Mrs. R. (as I’ll call her) posted on a Facebook Group I read called the Tokyo Mothers Group that she was just diagnosed with lymphoma and asked if anyone knew anything about it. In fact, it’s a little more complex than that: my friend Kacie, whose daughter is just six years old, was reading the board and mentioned me in a comment to make sure I’d see it – I don’t often read that board anymore since my kids are twelve and fifteen years old, and the group most often has playgroup and play date recommendations and breast feeding support on it. Feeling a bit of social media pressure, I responded vaguely to the post – at first. “I did the treatment and now I’m fine!” She then took that bull by the proverbial horns, first friending me on Facebook, then sending me a private message asking all kinds of questions about how I’m feeling now, how my treatment went, and where I took the treatment. She and her husband had only been in Tokyo for two years and she needed advice. She wanted to talk. I didn’t answer her fully right away; I was struggling a bit inside. I’ve never spoken with another lymphoma patient; I’ve shied away from that blunt of a reality check. I just told her over social media that I had returned to the U.S. for treatment and asked her for the name of the hospital where she was being treated. And then I decided to just drop the façade and go see her. My husband was supportive immediately; sometimes I get these ideas in my head and I can’t let go – he senses when that’s happening and doesn’t fuss at me. At the same time, I could tell he was concerned – for me, there’s a lot of emotion tied up in lymphoma. I did not want to re-live the experience. I often tried to pretend it never happened to me. On the other hand, there was something nagging at me – if I could ease her suffering just a little, tiny bit, I probably should. Judaism teaches that the mitzvah (literally translated as commandment – but often meaning good deed) of Bikur Cholim – Visiting the sick – is one of the most important and meaningful of all of the 613 mitzvot. There are rules regulating how often (as often as possible for short periods) and when (after three days of suffering) and the common Jewish wisdom is that a visit from a caring friend or relative alleviates one sixtieth of a person’s suffering, and for that reason, it’s an important thing to do for someone. I had never met Mrs. R. in my life, but when I walked into her hospital room, I couldn’t help but hug her. She’s a beautiful woman with rich, dark hair and a shiny, wide smile. She was unpretentious and open, hankering for a talk – hungry to be understood and understand what was happening. She kept thanking me for coming, as did her brother, who had flown in from London to be with the woman who was clearly, judging from his protective attitude, his little sister. The magnitude of her youth hit me slowly, like a seeing a glass fall off a table in slow motion. Her daughter is only two and a half. We swapped diagnosis stories and she asked me if I thought she should go back to India, where she is from, to take treatment. I struggled with answering her because her type of lymphoma is not the same as mine was, and I have no idea if medical treatment is better in Mumbai or Tokyo; I just know that being treated for a serious illness in one’s native language is a huge comfort. In the end, the details of the situation didn’t really matter anyway. I stayed with her only an hour that day, just connecting with her, reaching out to her, letting her know that she is not alone. I swallowed the bile of my own illness, so recently passed, and offered the olive branch of hope to her, which she grasped with both hands. Leaving her was hard. I wanted to stay, to hug her and tell her she’d be okay no matter what happened really. I had my own babies to get back to. Even when I returned the next day, it was for just a few minutes, to bring her my own book on hope and strength before returning to my regularly scheduled life. She says I helped her decide to return to India to be near her family, where she can be with her daughter all the time. Her husband is going with her, able to work from the Mubai office of his company instead of the Tokyo office, to which he had been transferred from India anyway. I don’t know precisely what I did or said, but she seemed at peace with the decision, with the process ahead of her. When we parted, it was with pressed hands and promises to see each other again, be it in Tokyo, in India or even someday in the U.S. I’m sure we will, too. It might not be so soon, but I will see Mrs. R. again somewhere, someday. What began with a social media posting became the physical fulfillment of a mitzvah, and will now return to the world of the virtual, as I’m sure we will be in touch over some type of technology or social media. She might think that I did something for her, and perhaps I did, but what she did for me, giving me the opportunity to fulfil a beloved mitzvah and come to terms with sharing my story both in person and over social media, with those similarly afflicted, was the real gift. Godspeed, Mrs. R. I am waiting to meet you again.
