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Kuniko Katz's essays, articles and letters to the editors

Funny, you don’t look Jewish: Sara Laurence College, Mar., 2002

The other day, I was invited by the Multicultural Committee of one of the elementary school PTAs in Scarsdale to talk about my experiences in the U.S. While having coffee and waiting for others to come, a woman told me that she was curious to meet me because the flyer of this gathering said I was a Jewish-Japanese-American. “I can see the Japanese-American part of you,” she said in jest, “but, funny, you don’t look Jewish.” She said she was.

The words that the organizer had chosen to describe me weren’t my idea because I had never defined myself as such but still, I thought, why shouldn’t I be a Jew?

“I don’t?” I retorted smilingly as if I were very surprised. “I thought anyone could tell that I was.”


I converted to Judaism four years ago after having been married to my Jewish husband for twenty-six years. Lighting the Sabbath candles one Friday evening, I realized that I wasn’t observing Jewish rituals for the sake of our children anymore. Our daughter had left home for college not long ago, following our son who did so three years earlier. Until then I used to think that because I was born and raised in Japan, a combination of Shintoism and Buddhism was my religion and as such I ‘d thought that I was merely following Jewish customs to help our children to grow up Jewish.

Neither Shintoism, which is basically a religion of nature and ancestor worship, nor Buddhism, which teaches that the way to enlighten oneself is through good deeds, conflicted with my having a Jewish household.

Had I known better, though, I might have converted before our children were born so that their “Jewishness” wasn’t questioned by anybody. But neither my husband nor his parents mentioned anything about it before or while I was pregnant. In fact, the first time we talked about religion was when our son started nursery school. My husband then suggested that our children should attend a Jewish nursery school. He said although he didn’t think very seriously about it before, it was time for our children to learn about their Jewish heritage. I agreed with him and decided to learn, as a mother, to run a Jewish household. I prepared Sabbath regularly and followed the Jewish calendar as much as possible with the help of my husband and people around us. My Challah were so hard at times that they needed a saw to be cut and the Matzah balls often broke into pieces and floated like egg drop soup, but, well, I tried my best to be a good Jewish mother for our children.

After nursery school, our children continued their Hebrew school education at the YM-YWHA while we sought a synagogue to join so that they could eventually be Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Upon visiting several synagogues in the Westchester area, I realized that because I hadn’t converted before the children were born, our selections were very limited. Our children’s “Jewishness” was, in fact, flatly denied by a number of synagogues we visited. We were told that they had to go through all the required rituals and ceremonies of conversions just to be members there. I felt quite rejected by this, but my husband told me not take it personally. He said that for some branches of Judaism, even he, who was born of two Jewish parents, was not “Jewish” enough because he was not observant.

We eventually joined, and are still members of, a reform synagogue which accepted our children as Jews. During the next twelve years, our children became B’nai Mitzvah and confirmed while going to Japanese Weekend School for a few years. We thought it would be best if they also formally learned their mother’s language and culture at school. In time, they grew up identifying themselves as Jewish Americans with a background in Japanese culture. And before we knew it, they had gone to college and our household became a so called, “empty nest.” It was then that I began to notice that Judaism was an integral part of my life even without them around. I knew I was ready to accept Judaism as mine,

“Thy God is my God.” I said to my husband who was handing me a piece of challah. He looked at me as if to say, “What are you talking about?”

“I decided to be a real Jewish mother.”

“You’ve always been a real Jewish mother.” he said.

“I want to be an officially recognized Jewish mother,” I said, “I am going to talk to our rabbi about my conversion.”

“So!” he said, giving me a hug, “You want to be Jewish, eh?” Then he added with a grin, “What took you so


Two years after having converted to Judaism, I was Bat Mitzvah with thirteen other Jewish women in our synagogue and now I am preparing with some of them for our confirmation. When you are Bar or Bat Mitzvah at around age thirteen, you are accepted by the community as a Jewish adult, and when you are confirmed at around age sixteen, you accept Judaism as your own. Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and confirmation naturally have slightly different meanings because they are provided for those (mainly females) who didn’t go through the process when they were young. In any case, I am now not only a Jew but am also supposed to be accepted by the community after going through these processes.


I told my husband about the remark that I got again at the gathering that morning. “Those ethnocentric people!” I complained.

“Let’s assume,” he said prudently, “For some strange reason, the Japanese government gives me citizenship.” That was an impossible assumption, I thought, because I knew in a million years, it would never happen. For the sake of argument, though, I said, “Ok.”

“Then I tell some Japanese people that I’m Japanese. Do you think they’d accept me?”

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