Multicultural Parties for Kids

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

Bailey shows the teens how to spin the dreidel.

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

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

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

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

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


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.