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A Japanese Bar-Mitzvah Boy Comes of Age in Israel

The bar mitzvah became a magazine’s cover story circulated to synagogues throughout Israel, and my son’s fame became legendary—literally.

Seiji Hillel bar mitzvah on Magazine’s Cover

It was a no-brainer to hold my son’s bar mitzvah in Tokyo.  Seiji Hillel, my bicultural son, was born and raised in Tokyo and was firm in his Japanese identity. His Jewish identity was on wobblier ground. As his Jewish mother, I wanted my religion to have value for him too.

Aligning with Torah values came about as a result of the arrival of two Chabad Houses in Tokyo. In 2000, I became curious about my unexplored Jewish identity. I had grown up in a Conservative Ashkenazi-leaning home. My family’s constant refrain was: “Marry someone Jewish. But please, don’t marry anyone more religious than us!” In April 1991, I married a Japanese acupuncturist who knew nothing about Judaism, but appreciated Jewish chutzpah. I eagerly explored his culture and religious traditions through Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. But with the arrival of children, I realized that I missed the Jewish traditions I had grown up with. It was time to return to them.

Our family started to observe Shabbat with the Tokyo Chabad House community, where boys wearing tsitsis welcomed Hillel like a brother. He was easily able to navigate between two extreme traditions and cultures over heaping plates of cholent and challah.

As Hillel’s bar mitzvah age approached, I planned a family trip to Israel in 2013. My last visit was in 1979.  The Tel Aviv skyline and Jerusalem rail system made the country unrecognizable. But some things hadn’t changed. In Safed, missile threats rained down on our first night. I was confronted with the intensity and unpredictability of life in the country that I was so eager to present to my Japanese children as their homeland too.

A camel ride, swimming in the Dead Sea, and strolling through the Old City Market in Jerusalem were game-changers for Hillel. He warmed to the idea of having his bar mitzvah in Israel while we spent the Rosh Hashana holidays in Givatayim with distant relatives. They encouraged Hillel to have a beautiful bar mitzvah at an Orthodox shul as large and potentially intimidating as our Tokyo Chabad House was cosy and modest. My son was duly impressed and returned to Japan fired up to work over Skype with an Israeli tutor, who prepared him from scratch to chant his parsha, and the Friday night and Saturday morning prayers they would lead together on his big day.

Givat Mordechai, a long-established shul, attracts more than 300 members and has seen every possible variety of Jew. But my son Hillel’s bar mitzvah marked the first time a Japanese boy read from their Torah. The bar mitzvah became a magazine’s cover story circulated to synagogues throughout Israel, and my son’s fame became legendary—literally. A factual error in the headline about Hillel being some wunderkind convert made his bar mitzvah more remarkable than it was. As his mohel could attest, he was Jewish from Day One.

After his bar mitzvah, Hillel spent two weeks at a summer camp in Israel, where he could meet other Jewish teenagers from every corner of the world, of every background and color. For the first time, he felt that being different was actually pretty cool.

Hillel returned to Tokyo aware that in Israel, he had a place at the table as a global Jew. He decided to apply to the government-subsidized Naale Elite Academy. This high school program, established in 1992, is designed for Jewish children raised outside Israel who have limited or no access to a Jewish education. There was one big challenge. He needed testimony from a rabbi in America that he was in fact Jewish.

Hillel and the other three Japanese kids spent three years immersed in the Israeli educational system. Following graduation, he returned to Tokyo in 2020. Hillel was hired by a company to market kosher food to the Japanese and send kosher Japanese sake and delicacies to Israel. I have the Chabad House rabbi to thank for this wonderful opportunity. This company didn’t exist when Hillel was growing up. To think that my son would attend a high school in Israel and there meet three others born and raised in Japan is an exciting indication of how much Jewish consciousness has grown in Japan.

My son tells me that more respect needs to be shown toward other religions. Then he makes a stunning admission. He wonders if he can be the change he wants to see in his world. He wants other kids in his situation in Japan to grow up feeling proud and accepted for who they are, and I can’t help but smile. Three years in Israel has given Hillel enough chutzpah to last a lifetime.

Published April 11, 2021

Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi is the author of the newly released memoir, The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan.