) fundraiser.  AUW, located in Bangladesh, takes young women from around the region and gives them a top-notch university education. The support committee, of which I am a part, showed an American PBS film about Women and the Taliban in Afghanistan and how they are fighting back.  My son who is 13 understood a lot of it, but my daughter who is 10, did not.  The important part for both of them, though, was the speeches that followed the movie by the two girls who had come to Tokyo from AUW in Bangladesh.  One girl, originally from Afghanistan, stressed the importance of education, finding one’s voice, and telling one’s story.  The other, from Nepal, spoke eloquently on the idea of one person making a difference and changing the world.  Both kids were enthralled by these two girls.  Obviously young, they carried themselves with poise that belied their backgrounds and they spoke confidently about their viewpoints and ideas, something my children could admire and appreciate.

The next day after hearing the girls at the AUW event, the kids, my husband and I got on a plane for Southeast Asia.  We spent the next six days exploring Hanoi, Vietnam, and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh Cambodia.  (You can read about our adventures on http://TokyoWriter.com)

It wasn’t our first trip to the region, but seeing the extreme poverty never gets any easier, especially for the kids.  Hanoi was chock full of honking cars, a mix of traditional and modern architecture, and people who were thrilled to see tourists.  Many people approached us on the street to sell us something, and of course, some were kinder than others.  When my daughter expressed discomfort, my husband explained that this was how people made their living; not everyone can afford a storefront.  We bought things we wanted and said no to vendors when we had to.

In Siem Reap, the resort hotels eclipse some of the more extreme poverty, but it was really unavoidable as we took a boat ride up the Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating villages there.  Random kids approached us over and over again, begging, one little girl with a snake around her neck asking if we wanted to give her a dollar to see the snake up close.  Another girl approached us as we were eating our dinner at a sidewalk café.  My daughter was stricken when we wouldn’t buy her books and the girl groaned her disappointment. I faltered when I explained that one to my own darling girl.  That young lady was helping her family by trying to sell the books.  Maybe she had been in school all day and worked a little to make extra money at the dinner hour, but this was her life and this was what she knew.  Even I could tell that the explanation fell flat – of course the girl could observe that we could afford dinner in a restaurant and she couldn’t – but we noticed our daughter chewing on what she had seen and the ideas I presented.

That night was the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and our normal celebrations at home include a large seder with many friends.  It’s the holiday when we retell the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt – it’s a celebration of freedom.  I had packed a few copies of our Haggadah, the book we read at the table for Passover, so the four of us sat in our hotel room after dinner reading about our ancestors and telling the story as it is commanded, as if we ourselves were enslaved in Egypt, feeling the yoke of slavery and the gratitude for the miracles wrought by God to bring about its end, even if did mean forty years of wandering in the desert.  We tell it that way to encourage empathy and enhance that gratitude.  In addition to telling the story faithfully to our children every year, we – Jews – infuse the seder with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, saving the world.  “Let all who are hungry come eat,” says the Haggadah, commanding not just Jews, but really everyone, to share the gifts they are given.

Even though it was the lowest-key seder we’ve ever had, and the smallest, it was by far the most meaningful.  The kids were both able to talk about not just freedom to walk around and go wherever they please, but also freedom from tyranny and freedom from want.  The Haggadah gave them language to appreciate the accident of their birth into a loving and financially stable, Western family.  We were able to talk about the gifts of their good brains and the ability to use them and the bright girls who go to AUW on scholarship who have a stroke of luck to get their fine education whereas our kids tend to take their schooling for granted.  They vowed never to complain about it.

We saw some exquisite sights throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, things that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  One morning we woke the kids before the sun to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, an enthralling picture that I can still see weeks later when I close my eyes.  To think that was built in the 12th century!  Later that day, my son said that he was sorry he fussed (which he really hadn’t) about getting up because it was worth it, and he was going to tell his kids about it someday.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

“Maybe you’ll take your own kids to see it,” I suggested.

My daughter watched my son nod in agreement and smile. “Maybe,” she allowed finally, “But I hope I can give my kids what you and Daddy give me.”

I don’t think she understood my silent hug or the tears that sprang to my eyes as I surveyed both of my children.  My children are among the luckiest there are to be American and live an exciting life abroad in Japan.  They have every gadget available as well as access to the finest schools and activities in the world. I have no idea whether these lessons will stay with them even into next month, but I am sure that we planted seeds in the children that week, seeds that will hopefully bloom into beautiful tomorrows.