Proud “Jewpanese” Americans
“Prediction is very difficult,” the great physicist Niels Bohr once remarked, “especially about the future!” We can’t predict our future. All we can do is make happy plans and try our best to see them to fruition. My own happy plans include marrying my fiance Yurika and, eventually, raising children who will successfully balance their mother’s Japanese heritage with their father’s Jewish religion and Jewish-American heritage. Can it be done? It’s not impossible, and in fact a growing number of families balance this kind of multiculturalism every day. But knowing about the larger trend and actually accomplishing it on an individual level are two different things.
I’ve laid out the challenges in front of me like a shopping list, perhaps with a more acute clarity thanks to my work at the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.joi.org), an organization dedicated to lowering barriers into the Jewish community for intermarried families. (Yes, kind of like that classic TV commercial, “I’m not only the [assistant executive director], I’m also a client!”) While our focus at JOI is on intermarried families raising Jewish children, our work has inevitably led to the realization that a more inclusive Jewish community speaks to many different groups of people, including Jews of color, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Jews, and unaffiliated single Jews as well. All of these people can unite around the idea that the Jewish community is healthier when it’s more diverse.
Through my job I’ve been able to hear from hundreds of diverse Jewish families, and in learning of their struggles I can anticipate some of the challenges that await my own future family. And I can anticipate some of the triumphs as well. One of the most profound moments of my work came on a site visit to a JOI-sponsored program in the San Francisco area called “Mosaic Camp: a Jewish Weekend for Multiracial Families” www.tawonga.org/wf_mosaic.html. I spent the weekend secluded in beautiful campgrounds right outside Yosemite National Park, talking, singing, playing and praying (and of course eating) with several dozen wonderful children and their parents. Many of the kids were adopted from Asian and Latin American countries, some were born to interracial couples and Jews of color, but all were fully-identifying Jews thrilled to be surrounded by other multiracial kids when the rest of the year they’re in the tiny minority of their Jewish schools and synagogues.
Celebrating that Shabbat morning with multiracial Jewish children outside in the woods, singing Hebrew songs on log benches under a canopy of leaves, I couldn’t help but picture my own children there one day, participating in that or a similar program. It was a tremendous feeling of hopefulness. It was living, breathing proof that Judaism is not a race or color, but a peoplehood defined by the people themselves. I also couldn’t help but think of all the naysayers in the organized Jewish community who only see Mosaic Camp as the rare exception to the rule rather than as a piece of the blueprint for the future of Judaism in America.
It’s not easy, that’s for sure. Every family at that camp can attest to struggles around race and identity that an all-white, all-Jewish household may not experience. But it’s up to the Jewish community to help alleviate those struggles, in the name of shalom bayit (the Jewish value of “peace in the home”), rather than exacerbate the struggles with negativity or worse, racism and exclusion. The weekend at Mosaic Camp also served as a reminder of one of the primary challenges for my own relationship: the Shabbat morning service was the first I’d attended in years, maybe a decade. Like many (perhaps most) Jews, I don’t connect to my heritage through the religious aspects of Judaism. That makes it extremely difficult to explain to Yurika why I’m so adamant about raising Jewish kids, having them become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and having her help me do it!
Similar to cultural Jews, the Japanese are some of the least religious people on the planet. They appreciate the trappings of religion, in their proper place and time. There’s an expression that “the Japanese are Shinto when they’re born, Christian when they marry, and Buddhist when they die,” because they use different religious services for each of those lifecycle events! Yurika’s own total lack of religion is both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, there will be no competing religion besides Judaism in our household. On the other hand, she has no common point-of-reference–the way, say, a lapsed Catholic might–as she begins to learn about the Jewish religion. And she is beginning to learn.
Upon our engagement, we made a deal that I would learn to speak Japanese if she would take an Introduction to Judaism course. Let’s just say that neither of us is yet excelling in our respective undertakings, but at least we’ve made the commitment, and we understand it may take a lifetime of study together. My challenge and goal is to spark a Jewish identity in her. I’ve been to Japan three times, love the Japanese people, and feel some kind of connection to them even though I know I’ll never be “Japanese.” Yurika could actually become “Jewish,” but right now she feels no connection to the Jewish people. We’re talking about visiting Israel as one possible spark. She’s enjoyed Friday-night services at a few synagogues–that’s another possible spark. And she’s interested in finding additional sparks. I anticipate that having children will speed the process on both our parts.
Those children have a busy schedule ahead of them, even though they’re years away from being born. First, they’ll learn Japanese as they’re learning to speak English, then they’ll go to a JCC preschool for their preliminary Jewish education. Right now we live within walking distance of perhaps the only institution in the world where they can do both under the same roof: the Sol Goldman YMHA in Manhattan runs classes for Japanese children to learn Japanese (nothing Jewish involved) and also hosts a more traditional JCC preschool. That’s because our neighborhood, the East Village, is the “Little Tokyo” of New York, home to thousands of Japanese ex-pats and a great place for a “Jewpanese” couple like ourselves to live. Within a two-block radius of our apartment, Yurika can shop in no less than three different Japanese supermarkets and eat in countless authentic Japanese restaurants, while I can nosh at the word-famous Second Avenue Deli and browse at the Strand, an amazing used bookstore (which I somehow consider a Jewish activity!). Unfortunately, I’ve seen walk-in closets larger than our studio apartment, so having kids here will be a major challenge. We’re painfully aware of the larger spaces–but more-limited lifestyle choices–available if and when we move to a suburban neighborhood.
I describe Yurika and myself as “Jewpanese” because our identity as a couple is inextricably intertwined between Jewish and Japanese culture. Our children will be even more “Jewpanese” because the combination will live inside of each of them. It’s a relatively new identity, of course, shared by only a handful of people globally. But if what I’ve seen through my work is any indication, my kids won’t feel a great internal conflict about who they are. Rather, any conflict might come in their interaction with the external world. For example, to the Japanese they will always be gaijin, foreigners, even if we raise them in Tokyo instead of New York. And segments of the American Jewish community will also be quick to disown them because Yurika isn’t (yet) Jewish. This won’t discourage me from raising them Jewish, of course, though I’ve seen how it can discourage others.
I can’t predict how my kids will turn out. Parenthood is uncharted territory for all who undertake it. If they’re anything like the kids I met at the Mosaic Camp weekend it would certainly be a blessing. Their religion will be 100 percent Jewish and their culture will be half Jewish, half Japanese…and 100 percent American! As for their children being Jewish, if the community hasn’t found a way to attract and welcome in the growing diversity of our people by the time I have grandkids, it won’t much matter anyway, will it?
Paul Golin is assistant executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. His pre-launch website Jewpanese.com (www.Jewpanese.com) will serve as an Internet community for Jewish-Japanese couples and their children.