For many people, Loving Day (June 12) is a time to celebrate the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, striking down all laws banning interracial marriage in the US.
For me, it’s also the day I celebrate how becoming a Japanese housewife made me a more committed Jew.
By “Japanese housewife,” I don’t mean to suggest I’m a Jewish woman who is also Japanese (a tangle of identities my 16-month-old daughter will have to learn to navigate—and, I’m sure, find some way to blame me for when she hits adolescence). I mean a Jewish American woman who is also a stay-at-home mother in Japan, with a Japanese husband, in a Japanese house.
Before I became a Japanese housewife, I was a highly independent academic in Boston in my late 30s, born and bred in the Northeast and as snarky and dismissive of my parents’ suburban Judaism as any good, self-styled intellectual could be. The little decals saying “I am a Zionist” that my mother pasted on the windows of our home. The family genocide-movie night, when my parents planted us in front of the TV to watch the network miniseries Holocaust, expensive French upholstery puffed beneath our squirming skinny legs as they admonished us during commercial breaks to “never forget.” It all smacked not just of suburban cliché, but of an obsession with heritage and religion that, I felt as I grew older, went against almost everything I believed as a liberal.
If you’d asked me back then, circa 5 or 10 BJE (Before-my-Japanese-Era), I would have immediately dismissed the possibility that I’d ever have any interest in practicing Judaism. I liked being Jewish culturally, as a tie to history. But lighting the Shabbos candles? Making matzah brei during Passover? Tying the knot under a chuppah? No thanks.
All that changed the day I married a Japanese salaryman and moved to his country.
I met my Toru—a man who spoke little English and whose native language I spoke not at all—when his company sent him to do an Exec MBA at the university where I taught writing. My mother soon pointed out the irrationality of our relationship. I’d gotten my PhD in English and American literature, and was committed to living my life in Boston. How could I marry a man who could read but barely speak my language? She immediately tried to fix me up with the son of some friends in Palm Beach.
But I was deeply, utterly in love. (And 11 years later, I’m deeply thankful to report, I still am.) Originally, I’d hoped Toru would consider moving permanently to Boston. But my beloved was his family’s chonan, the oldest son: the one who inherits the responsibility to care for his parents as they age. American diploma in hand, he went home to Osaka to care for his widowed father. Soon after, I went too.
Japan is a famously insular culture. People ask me sometimes how it feels to be Jewish in this country. Few people here even know what “Jewish” is. Here, you’re either Japanese, or you’re not. One illustration: On our official family register—a document every household by law must make in Japan—my name exists only in the footnote field, because as a foreigner with a foreign name, I cannot legally occupy the main section, cannot stray beyond the margin.
Because I gave up my home and lifestyle for my husband’s vastly different world, I’m constantly struggling in a very specific way with that fear so many of us share in love and marriage: how to ensure we don’t lose ourselves, don’t submerge ourselves in the other. For me, one unexpected answer has been to insist that we celebrate the Jewish holidays in on our suburban house outside of Tokyo, that our baby girl grows up with Hanukkah dreidels and haroset. That she was named in the same temple where my husband and I wed, with the same rabbi and a Jewish moniker that would have made my grandparents proud.
Like many Jewish parents today, my mother feared that if I married “outside the faith,” I’d lose my only chance at cultivating my ethnic identity. As the BBC put it in a news article last year, “Intermarriage…has been called a threat to the future survival of the Jewish nation.”
But I’d like to propose the opposite. Marrying a Japanese man, moving to his country, and having a baby together has given me an appreciation for my Jewish roots—and fueled an insistence on passing them on—in a way few other experiences or places could have.
As someone who has strayed further afield than just across the isle, I can tell you: Marrying and parenting across ethnic, cultural, or religious lines doesn’t mute, muddy or erase our unique identities, all the different shades of humanity, of life. Instead, if we’re lucky, it expands us enough to experience new worlds that only highlight how and why we value where we—and our children—come from, too.