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.

Anne Frank Manga – a Wednesday Special

Most of you know the story of Anne Frank.  She was the Dutch Jewish child who went into hiding during WWII and wrote a famous diary about her experiences.  Ultimately she and her family were found and most of them, she included, died at the hands of the Nazis in the concentration camps.  Her diary, however, carries messages of life and hope for all who read it.  Most children in middle school in the U.S. read it.  Though it’s slightly scary in parts and raw emotion in others, the voice and tone of it are that of an average 14-year-old, and it appeals to a population of that age.

In Japan, the school children do not always just read the book, Anne Frank: Diary of A Young Girl like American children.  Many of them read the MANGA version of the book.  I received one as a gift this week.  Enjoy the photos that I have here.

It starts off in the beginning depicting Hitler

This is a drawing of the layout of the "secret annex"

Images of Anne and her family in Bergen Belsen

The last pages show a few real photos of Anne and her family that are included in the traditional book as well.