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.