Sometimes I still can’t believe everything that has transpired over the last year. I got engaged and married, and, oh yeah, I also became Jewish. So not only am I learning how to be someone’s wife, I’m also learning how to incorporate thousands of years of Jewish history and customs into my everyday life. All this while still trying to figure out what aspects of my former family life I’m going to bring into my new one.
My Japanese mom met my Czech dad when they lived in the same apartment building years before I was born. They married and had two Japanese-Czech daughters. I grew up speaking Japanese with my mom, singing Czech lullabies with my dad, and fielding questions from strangers about where I came from. Where I really came from. I remember coming home from school one day and asking my mom how I should answer this question. While I felt strong cultural ties to both countries, I was a North American kid through and through.
“Well, just tell them you’re from here,” was her answer, and it was the truth, but this just made the strangers roll their eyes. They wanted me to confirm their feelings that I was Indian, or Mexican, or even Inuit. But my truth was always stranger than their fiction. In the 1980s, the thought that some white person would procreate with some Asian person was still novel. How times have changed!
Though we didn’t consider ourselves religious, I went to church with my dad for a couple of years, and we celebrated Christmas. Never in a million years would I have ever thought my destiny would be to become Jewish. Looking back, however, my childhood set me up quite nicely for this life: My best friend was Jewish, and I had a fascination with the Holocaust, reading every YA novel about the subject. Still, you could have fortune-told me, and I would have never believed you. And neither would my parents.
My fate changed the night I met my husband at a Halloween party. We had an instant connection, though we wouldn’t go on our first date until a couple of weeks later. By our second date, he had already declared to me that it was important for him to have a Jewish family. I thought it was a bit presumptuous of him and laughed it off in the moment, but obviously a seed had been planted.
Somewhat surprisingly, when the time came to meet with the rabbi to discuss conversion, he changed his tune. He knew me as me, he said, and I didn’t have to change anything about myself to have a future with him. It was all very sweet and cemented my feelings that I was with the right person, but by this time I knew I was making this life-changing decision for me and no one else.
While I reveled in my decision to forge ahead with conversion, I knew it might not make as much sense for my parents; after all, I was never one to follow organized religion. Still, they nodded and smiled when we said we were off to “shul” and nodded and smiled again when we said we were hosting a Shabbat dinner. They had brought me up to believe that learning about other ways of life was a wonderful thing, and now their daughter had found such fulfillment in Judaism.
Even though they were at my mikveh, it’s still going to take some time for my parents to really understand what has happened. Testing my mom recently on the topic of kashrut, I suggested that perhaps my husband and I would give it a try. She gasped and said, “But Karen! What about gyoza?” It’s clear that it will be a while yet for everyone to get used to the idea of me being Jewish. Myself included.
But I have thrown myself into Jewish learning. As a self-professed nerd, I have taken in as much information and as many experiences as I can. I light the candles on Shabbat, prepare the seder plate on Passover, and even attend brises. I do these things for myself and for the love of my husband. We promised each other privately (and in front of 200 plus guests at our Jewish wedding) that we would raise Jewish children in a Jewish household.
The question now is, how can I incorporate my ethnic background into this life? Like other recently married couples, we already have hopes and dreams for our unborn (and unconceived, I might add) children. But isn’t it a little too much for a child to learn Japanese AND Hebrew after school? Kumon AND Torah study? Can I expect them to follow the tenets of bushido AND tzedakah? And that’s just the Japanese side of things. Ethnic cuisine has been such a huge part of my family’s life; would I be denying my Czech-ness by banning wieners and frankfurters from the house to honor the kosher tradition?
Finding a balance in all of my identities will no doubt be a challenge in my life’s journey. And the truth is I’ll probably have moments where I’ll feel like I’m letting one part of me trump the other two parts unfairly. But maybe it will become more about picking the things I like the most from each side of me and celebrating those aspects within my new family. I’ve always felt lucky growing up that I had not one, but two distinct identities. Adding a third will only make my life that much richer.