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.

A Friday Special: Friends, Family and the Mikveh (A Hopeful Sign)

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.

The Bar Mitzvah Boy – On “A Hopeful Sign”

Photo by Fotik, all rights reserved.

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:

I didn’t know that poised, confident young man who stood before the congregation leading the service.  He bore a strong resemblance to my 13-year-old son, but surely my child wasn’t as talented and engaging as this boy – or was he?

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.

Aiding Tohoku for the Holidays

Unloading a Second Harvest truck in Ishinomaki, Japan (courtesy of Second Harvest)

This past Sunday, my kids and I went over to the Jewish Community of Japan (JCJ), where we belong and the kids go to Hebrew school, and we participated in the adopt-a-family program from Second Harvest, Japan.  It was a wonderful experience in community and helping others for both of my children, and of course for me.

Second Harvest is a charity created in 2000 by a collaborative of food banks in Tokyo with a mission to collect food that would essentially go to waste from various venues around the city, and get it to people who would otherwise go hungry.  Ergo the name: if the first harvest is the commercial preparation of the food, then this is the second harvest.

Since the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011, Second Harvest has taken on another role: disaster relief.  They have delivered literally tons of food to the disaster-stricken areas in northern Japan.  Here is an excerpt from their most recent blog post: After eight months since the disaster, most debris has been cleared, and disaster areas are relatively clean now. More and more stores are reopened, and local people can enjoy shopping. But in areas devastated by the tsunami, local businesses have not recovered yet. Survivors there have difficulties in going for shopping without cars or bicycles. Furthermore, many people have lost their jobs. Food supplies for them are still strongly needed. 2HJ wishes to ask for your unfailing support so we can continue to provide relief supplies for survivors until they rebuild their lives and stand on their feet.

The latest project from Second Harvest is to partner with schools and other organizations for an adopt-a-family program.  The JCJ asked their membership if they would like to adopt a family and then registered with Second Harvest for those families.  In return, the JCJ received specific instructions on how to pack a box of supplies for the families.  The boxes had to include staples of Japanese life: rice, dashi-stock, mirin, soy sauce, and seaweed.  (Those are clearly not American staples, but they are Japanese staples)  The JCJ members were told exactly how many people they were feeding and their approximate ages so we could include small presents if we had space and weight.  It was crucial that no box be over twenty kilograms.

The family for whom my kids and I packed the box was just three adults.  I went to a shop and bought hats and neck-warmers for all three of them – choosing items that were useful, but adding little weight or space.

It took us just minutes to put all of the items we bought into the box, label it with the correct number to reach the right family, and then tape it up for delivery.  My daughter and son wrote a note to enclose.  The kids didn’t talk while they packed, but we had talked plenty about the people less fortunate than we were with the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  Our talk featured a large dose of gratitude, to which the children were particularly receptive.

The high school where I teach is doing the same program and will be packing boxes for Second Harvest next week.  And so the lessons will continue.

There was such a joyous, yet somber feeling at the JCJ as all the children packed.  In all, there were 35 boxes done that day.  The kids all feel the value of giving to others – and doing it for people in the country in which they live, especially for those who did not fare as well as they did on that fateful day last March.

A special thank-you to Second Harvest and to the JCJ for making it happen.  Please see the Second Harvest website for information on how to donate to this wonderful cause.  Help is still needed and gratefully accepted.