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