The Prophecy in a Lego Creation

Seiji's Lego WIndmillToday is my third anniversary, the day I officially made aliya and became an Israeli citizen. I love living in Jerusalem. I love the friends I’ve made and seeing how my children blossomed here, Miriam with her mosaics and beautiful friendships with other young women and Seiji with his life in an international boarding high school where he learned to communicate juggling three languages.

Seiji is back in Japan now but today it was as if he was here. I was scrolling through old photos and I found one of his Lego creations dated 2014. For some reason, he built a windmill. I don’t think he ever saw a windmill in Japan, so where this windmill came from I don’t know. Three years later when he arrived in Israel, I showed him up to his room, which had a porthole type of window looking out over a windmill. “Oh man,” he said, his mouth dropping open when he realized he could lie in bed and watch the blades of the windmill turn through the porthole window.

I do believe God shows us signs when we are exactly where we are meant to be. Today, Seiji got his too. And though he is in Tokyo now, and we no longer live next to a windmill, there’s a wonderful feeling of being guided along this journey in Israel.

For the Love of a Cookie

 

The street I used to live on in Sakura, an area of Setagaya, Tokyo.

I don’t know Shara Jacobs. But her almost-love story on the Chabad.org website could have been mine.

Who is Shara Jacobs?

She’s a woman of undisclosed age looking back on her teenage self. It was summertime. She was in training in the Poconos to become a lifeguard,  together for the first time with non-Jews, one of whom she fell for.

Shara came from an Orthodox family. She had impeccable Torah values to steer her clear of embracing a non-Jewish boy as her husband. But she did have a vivid imagination, which she used to entertain thoughts of what could never have been.

My own story was so different.

Shara walks us through the agonizing process of daring to even think about a serious relationship with someone who wasn’t Jewish and had no desire to become Jewish.

Unlike Shara, I jumped into a relationship with just such a man–who wasn’t Jewish and had no desire to become Jewish.

The courting is engraved in my memory. First, there is the chemistry, the attraction, the aching for a relationship with someone who is ready to reciprocate love and affection.

Maybe it had to do with impulse control and my lifelong struggle to not act upon every thought that crosses my mind.

Just before reading Shara’s story, I’d had a conversation with Tracey Shipley, a counselor in Jerusalem, who told me how impulse control can be predicted through the cookie test.

When children were presented with a cookie in a research setting, they were told not to eat it for twenty minutes, and if they could wait they would be rewarded with two cookies. A video camera ran the whole twenty minutes, showing the heartbreak of a child losing control, giving in to the impulse for immediate gratification.

The study followed the cookie eaters and found that as adults they were much less likely to complete college, follow through on their goals, and succeed at life.

Whew, I’m not sure I would have been able to abstain from eating the cookie–even though I did manage to graduate from college and graduate school.

I know that when I met my future Japanese husband I didn’t think for a minute about the inevitable problems that would surface somewhere down the road when we would start a family. I wanted the cookie and I wanted it now.

I ask myself now what would have happened if I had just said no to the Japanese father of my two children. It’s unthinkable. We brought into the world a creative daughter and a courageous son made in Japan, and with Torah values that Japan’s young and new Chabad community miraculously offered.  I was slowly learning how to be a Jewish mother on a mission to give my children Torah values, one Shabbat at a time.

Shara reminds me that her admirable story of just saying no is just that — her story.

When you say yes, as I did, you can’t live with the regrets. Instead, you learn with the powerful lessons.  I had a roller coaster ride of a lifetime for thirty years in Japan, with a traditional Tokyo family.

The thing about impulse control is that it can be tamed. Even out there in Tokyo. In Japan I started to copy what I saw at Chabad House, eager adherence to mitzvot –or rules for a happy life, as I’d prefer to call them.  It’s never too late. I have grown children now, and soon it will be their turn to decide whether they eat the cookie or abstain.

This subject is close to my heart. It’s the reason I felt so strongly that I had to write a memoir that puts my thirty years in Japan into a thriving Jewish context. Eventually,  me and my children were led to a new life Israel in 2017 and how we got there is my story. 

 

Write about your Life But No Need to Revisit It

 

Drawing by Katharina Otani

What to do with those writing journals?

With Corona keeping us close to home like never before, it’s very tempting to start digging out old journals and getting to work on your memoir.

A dear friend had just that thought. The problem was that she was dreading confronting the woman of twenty years earlier who has earned many badges of wisdom and life experience in the meantime.

I suggested to Karen what I would say to myself.

