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Introducing our first guest blogger: Kaguya Tsukino

JUST HOW JEWISH ARE YOU

I grew up Jewish in Japan. Many people do a double-take when I say that. But, how? They ask. By lineage, I reply.

Just to make sure that I know what I am talking about, these are the questions I then get asked:

“Did you grow up Jewish?”

This is such a vague question, I don’t even know how to answer. You tell me: did you grow up Jewish?

“Did you grow up celebrating all the Jewish holidays?”

What do you mean by “all”?

Note: “All” often refers to Hanukah and Passover only.

“Did you grow up keeping Kosher?”

Kosher by whose standards?

The real reason they ask these questions? Because I don’t look Jewish.

Of course, to consider me non-Jewish-looking is a little ridiculous if you ask me. Think about it. Were the Jews from the Torah (Middle Easterners who constantly bathed in sunlight) “white?” If the “white” Jews of today have veered off so much from what the “original” Jews looked like, who is to say that I don’t look Jewish?

These questions of how Jewish I am can also in fact be simple questions motivated by curiosity: “Wow! A Jew from Japan? What do they do differently? Do they have their own customs? Their own recipes?”

But if these questions are not motivated by curiousity, it’s really no one’s business to decide for me who I am and who I am supposed to be.

If they discover from the series of questions that I am, in fact, “not really Jewish” (by their standards), then what comes next? Are they going to try to convince me of that step by step? Or are they going to write me off as “the poor confused soul who thinks she is Jewpanese, when in fact she is neither really Japanese nor Jewish?” Will I fall into the “what a tragedy” category?

These questions often make me uncomfortable. I assume they are usually coming from people who know about the historically “diverse” Jewish nation, but I can’t satisfy their curiosity. They do know that being Jewish outside of the US, Israel, or the “west” in general, is not so uncommon. But, my case is a more modern rendition of this awareness. That means that there are no uniquely Japanese-Jewish customs I can flaunt. I don’t come from a “rich” background of people who have lived as Jews in Japan or as Japanese-Jews for centuries. I am what you could call a “pretty plain vanilla Japanese.” I happen to be Jewish on top of that. For me, whatever is Japanese-Jewish (or Jewpanese, as my blog is named) is whatever I do (or my family does). And so I am in the process of “inventing” my Japanese-Jewishness, which started with my parents meeting. There is no authoritative “Guide for the Jewpanese” I can rely on.

So far, my Japanese-Jewishness lies in these fundamentals.

I prefer rice to bread for my everyday sustenance.

Japanese is my native language.

Drinking green tea on a cold day makes me happy.

I don’t eat shellfish, which is used in a lot of expensive Japanese foods.

I prefer fish to meat (in fact, I don’t eat meat at all).

The list continues…

Someone who is both Japanese and Jewish might not share any of these traits with me.

What do you think? Is there something all of us who are both Japanese and Jewish (by whatever means) share in common?

Then again, I wonder, how valid is this question. After all, is there anything concrete that all Jews have in common–including those “anomalous ones?”

Kaguya Tsukino is a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Her blog is entitled “Notes of a Jewpanese Nomad.”

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