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.
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:
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.
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 great 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.
On Tuesday night I had the privilege of attending a concert put on by the Embassy of Israel in Japan. It was titled “Visas for Life” and dedicated to the work and the memory of Chiune Sugihara, who wrote transit visas in Lithuania during WWII to save thousands of Jews. The embassy organized the concert as part of its year of celebrations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel.
In case you don’t know, Chiune Sugihara is a Jewish hero. A gifted linguist, he was the Japanese consul to Lithuania during the war. The Japanese government has expressly forbid him to write visas to help Jews and he did it anyway to save the thousands and thousands of Jews who were fleeing Hitler’s wrath in Eastern Europe. He wrote transit visas so the Jews could get on the trans-Siberian railway across Russia, then take a ship to Japan, where they could then get to an island called Curacao, which did not require entry visas. Some made it all the way, and some ended up staying in the port city of Kobe, Japan. Sugihara was moved by the crowds of hungry, dirty Jews who congregated outside of his door at the consul’s residence to beg for help. In the end, he had to retire from the Japanese foreign service in disgrace because he had defied his government, but he always maintained that he did the right thing and refused to be seen as a hero. He would tell people that anyone would do the same. Most people beg to differ; there were a lot of people who turned a blind eye to the suffering, but not Sugihara. He is the only Japanese person with a tree planted in his honor at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, in Israel.
The first half of this concert was a re-telling of the Sugihara story set to music. There was a seven-piece orchestra playing music specifically designed by the writer of the story. It was touching and beautiful, moving many to tears. Even in the English translations, the words put together a scenario of both despair and hope that lifted the spirit in the end.
The audience got to hear a real treat for the second half of the concert: pieces played by pianist Sasha Toperich from Sarajevo and Japanese violinist Eijin Nimura. Both men, in addition to being exquisite musicians, are Unesco Ambassadors for Peace, which means they are using their talents to further diplomacy between nations, a worthy goal. (Please click on their links to see their websites and hear some of their music)
Toperich played two solo pieces, one a vibrant wonderment by A.I. Khachaturian where the pianist’s fingers moved across and back on the keyboard at the speed of light, followed only by his head and flop of rich, black hair. The second was a lilting and familiar Chopin Nocturne.
Nimura’s solo piece was a few minutes of artistic magic and majesty. He played a Paganini opus, and I truly didn’t know a violin could be played or sound like that. The pizzicato with the left hand while bowing with the right left the listener bewildered and mesmerized. It was a force to be be reckoned with.
When the two men played together, the concert hall was electrified. They played, in a nod to the Israeli contingent, Bloch’s “Nigun No. 2 from Ba’al Shem Tov” and then a Brahms piece. The two masters, together, created an atmosphere of rich excitement and there wasn’t a person in the hall who wasn’t rapt with attention. It was an unbelievable pairing of talent, and afterward, they each bowed to the other.
After the Israeli Ambassador, a wonderful man named Nissim Ben Shitrit, who is talented in oratory and diplomatic arts, gave Nimura a certificate of Cultural Ambassadorship from Israel, the two artists played a beautiful encore.
All of the artists from the evening greeted guests in the lobby after the concert, and asked for donations for Tohoku, the perfect ending to a delightful evening. Everyone clearly gave generously, uplifted by the heights of the evening.
Such, as they say, is the power of music. I was privileged to be a part of it.
One of my favorite outlets for which to write is A Hopeful Sign. All of the stories on it are full of interesting ideas and thoughts, all carrying the same thread of positivity. In an increasingly negative world, its message is not just a breath of fresh air, but a full-on oxygen tank for navigating today’s confusing maze of a universe.