If there’s a story worth telling, it’s waiting to come from memory and be told from the voice of the person we are today.  When you write from the other side of the bridge–so to speak–the emotional charge is traded for a feeling of gratitude. Whew, we made it to the other side.

Write from this perspective and you’ll love the writing process because this is the You that’s most relevant to telling your story.

Then, if you want to go back to your journals to jog out details then do so, never losing sight of the fact that the story-teller in those journals may have had a mission in writing stories down but had no idea of the outcome.

When decades pass, you do have a much better sense of the outcome and can appreciate the journey that took you to this point.

What’s in a Title?

 

The thing about writing a book is that it can take years and years, as it did in my case. October was its completion and I marked the occasion unceremoniously because, in truth, there’s a sense of double sadness. An eight-year process was over and life needed to move on. But on the other hand, the real work was beginning. What to do with the book. Who will represent it? Who will publish it? Who will market it?

And then there’s the more basic question that needs to be resolved before any of this is achieved. What the heck is the title?

With the book done, I was so changed from the person I was when I started, and had that spark in the first place, that the original title felt out of place. Wagamama means selfish. Not selfish in the way of hoarding cookies, but a grander selfishness, to lead a life that goes counter to the family values that come with Japanese marriage.

The spark of The Wagamama Bride title was so strong that it carried me through years of writing the book. My daughter, to this day, absolutely insists that the title be left alone.

But when the very process of writing a memoir changes you to the core of your being, how could I live with a title conceived in the year 2012, when we are in 2020?

 

From the Private Journals of Alex Singer

I ask myself as a writer and artist, what is it about the combination of “arts and letters” that is so powerful? Why is it that when we see words next to a work of art by the artist, we are comforted in knowing that a level of intimacy and honesty is being offered that the art alone couldn’t express?

Shouldn’t art stand alone? Do we really need words to accompany our images? Isn’t it the purpose of art to speak in a universal language that offers access to all?

These questions and many more were triggered when I visited the Pardes Institute on Tisha Ba’av, a fasting day. To distract from fasting, I joined others in a lecture hall but soon found myself gravitating to the hallway, where a sketches by Alex Singer were accompanied by excerpts from his journals. Together with his family’s recollections, the life story of Alex Singer felt very close and complete.

Alex died in a terrorist attack on September 15, 1987. He was 25 years old. He enlisted to serve in the IDF immediately after completing his undergraduate studies at Cornell University. He left us with a message wise beyond his years. Take time to reflect on life. Pause and celebrate the small moments that only you can see. Speak of who you are and what your dreams are. If you have the courage, write it down. Draw it out. Your legacy and how you’ll be remembered could depend on it.

Exhibit at Pardes Institute, Jerusalem Summer 2019

The Untold Story of Willy Rudolf Foerster – Japan’s Oskar Schindler

For nearly twenty years I was a regular visitor to the Chabad House of Rabbi Binyomin Edery in Omori, Tokyo. Never in my wildest dreams, as I walked there along  German Dori, which means German Street, did I realize that Nazi secrets were hidden within plain sight. Stately European-style houses should have given me a clue.

And thanks to Google, an innocent search of a few key words–German, Jewish, Holocaust survivor, Japan–led me link by link to the untold story of Willy Foerster. Thanks to Professor Clemens Jochem of the University of Hamburg for permitting me to write up in English this incredible but true story.

https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/285496/japans-oskar-schindler?fbclid=IwAR1mijk8BRYi2ZhKnUwKvNBMhCnBut0hw7dVCkY-8sPVQf8IaBhuIs7SZ0I

Welcome


Thank you for visiting my website. I’m in the process of updating and adding new features that introduce you to my twin worlds in Jerusalem now (top picture) and where I raised my children in Tokyo (bottom).

 

