The Beit Shalom Choir at Yom Hashoah Services

The Beit Shalom Choir at the Jewish Community of JapanWednesday 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

My son, Bailey, did the reading of a selection from Elie Weisel's _Night_

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,

Rabbi Antonio

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.

Spirituality, Judaism, and My Daughter

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.

Lucky Calendar Days

In planning my son’s bar mitzvah (coming of age in the Jewish tradition – more on this later) here in Tokyo, I have come up against another tradition in the Japanese calendar.

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


My family and I are celebrating Hanukkah in Hawaii this year.   I wrote about it for my monthly contribution to “A Hopeful Sign” and you can read it here.  Here is the text in its entirety:

Celebrating the Miracle of Hanukkah


This year, my husband, the kids and I decided to spend two weeks in Hawaii over Hanukkah instead of heading to the mainland of the U.S. to visit our family. The four of us have had a heck of a year with new jobs, new schools and other events all compressed into short time-frames. A vacation was definitely in order – and so the four of us devised a plan to put the real meaning of Hanukkah into action.

Hanukkah is actually a minor festival on the Jewish calendar, paling in comparison to the “superbowl” of holidays that take place in the autumn or even Passover in the spring. It has gained prominence in Western countries because of its relative proximity to Christmas. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the Jews’ victory over the huge Roman army with its small group of ragtag warriors called the Macabees. The word “Hanukkah” means rededication and it is used because after they prevailed, the Jews had to rededicate their Templein Jerusalem after the Romans had run through it, destroying everything. That’s the real miracle of Hanukkah, but the one everyone remembers is the one with the oil. You see, in the ancient Templein Jerusalem, as well as in every synagogue across the globe today, there is a light, called the ner tamid, that burns over the ark, which holds the Torah. When the Jews were cleaning and rededicating their Temple, there was only a tiny bit of oil to light the ner tamid – it would never last the week or so needed to get more oil.  But they didn’t have a choice; they set out to get the oil. The second miracle of Hanukkah is that the light did not go out – it lasted the entire eight days until the search party returned with more oil.  The light over the Torah never dimmed. Thus we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days and eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and donuts.

Today, the Jews light a menorah, an eight-armed candelabra. We light one candle for each night – one on the first night, two on the second night, on and on for eight nights. Until recently, Jews just gave kids a little bit of money, called gelt, on one of the nights. Now, with the commercialization of our times, kids get elaborate gifts like their non-Jewish counterparts. The irony is that though Hanukkah falls over Christmas this year, as it started on December 20th; some years it comes nowhere near Christmas due to the lunar calendar that Jews still use. The holiday falls on the same day in the Jewish calendar every year, the 25th of Kislev.

Of course there’s a holiday meal – but it can be any food that goes with potato pancakes and donuts. There aren’t cards to send or cookies to bake, or even decorations to put up. Some people might say I’m missing out, but I don’t feel badly about it. We have other traditions like songs and the dreidel game – a game played by children with a four-sided top celebrating the miracles of Hanukkah as the top spells out the words Nes Gadol Haya Sham – a great miracle happened there.

Even here in Hawaii we have a tiny menorah. The four of us sing the blessings that thank God for the miracles of Hanukkah, and perhaps one or two traditional songs. We tell the story. We laugh together. We have been talking about the past year’s antics as we anticipate the new year. In short, we are rededicating ourselves to each other after the long year that has past and gearing up for the challenges ahead. We may not have any miracles on hand today, at least not ones that we can see. But for now, the spirit of the miraculous and the essence of rededication are all the miracle we need.


Me, my grandfather and my husband Marc, Hanukkah 2010

My grandfather, Nathan Ledewitz, died last week at age 94.  He lived a long, wonderful life full of fun and friends.  He was the type of guy that up until he was 92, he took his girlfriend dancing every Saturday night.  When you asked him how old he was, he would answer, “I’m young at heart; I have all my hair; and I drive at night!”

Grandpa had this great tradition that I believe his mother started, which was to send a Hanukkah card with a check in it to every single grandchild every year. (Okay, I think in my great-grandmother’s case it was a crisp $5 bill, which was a lot of money not only considering the time, but also the fact that she had 20+ grandchildren!)  Not only did my grandfather do that, but he also sent a birthday card and later anniversary cards to everyone, every year.  Grandpa has three sons and daughters-in-law, six grandchildren, four of whom are married, and 8 great grandchildren.  My dad’s brother divorced and got  married a second time to an amazing lady with two children of her own.  Grandpa just added them, their spouses and later their children to the birthday and Hanukkah list! Family is family.

My grandparents divorced and my grandfather remarried well before I

Grandpa with his lovely lady-friend, Rae Blumberg, summer 2009

was born.  His second wife died over twelve years ago, and my grandfather managed to do all that card sending alone for many years.