A few weeks ago I was privileged to be present at my friends’ daughters’ conversion at the Jewish Community of Japan. My take on it from the AHS site is HERE.
I would prefer you click on the link above to see the proper site, but here’s the text of the piece anyway. Enjoy
Running late, I hurried into the synagogue. The rabbi met me downstairs and started explaining the whole process as we walked toward the mikveh. We had a conversion to complete.
A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath and it has a number of uses. Women might immerse themselves in the mikveh monthly to purify themselves. Some men and women use it for purification before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. In Orthodox communities, some people will go to the mikveh every week before the Sabbath. Like most things in Judaism, there are very specific rules about the construction of the actual bath, including that a certain percentage of the water must be sourced from a flowing, natural base, such as rain water or a river. The most common use, especially here in Tokyo, is for purposes of conversion.
Judaism is a matrilineal religion – if your mother is a Jew, then you’re a Jew. When a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the children have to be converted. In some communities, and in the Reform and Reconstructionist sects of Judaism in general, only one parent has to be Jewish in order for a child to be Jewish and have a bar mitzvah but problems can arise later if a child who has not been officially converted wants to either move to Israel or marry a very religious person. So by “dipping” a kid in the mikveh, parents who intend to raise their kids as Jews are covering all bases with very little downside.
Some people might argue that a mikveh “dip” should happen before the child has awareness – around age one or two. But there is another school of thought that says a child should be aware of what’s happening and have a little bit of say in the matter, so it should happen around age ten or eleven. There are definite pros and cons for both sides here, but in this particular case, the parents had waited.
We first met the K family in 2007 when we moved back to Tokyo after just two years in Washington DC. Our kids went to school together at the lovely Montessori school nearby; both of their daughters are a year younger than my children. In this case, the father is Jewish and the mother is not, but both parents are committed to raising their children as Jews. I admire my darling friend G, the mom, for this; whereas it’s easy for me to do things like clean for Passover, or make certain ritual foods, for her it’s harder because she didn’t grow up with it. To an outsider like me, it looks like she throws herself into it wholeheartedly, committed to her family as a unit, making it stronger in their united worship.
Our friendship, while often taking place in the synagogue or around Jewish holidays, expanded far beyond those events. The adults would go out for dinner; the kids would have play-dates and sleepovers. The dad is forever in my husband’s heart because he eats the same type of matzo ball as my husband does, which I make under protest every year just for the two of them. After the earthquake, the older daughter ran a bike drive to collect bicycles for those in northern Japan who lost them in the quake. I interviewed her for an article. The younger daughter once came up to me, threw her arms around me and said, “YOU are my trusted adult.” Clearly a lesson on safety had just happened at school, but regardless, I was honored to have that place in her life. Our lives have been intertwined for the past five years.
And indeed it was the older daughter who presented the idea of the mikveh to her parents. Just months away from her own bat mitzvah, she wanted to complete this ritual, and her sister wanted to join her. My husband and I offered to help and be witnesses. I was designated to be in the mikveh itself with the girls since I’m female and my husband would sign the certificate as a witness, based on my testimony.
So on that day, with their mom beside them and me kneeling next to the bath, first one daughter, then the other performed the ancient ritual of purity. The girls had to come to the mikveh the same as the day they were born, so they could not wear jewelry or nail polish or any other adornment. One at a time, they dunked completely under the water, every hair on their head, I said the blessing over them thanking God for the ritual, and they dunked two more times. I signaled to the rabbi and witnesses that it was done, and the girls dressed.
After the papers were signed, all of us together went upstairs to the sanctuary and we opened the ark so the girls could go before the Torah for blessings. The rabbi covered each girl’s head with his hands and murmured the traditional prayers. He wished them both a life of Torah and good deeds and to grow in strength with the Jewish people. The girls’ faces shone as they looked up at the rabbi who had been their teacher and their friend, and their parents who loved them. The reverence was tangible in the air as the tears flowed freely down my face and my husband took my hand.