Sayonara Fritz Jacobi

Fritz Jacobi, who was always great at calling a scoop when he saw one, missed out on the best scoop of his life. The title Fritz could have chosen for this scoop: “Man Dies on Park Bench of Natural Causes.”
Today I learned from his son Mike Jacobi that my dear first boss, a friend and mentor since 1982, public relations expert and magazine writer, Fritz Jacobi, 96, left this life just as he lived it, with an eye for the sweet and
ironic. He took his last gasp in  spring
fresh air on a park bench not far from his home.
Fritz was my first writing teacher, my best writing teacher, my boss at the Museum of Broadcasting in 1982 and then my boss for the next five years at Columbia Business School where he took me to be his assistant after Woody Allen’s sister fancied his job at the Museum of Broadcasting and got it. Thanks to Fritz, who inducted me into the world of public relations and publishing, my life was forever changed.
At Columbia, I discovered Japan. Columbia alumni magazine gave me the writing assignment in Tokyo interviewing Japanese alumni that would set me on a thirty year journey far away from New York City and Fritz. But somehow we never lost touch. We were both born under the Virgo sign and so I never forgot his birthday. When I visited New York I stopped by his apartment on 91 Central Park West to say hello before and later with baby Miriam in tow. Fritz encouraged me enormously to be a writer and inspired me to help other writers get their start.
At the Museum of Broadcasting and Columbia Business School, where we worked together to field questions from the press and entice them through press releases to come to our events, he made it all so quaint and simple. Fritz would be typing away on a vintage black Underwood complete with carriage return, ribbon spool and elevated key tops. He had a funny ritual preceding writing which I never could quite adopt because it required deeper  pockets than my skirts ever had. Fritz pace the floor of his office back and forth jingling spare change in his pocket. When the room fell silent the clacking of his typewriter would take over. So this is what it meant to be a writer. You prepare, you write, you revise. And afterward, you’d go for a swim. I was 22 when I started working for Fritz and he was ancient in my eyes at 60! But after writing an article, he’d head over to the Columbia Univ swimming pool for a few laps and to oggle the girls and become young again.
I know the hardest day of his life during his Columbia Business School years was that Monday when he asked me to come into his office and after five years of listening to those coins jingle and following his impeccably polite and respectful orders, he asked me if he could have  a word with me. A word. Uh oh. He didn’t want to–I knew that. He had promoted me to rank of Business School officer which in addition to such perks as free graduate school tuition and fabulous gourmet buffet lunches at the Faculty Club, came with the less happy distinction of being the most recent officer in a department that had run over budget and required cutting corners. So I was the corner cut. Fritz made sure I left with a severance package to ensure that my graduate school tuition was fully paid so I could get my MFA in arts administration. At a time in my life when my parents marriage had fallen apart, Fritz Jacobi was the grownup who kept me on course literally, figuratively, and with a whole lot of love I say RIP Fritz Jacobi. He set me on a life path toward Japan and for that I’ll thank him when we meet on heaven’s park bench.

Coming of Age in Jerusalem

Since moving to Israel, I’ve been working toward completion of a memoir about my transformational marriage and family life in Japan. That was when I had a different ending–or so I thought. It was  tale about doing my best to root myself in a Japanese family and come out nearly thirty years later reconciled to spending the rest of my life in Japan. Instead, what happened? I decided to come last summer in Israel to reflect on where I was going and the small  voice inside stunned me by saying what my heart was feeling: “You are here. You are home.”

I found a house overlooking the old city of Jerusalem within stone’s throw of where Adam and Eve were plausibly born. It took two suitcases to get here but thirty years to wake up to wanting a Jewish way of life where I was no longer in the nano-minority. In October I became an Israeli citizen.

In future blogs I’ll tell you more about the art and writing life in Israel and the daily challenges I face navigating the surreal. Thanks dear readers for following my story.

Top Memoirs on My Summer Reading List

I love books about inspirational women who stand up for themselves, who speak up even when living out of their comfort zone, half way around the world from where they were born. With this in mind, I searched for memoirs that dealt with the themes of most interest to the Wagamama Bride, starting with falling in love, marriage, birth of children, raising the little buggers, making peace with in-laws, and finding a solid community of friends, teachers, mentors who become the surrogate family till the endof time.

Then there’s religion. And spiritual guidance. And mostly there’s God to illuminate the zaniness of a life well lived.

These memoirs on my list all take the reader on a journey to wholly different worlds that few of us have access to. Books that take us behind closed doors, behind curtains, behind gates and into forests and up mountains we couldn’t ordinarily reach.

Here goes….

Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull Published by Avery Press August 2004 320 pages

This book came highly recommended, a hilarious read about a topic close to my heart–the culture clashes that ripen into deadpan humor when an Australian woman meets the man of her dreams and follows him back home to Paris. While reviewer described the book as pointless, whiny drivvle that perpetuates the love-hate stereotypes that strong a reaction increases my curiosity even more. One woman’s drivvle is obvious another’s barrel of laughs.

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An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chester Published by St. Martin’s Press 256 pages

The title is misleading because the author, Jewish American from Brooklyn, only spends ten weeks in Afghanistan at the start of her marriage to Muslim in Kabul in 1961 and the rest of the book is an exposition of how the author comes to appreciate Western values after all. She returns to the US, becomes an academic and human rights activist, and shares with her readers a wealt of insights about how women are valued–or undervalued in so many other parts of the world.