Just about five or so years ago, my cousin Jenn and I started helping Grandpa write his Hanukkah cards and the checks.  It was a bit of a painful process since he wouldn’t let a check out of the checkbook without marking every piece of information down and then balancing the checkbook.  Left to my own devices, I would have done the balancing once at the end, but not Grandpa – he did it with every single check.  There was no compromising.  That same  year, he complained about the big job of getting the cards every month at the store.  Driving wasn’t as fun anymore for him, and errands took him forever.

That very December, without asking him, I went to the card store and bought ALL of the cards on his list for the whole year.  I then addressed every envelope, and put a sticky note on it with the name, occasion, and date.  I put the cards in ziploc bags by month.  I kept thinking that if he was mad or hated it, I would just return the cards – I didn’t write in any of them.

Grandpa, my dad and me, putting the mezuzzah on his new home in 2009

Well, he loved it.  He found it so easy to just do the cards once a month.  The upshot of it was that if your birthday or anniversary was right at the start of the month, the card would be a little late, but if your occasion was at the end of the month, it could end up being weeks early.  Who cared?  He took the time to write the checks, sign the cards and mail them.  Plus, as an added bonus, I got to pick out the cards.  I wouldn’t normally buy cards for all those people, so I would tell our family that they could imagine that a little of the card was from me, too.

This past year as Grandpa’s health worsened, he had someone else do the cards – a bookkeeper or my dad, who helped care for him.  But he insisted the cards go out right up until quite recently.

This will be the first Hanukkah of my life without a card from my grandpa.  He always signed them, “Enjoy! Love, Grandpa Nate.”

And this will be the first year in many that I don’t get to go to the card store and pick out cards for an entire year for him to send.

It’s silly, isn’t it?  My grandfather did a thousand things with me or for me over the forty years of my life, and I am stuck on those damned cards.  He had me at his house in Florida every February of my childhood. He would come with me on clothes-shopping outings when I was a teenager (brave man!). He was there when I walked across the stage with my college degree, my master’s degree and my doctorate.  He said the prayers over the bread at my wedding. He held my son, his first great-grandchild, at his bris. He taught both of my children how to play gin rummy.  And yet, after all that, it’s the cards that are on my mind the most.

Much of family – what makes up a family – is connection and tradition.  So when a family member dies and the tradition dies or changes necessarily, it is those little aspects that are missed.  The cards weren’t particularly meaningful for most of my life; what has meaning is that the tradition is over with my grandfather’s death.

I am so fortunate to have had the cards for this long.  And I know they will remain as part of family lore for generations.  That, my friends, is the meaning of tradition.

Jewish Japan – and the Mixing Thereof

The belly dancer and her scarf, accompanied by the Klezmer sounds of the accordian and the clarinet - percussion off to the side.

It is Israel-Japan Friendship month, so declared by the Israel Students’ Association of Japan.  The events of the month include art exhibits, movie nights and music and dance demonstrations.  (See the calendar of events here.)  Recently I have had the opportunity to attend a couple of the events, and I have found it amazing and astounding to discover the true meaning of collaboration espoused in the organizers, attendees and everyone involved.

Just two days ago was the big event of the month, the party at the Jewish Community Center of Japan.  The highlight for me had to be the music.  Klezmer is a style of music that originated among the Jews of Eastern Europe, and it has a deep, sonorous sound, reminiscent of the human voice with its capabilities of expressing both great joy and great sorrow.  The resonant tones of the clarinet and the jumpy accordian mix together with thumping percussion instruments to make it impossible for any listeners to keep their feet still.   Often there are ringing violins added to the mix in many Klezmer bands.  Since the nineteenth century Klezmer has also been associated with the Yiddish speaking population in the United States and around the world.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw that the Klezmer band we were joyfully hearing was comprised of only Japanese people.  Even the accompanying belly dancer (not a particularly Jewish thing, but fun nonetheless)  was Japanese.

There were more than 250 people at this party, many of them Japanese but a lot of them Jewish and/or Israeli as well.  Everyone laughed and drank and danced the night away together – cultural differences melted away in a blissful sound of divine orchestration.

It’s never easy to be a Jew anywhere in the world, but I often feel that it’s easier here than in other spots around the globe.  The Japanese are interested in the Jews – they are a curiosity, this monotheistic group of pre-Christian people.  And the Japanese do not have the prejudices of other cultures with regards to religion, since their own is more cultural than related to any heavenly figure.  On this particular night, there was more unity than difference, and it was delightful to watch.  The two groups are a model for diplomacy.  That might just be the ticket – Klezmer diplomacy.

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.