These girls and their parents, as I watched, embraced something that I take for granted. They were able to reaffirm their commitment to Judaism and its faith and practice. I was born a Jew, as was my husband, but they, as a family, were making this choice. Likely, since they had already been living a Jewish life, their everyday existence would not be changed. But that day was not one I will forget, nor will the K family.
Because we’re Jews and food is what we do, a celebratory dinner followed with the kids thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and the adults having so much fun that we nearly lost track of time. The experiences we have shared as friends, as fellow expats in the Tokyo community, and as Jews will extend and expand over space and time. There are some experiences and some people who stay with you in your heart forever regardless of geography. Much love and thanks to the K family for sharing this experience, and your lives, with us. We love you.
This week I want to share with you my latest post on the e-zine “A Hopeful Sign.” If you don’t know it, the site is truly beautiful, with posts from across the globe written by an interesting and dedicated group of people who think positively. I have been writing for them and receiving their posts daily for about 18 months now, and every day I am awed by the incredible photography, hopeful messages, and fascinating ideas the writers share.
This piece is about Bailey’s bar mitzvah, and the way it connected us all to the past while allowing us to glimpse the future. I look forward to hearing your comments.
Here’s the link to the site: http://ahopefulsign.com/making_a_difference/the-bar-mitzvah-boy
Please click the link, but if you would really prefer, the text is here:
Strangely enough it was indeed my child up there. Bailey, age thirteen, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah. Literally translated, it means “son of the commandments” and it’s the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony that recognizes a boy’s entrance into adulthood in the eyes of world Jewry. It generally involves leading a service and reading from the Torah, all in Hebrew. So this is something for which Bailey had been studying for months.
The unusual part of Bailey’s bar mitzvah, however, is that he is doing it twice. The first one was in August in the U.S. with our entire family, and the second one is in October with our Tokyo community. It was important to Bailey to have this celebration with his extended family, all of whom are in the U.S., but also with his own friends, at his own synagogue, with the rabbi who had been teaching him for the past three years, even though that place was halfway across the globe. So while I kept on him to study, he was largely self-motivated, wanting to please his grandparents in the U.S. and his beloved rabbi in Tokyo, even if that meant learning two different services.
One of the beauties of Judaism is that the readings from the Torah are cyclical and proscribed. I feel very comfortable knowing that every Jew around the world is reading the same section of the Torah on any given Saturday. But given that parameter, it meant that Bailey would have to learn a different portion for the October bar mitzvah than the August one. And still, he never batted an eyelash.
On this special day, Bailey carried with him, on his person, proof of his heritage. He was wearing my grandfather’s mezuzah, a casing containing a special prayer, around his neck; he wore my other grandfather’s watch. He wore my husband’s grandfather’s tie-tack, and as the icing on the cake, he wore his grandfather’s tallis, or prayer shawl, which his grandfather’s grandfather had worn to his bar mitzvah. Bailey had a piece of ceremonial regalia from his great-great-grandfather.
Only moments before starting the service, Bailey had dragged me away from the gathering crowd to a private room where no one could see us. “I can’t do it,” he said, and started to cry. My first reaction, which thankfully I didn’t show, was panic. Luckily rationality took over and I just held him and let him cry for a moment. Any mother would tell you that sometimes all a kid needs is a good hug, not words or even treats. Just a hug. “It’s a lot of pressure,” I told him, hoping to validate his feelings. “Do you want to do a quick run-through right this second?”
Bailey nodded and dried his eyes while I snuck out and retrieved his study materials. We had a quick, ten-minute, last-second rehearsal right there. When he was through, he stood up and looked straight at me. He looked so dapper, that boy of mine. He wore his first full-on suit, a blue striped shirt and a snazzy tie. The shoes, straight from Nordstrom’s, tied the whole outfit together.
I searched his eyes as he looked at me. “You’re okay,” I said to him and he nodded. I repeated it. “You are okay.”