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Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg Kason Published by Sourcebooks July 2014

The author fell in love with the Chinese culture before she met her Chinese Romeo, who she marries, has a child with, takes back to the US with his folks too, and then ultimately divorces. What went wrong? Of course I’m curious. Marriage to an Asian, as I know first-hand, is no banquet. One reviewer wrote: “a true cautionary tale for any romantics abroad who believe that exotic intrigue is enough to sustain an interracial marriage.” I haven’t even read the book and I’m nodding my head.

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Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life by Priscilla Warner   Published by Atria Books Sept 20, 2011 288 pages

Oh the irony of it! A book to bring calm published 8 days after the World Trade Towers crashed to the ground! Priscilla Warner, one of the co-authors of the wildly successful “The Faith Club,” took a year to face a problem that had been following her for years–debilitating anxiety and panic attack. Set in New York–I think–in a post 9/11 world, Learning to Breathe came well timed to bring calm back to Warner’s life. This memoir chronicles meditation, spiritual retreats, teachings that range from the Dali Lama to Jewish mysticism–closer to her own Jewish background.


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The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman Published by Simon& Schuser August 2015 371 pages

While not technically a memoir or even a biography, I couldn’t resist adding this acclaimed work to the list. Marriage of Opposites is a work of historical fiction set in St. Thomas in the Caribbean in the early 1800s where a small Jewish community of refugees from the Spanish inquisition hundreds of years earlier, led their children to ill-suited matches and devastating marriages. This is based on the  true story of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro’s Jewish mother– who is married off to man much older than her, produces a trio of kids, becomes a widow, and then falls for her nephew.

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My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin Published by Fig Tree Books March 2017 326 pages

Pogrebin, daughter of the co-founder of Ms. Magazine, grew up in an orbit of impassioned feminism even stronger than her own Jewish roots. In this memoir she designs a yearlong quest (these yearlong quests are getting pretty much the rage, as you’ll see further down this list more of them). A year just about covers all the major holidays in the Jewish calendar. But can it lead to meaningful self-transformation in beliefs and practices? Stay tuned. Or please join me in reading and discussion of what it takes to lock in step with Judaism when you weren’t raised to do so.

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The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell Published by Icon Books May 2015 354 pages

Denmark is officially the happiest nation on Earth. Or is it Bhutan (see below). The British author lights the long winter with lots of candles and finds many other things to appreciate during a life-changing yearlong adventure with her husband.

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Married to Bhutan, By Linda Leaming Published 2001 by Hay House

The U.S. author falls in love first with a remote Himalayan nation–Bhutan, then with the Buddhist artist she marries. This memoir offers a total immersion in the culture of these insular mountain people and their simple and happy way of life.

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My Father’s Gardens by Karen Levy Published by Homebound Publicaitons April 2013 April 2013  248 pages

A memoir set in both Israel and the US about taking years to lay down roots on foreign soil. Levy, who returned to Israel to serve in the army, had finished high school in Los Angeles after her parents divorced and hop-scotches back and forth as her parents make new lives following their divorce.  Struggling to find her place and her home in the world, I identify here so strongly… and I haven’t even opened the book.

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Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community by Enuma Okoro Fresh Air Books Published 2010 181 pages

The author makes it clear from the start that this memoir is going to be about her world, her mindset, her passions, her grief, and her relationship with Jesus. I’m intrigued that it’s described as a laugh-out loud, no-holds barred account of a woman who prays to savor God’s goodness and is never satisfied. That does sounds familiar. One reviewer praised the spiritual insights drawn from the ups and downs of life.

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Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction by Gabrielle Selz W.W> Norton Company May 5, 2014

A summer reading list would not be complete with a bit of high art to add color. Selz’s memoir about her father, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, reds like a who’s who in American late-20th century Art-until divorce strikes. Selz’s mother moves with her children to a utopian artist community. I’ll be reading Unstill Life as much for Selz’ stories about the giants of the art world as for the intimate revelations of her unstill family.

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And although not technically a memoir…here’s one I can’t resist!

Almonds and Raisins by Maisie Mosco Published by Harper Paperbacks January 1991  480 pages

Even if the first in a trilogy about a Jewish family who flee Eastern Europe and settle in Manchester, England in the early 20th century hadn’t a 4.5 star rating by Goodreads.com, I’d be reading it anyway. My maternal great grandparents fled Latvia in the 1890s, came to England, settled in Manchester, and to this day I have no idea about what their lives were like that prompted them to not only leave Latvia behind, but many of the Jewish traditions that had kept their faith strong in the old country. A powerful read for anyone curious about why Jews abandoned faith once they got to a country where they were free to actually keep it.

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