BAGELS, LOX AND SUSHI
It’s hard to find a minyan in Japan, but that doesn’t stop the few Jews there squabbling over mixed seating in the Tokyo synagogue and the choice of their solitary rabbi.
You don’t have to leave Tokyo these days to find bagels and lox in Japan. The recently opened Tribeca Deli, on the city’s upscale Rippongi Boulevard, serves up very creditable Jewish-style nosherei. Finding a Jew, however, is a lot more difficult.
Among its 127 million inhabitants, Japan, to be sure, does harbor some Jews, but no one knows exactly how many – or more accurately, how few. Best estimates are 1,000-2,000. Trouble is, the majority of Japan’s Jews don’t sit still long enough to be counted: Most are transients, mainly businessmen and high-techies flying in and out of the country, or students of Japanese language and culture, or young Israelis on Asian excursions who stop in Tokyo to earn some money by peddling on the streets or (though this boggles the mind) by teaching English.
A tiny congregation, Ohel Shelomoh, exists in Osaka’s port city of Kobe. Its dozen or so member families are descend-ants of Sephardi Jews and others who washed up in Japan during various wars in the 20th century. A small number of Jewish businessmen and their families reside in Yokohama, where a few European Jews settled in the 1860s. Yokohama has no synagogue, but does boast Japan’s only Jewish cemetery. The Asian nation’s remaining Jews are found almost entirely in Tokyo.
The capital has a Habad House, but the director, Mendi Sudakevich, runs no religious services there. He dedicates himself to Israeli kids at loose ends on Tokyo’s streets. Jews seeking services and social activities are directed to the Jewish Community Center, formally known as the Jewish Community of Japan, a handsome brick building in the tony Hiroo neighborhood. For Tokyo, essentially that’s it.
Given their extreme minority status and isolation from other Jewish communities, one might assume Jewish Tokyo is a tightly knit and unified community. But these are Jews, remember.
“Unfortunately, it’s a very fragmented community,” says Todd Walzer, a 44-year-old American-Israeli businessman who has lived in Tokyo for the past 12 years. “Tokyo’s Jewish Community Center has a fine synagogue, classroom facilities, a kosher dining room, even a swimming pool. But a great many Jews in the city prefer membership in the American Club. They think it’s more prestigious, better for business contacts. They might send their kids to the center for Sunday school or for bar mitzvah instruction. But we won’t see the parents here except maybe on the High Holy Days. And when they have the bar mitzvah, they’ll hold the reception at the American Club or some other fancy address.”
That leaves the Jewish Community of Japan, says Walzer, with its small core of regulars. These just manage to muster a minyan in the center’s third-floor Beit David synagogue on Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh and, by request, maybe for a mid-week memorial service. Otherwise the minyan will be augmented by the occasional Jewish tourist or visiting businessman, and perhaps by a Japanese who comes by out of curiosity.
But Jewish Tokyo’s divisions hardly stop at the synagogue door. Ostensibly modern Orthodox, as is Torah reader Walzer, the congregation until recently was unusual in having three seating sections: men, women and mixed. Such was the compromise of a wildly diverse and often contentious congregation made up at any given time of Jews from Israel, the U.S., Britain, Australia, Western Europe, Russia, Gibraltar, South Africa and all points between – not to mention the considerable number of Japanese women converts married to Western Jews.
The congregation’s ever-shifting population recently voted to drop the three-tier seating arrangement. The latest decision is to offer two minyans, one with separate seating and one with mixed. But the seating question pales in comparison to the congregation’s problem of finding and agreeing on a rabbi.
Although Beit David uses the Orthodox Art Scroll prayer book, in recent years the congregation’s spiritual leader has more often than not been a Conservative rabbi. Indeed, its latest rabbi was the Reconstructionist-trained Elliot Marmon, a 60-year-old American who had spent most of his career as a U.S. Air Force chaplain. But the Beit David board voted last spring not to renew Rabbi Marmon’s three-year contract.
“He was a very lovely man,” says congregation member Marshall Gitler, an American-born financial analyst with some 15 years’ residence in Japan, “but he just couldn’t satisfy the needs and demands of this very disparate community.”
Marmon, who, with his Israeli wife, Ilana, left Japan in mid-summer to take up a pulpit in the small town of Glens Falls in rural New York State, was guarded when he spoke to us the night before his departure. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “I really like Japan, and frankly I would have been happy to stay on. But the congregation, well, it’s even more of a mixed bag than most shuls. You know, two Jews, three views.”
Losing Rabbi Marmon was one thing, replacing him was another. For months Tokyo’s Jews flew candidates to Japan for interviews and tryouts, only to fail to agree on a hire. Finally, with the High Holy Days looming, the congregation offered a six-month contract to Rabbi Henry Noah, 45, a former World Union of Jewish Students program director and a longtime resident of Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood.
Todd Walzer, who favored renewing Rabbi Marmon’s contract, is philosophical over the leadership decision. “Yes, there’s been a bit of turmoil here lately,” he says over Shabbat lunch in the center’s social hall after services. “The fact that the search for a permanent rabbi goes on, that come December we’ll have to make a new decision, that shows how unsettled things are here. In addition, the Jewish Community of Japan is having financial difficulties – our investments have taken a hit in the same way Japan’s economy has taken a hit. And for some reason the number of our regular committed members has been waning. No one is sure why, but there’s always a certain amount of transience.”
Walzer pokes at his salads and pickled herring – the Japanese Jew’s answer to sushi. “But what can you do?” he asks rhetorically. “Like any small congregation anywhere, you push on, you struggle to keep things together.”
In other words, it’s hard to be a Jew – even, or maybe especially, in Japan. Walzer smiles wryly. “OK,” he allows, “it’s an unusual community in Japan. In fact, we even have a few Jews here who celebrate Shabbat over two days – Saturday and Sunday. Like because we’re on the ‘wrong side’ of the International Date Line. Yeah, we’re a little different here.”