This boy, this baby of my heart, as I used to call him when he was little, stood up in front of 120 of our closest friends and family members and performed like a champ. No one would know that he had had a little meltdown only moments prior. He sang with a rich, strong tone and spoke clearly without a waver to his voice. He delivered his d’var Torah, a word of Torah that explained what he read and his interpretations of it, without missing a beat. He bantered lightly with the rabbi, and hugged his grandparents when they went up to share the sweet moment with him.
At times like these, it’s hard to recognize the sometimes-surly child who makes an appearance at the breakfast table each morning, or the scatterbrained kid who can never find all of the elements of a homework assignment at one time. But it is moments like these that give us hope. It is moments like these that connect us to the past, yet I could see a glimpse of the man my son has the potential to become. In an increasingly cynical world where religion sometimes takes a backseat to other, more modern activities, watching a child take his place next to his ancestors as a young man proud of his heritage and ready to take on all of the rights and responsibilities thereof, is like receiving a gift of a vision of the future.
After the service, there was dinner and dancing, and Bailey danced like a brick wall had been lifted from his shoulders, as well he should have. Joy, hope and pride all mixed together to form a twinkle in his eye and he whirled and played. I have a feeling that I will recognize that twinkle many times in the years to come. I cannot wait to watch.
Wednesday at sundown started the Jewish holiday of Yom Hashoah. Inaugurated in 1953, by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, the holiday commemorates the Holocaust and memorializes those who died therein. There are many ways to mark the holiday, and each Jewish community does it differently, but the common thread is memorialization and remembering.
Here in Japan, we have a special way of marking the holiday because we have the Beit Shalom choir. Beit Shalom is a group of Japanese people founded in 1938 who believe that the Jews are indeed G-d’s chosen people. (Hereis an article from the Jewish Week of the Bay Area of California about the topic.) They have no interest in following Jewish tradition, converting or converting
Jews to anything else, but they are staunch supporters of the Jews. When the group was first coming together, their leader, Takeji Otsuki, had a vision that a state of Israel would be founded in ten years, and indeed in 1948, the State of Israel was founded. And therefore, the Beit Shalom are Zionists, interested in all things Israeli.
The choir is their centerpiece. The music they sing is traditional Hebrew and Yiddish liturgy. They do it with beautiful grace and great respect. The sounds they make would rival any group of Jewish voices, and the strength and character of their voices make believers out of everyone, even for that one moment.
The service last night was beautiful in its entirety. Our Rabbi, Antonio DeGesu,
emphasized to the congregation the need for the world to remember that terrible time in history and the importance, as time goes by, for children to be told the stories and take in the identities of those who were lost. We get further away from that time so there will be fewer survivors left, but we must not forget and we must rely on the next generation – the generation of my children – to carry on the traditions of memory.
Not only did the Beit Shalom Choir grace us with their music, but there were six readings including snippets from authors like Elie Weisel and the poet Nelly Sachs. And then the Rabbi ultimately got up to readEl Maleh Rachamim, a memorial prayer, combined with a special version of the prayer for the dead in which the names of the German Concentration camps are inserted within the text, making the words truly and hauntingly beautiful.
The evening transported us from the big city of Tokyo to the streets of Jerusalem, where Jews and Japanese could walk hand-in-hand in the shining face of G-d, remembering those who came before us and whose death allowed us to worship freely.
I often talk about Bailey and his spiritual journey, but I don’t often speak about Sydney. It could be because Bailey is older and his bar mitzvah is right around the corner, but it could also be that Bailey relates to the religious/spiritual aspects of Judaism in a different way than Sydney does. Sydney, if you must know, is a Jew’s Jew. Her first concern is the food. She loves any and all ethnic food, and of course Jewish food is no exception – perhaps one of her favorite foods in the world is bagels and lox. Like I said, a good Jew.
Two weeks ago, we were at Shabbat morning services and Bailey wasn’t feeling well. It was a small group at synagogue, just enough for a minyan, a group of ten needed to recite certain prayers, and bring out the Torah from the ark. The rabbi called me to the Torah, and normally Bailey would have joined me up there on the bimah in front of the congregation, but as I mentioned, he wasn’t feeling 100%. Often I leave Sydney at home during services, too, but that week she was with us also.
When I went up to the Torah, the rabbi motioned for me to bring Sydney with me. It was her first time to go with her mom for an aliyah. Having analiyah is a formal and predictable thing – I approached the Torah, said the prayers, the congregation responded and the Torah reader read the portion of the week. I said the prayer to close myaliyah and that was that. Or was it?
Something I love about Judaism is that every single synagogue across the globe is doing the exact same thing. I can tell you the order of the service and the portion of the Torah that will be read. I can even predict with some reliability, what the rabbi will discuss as a sermon – a d’var Torah – word of Torah – based on certain readings and interpretations. Judasim, you might know, is a matrilineal religion, passed through the mother. From generation to generation, from mother to child, and in this case, my daughter.
I showed her the Hebrew of the prayers as I said them. I put her in front of me to watch the rabbi read the Torah, moving the pointer across the hand-written, ancient text lovingly as he chanted the story in familiar tunes and rhythms. I held her hand on the wood of the scrolls to share the reading – to physically, as well as spiritually be part of the Torah as it was being read for us. As recently as one hundred years ago, neither she nor I would have been able to go in front of the Torah – women didn’t do that back then. Not only that, but women didn’t wear prayer shawls – tallit – either, and I proudly wear the one my in-laws bought me not long after Marc and I were married.
When I see Sydney, I see the future. I see potential and beauty. I see a young lady who understands where she comes from and it helps propel her into where she’s going. Sydney is strong and opinionated and she is talkative and interested. “That was fun, Mom,” she said when the whole thing was done. She has a nonchalant way about her that lets me know she is thinking hard. “That was my first time, but it’s definitely not my last.” I knew from the tone of her voice and the still-limited number of words she used that she was processing it all, and we would be discussing the experience in great detail, in its component parts, for weeks to come. I squeezed her hand, which is still quite small in mine.
My blessing, my gift, is this girl of mine. It is my privilege to raise her as the ancient blessings proclaim, to a life of spirituality and righteousness. The path may not be easy, but it is our path and we walk it proudly.
Most of the country goes along with the Western Gregorian calendar since the war. However, there are still holidays that follow Buddhist and Shinto holidays, such as the celebration of seasonal equinoxes. There are a number of “Lucky” days according to the traditions of “Rokuyo”.
It turns out that the day on which I am looking to have the bar mitzvah is a Taian day – the very luckiest day to hold celebrations and ceremonies of any kind. Any person who is getting married in Japan checks the calendar carefully for the series of days that are Taian and tries to hold the wedding that day. Of course that means that everyone plans very far ahead as well. I am having a challenge planning the party following the bar mitzvah ceremony because so many place are already booked for October!
However, all that means to me is that I have to look harder because of course I want to hedge my bets – a bar mitzvah on a Taian day can only mean double the luck! We’ll take all the luck we can get.
This is a chart of the days from a website called Seiyaku, which is a site of random publications about religious symbolism.
|Days of 六曜 (Rokuyo)||Significance|
|先勝 – Sakigachi (also known as Senkachi or Sensho)||Good luck in the morning, bad luck in the afternoon|
|友引 – Tomobiki||Good luck all day, except at noon|
|先負 – Sakimake, (also known as Senmake or Senbu)||Bad luck in the morning, good luck in the afternoon|
|仏滅 – Butsumetsu||Unlucky all day, as it is the day Buddha died|
|大安 – Taian||‘The day of great peace’, the finest day for ceremonies|
|赤口 – Shakku, (also known as Shakko or Jakko)||Bad luck all day, except at noon|