The All Important 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?

There’s a simple rule for the following of intuition: honor your first impression. The Wagamama Bride carried me up to the finishing gate. And if I must admit it, since last October, I’ve been sending the book to agents under a new name, The Bride in the White Crane Kimono. Twelve rejections later–9 unanswered, 3 polite refusals, I think I get the message.  It may be time I return to the original name.


The Jewish Bride Who Wore a Kimono

PS Having said this, if you think the Wagamama Bride can be improved upon, and you come up with a better title for a memoir that takes you one Shabbat at a time into a Jewish household transforming itself under the lofty heavens of Japan, then please do let me know!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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, 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.



What the Go-Betweens Know

Dais with our Nakodo
Dais with our Nakodo

Marriage go-betweens traditionally offered advice — not rubber stamping. I regret that I didn’t do more to ask for advice. Our Go-between was largely ceremonial and added a definite touch of impressiveness. But what I needed more than anything was a primer in Japanese marriage—what would be expected of me. And through soul- searching to ask myself whether I could live up to what was expected of me. Aki’s self-made illustrious grandfather had spun flax into gold — or at least rice husks.

But as I look back on the potential of these nakodo to have offered something in the way of advice, I am wistful. I didn’t ask for it. They didn’t offer in return. The concept of a nakodo may be antiquated and charming, but its main function is to prevent unhappy if not downright disastrous marriages. My nakodo had been married a long time. They’d raised children. They’d weathered the ups and downs of married life–like living under the nose of a harsh matriarch.

I’ve poured over photo albums at countless dinners at their home hearing their stories about weddings, exotic travel, the years when my nakodo studied as a Fulbright scholar at Columbia, our shared alma mater. Based I think, on that rather handy Columbia connection–the pride of his life that he went there in the 1950s—they are joining us on the wedding dais today. I feel honored. I feel somehow assured that though words go unspoken between us, they would never have consented to this marriage if they didn’t half believe in the chances of its success. Still, I can’t help but feel something is out of sorts. The other half of my nakodo cancels at the last minute He isn’t here. The Columbia connection is in a hospital bed wasting away from cancer. The man at the dais is Aki’s uncle Susumu.

So these nakodo didn’t give us advice. But how could I blame them? What do they know about foreigners living in their own country? This is a wild experiment for all of us. Add to that the fact that they are from very sheltered families. They’d never taken the subway trains. They had never been exposed to society’s riff-faff, unless you count John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. Yoko was a close relative of this nakodo, a tradition breaker on a grand scale, telling the world its not only okay to marry into Japanese culture, but its pretty hip.

I’m trying to make sense of the obvious: my go-betweens couldn’t offer me advice because their marriage was based on a union of the most exquisitely overlapping family and business interests. It was the marriage of two zaibatsu, the union of industrial conglomerates, educational institutions, cement, life insurance, and high brow culture.

Ours was what? A marriage of chance. A journalist from New York of Jewish decent marries the grandson of the inventor of one of Japan’s most important postwar inventions, the rice polishing machine. I am not bothered that the man I am marrying has no college degree or ambitions to obtain one. What he lacks in credentials he makes up for in a wealth of knowledge about Eastern medicine. I find it comforting to know that I won’t live in penury and that he will know what Chinese herb to give me to combat a cold.  I feel it with all buy senses—this is going to be nothing short of an interesting life. Interesting. Yes. But a happy life? A peaceful union? A marriage of shares values and goals? How I wish that my dear nakodo had sat me down to think this through.

Moving Forward with my Mother

By Liane Wakabayashi
By Liane Wakabayashi

Shopvida Scarfy By Liane Wakabayashi


Yesterday I found it quite distressing the shedding of the leaves on this small lemon bush –a tragedy I thought. Today I see heaven’s hand in all of this. Without the leaves I could better see the butterfly engaged in reading.

Yes, reading! I couldn’t believe my eyes either when I saw the photo after snapping away madly to get one decent still of this butterfly in motion.

This was no ordinary butterfly as it turned out. This too I found mind blowing–that this was the offspring of a black and white butterfly I had painted years ago. That painting was and is still one of my favorites, and when ShopVida invited me to print some of my art onto scarves this was the painting I chose. The first person to have that scarf as a present was my mother.

It was one of my last gifts to her just in this season–when the butterflies appear, when the hydrangeas are just starting to get ready to bloom.

I would like to think that my mother wants to tell me that she saw the essay I wrote about her in today’s Forward, the newspaper she loved to read and discuss with me in our frequent phone calls half way round the world.

Happy Mother’s day sweet Mom. Wherever you are now.


Circa 1991
Circa 1991

It was she.

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Digging into My New York City Past

20170329_113502Since I’ve been in Japan more than half my life now–thirty years it will be this September–the New York City that I know comes with the baggage of being a jet-lagged mother of two randy children whose idea of a grand time in the Big Apple is playing on the  monkey bars in Central Park.  Now that they are teenagers, they remind me my own coming of age in New York City. A slim stack of manila file folders containing letters I’d written back in the 1980s take me back to the time when what I wanted most in life was to be a writer.

I’d almost forgotten that dream–because it came true in Tokyo, a city the other side of the world from New York City. So far from home, the uphill climb getting there got left behind too.

In 1982, I began this quest to become a writer in earnest. I had graduated from college the year before with a degree in art history, broken up with a gentle soul, a craftsman, whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I spent half a year back in Great Neck at my parents house hoping for some healing but arrived instead to find their 26 year marriage in tatters.

I was determined to move out as soon as I could and by spectacular good fortune, I found a studio apartment Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful historic Brownstone community just across from Wall Street and the East River connected by the Brooklyn Bridge. The only problem was that the rent was too high on my entry level salary as a secretary for Fritz Jacobi. Fritz will be forever remembered as the PR director at the Museum of Broadcasting who taught me everything I know about becoming a writer. In three words: Just Do It!

“You’ll live in penury!” my mother shrieked into the phone, when she heard that I was forking over $495 to the landlord on a take-home salary of $1100 each month.

“So what? I said, thinking I’d cut corners and live simply. But under my breath I was planning to spend every spare second outside of my day job home in my studio tapping out articles for publication that over time would add to my income.

God, however, had other plans. One of my first articles for the Brooklyn Heights Newspaper was about a community of artists who were living in the refurbished Peak Mint Factory, a fantastic relic from late 19th century Industrial Brooklyn turned into affordable spacious and high-ceilinged lofts at affordable prices. I got $20 for that article which vindicated m mother. But I got something a lot more valuable — a friendship for life.

The artists at the Peak Mint Factory were having their first open house event, throwing open their studios to the  neighborhood. I happened to wander in with my notebook and pen, and shy as I was, saying I was a writer–a journalist- emboldened me. I made friends with  Anita Karl and Jim Kemp who were a good ten years older than me and ran their own freelance calligraphy and map-making business surrounded by my two passions — Anita’s elegant paintings and their wall to wall bookshelves filled with the great publishing houses of New York–all the books they had designed maps for over the years.

Together we spent hours at their sunny dining table in front of the giant antique windows of their loft talking about books, about writing, and the world of words that Jim especially was  drawn to. It wasn’t long before we were talking about writer’s group where we could read out loud and support each other’s fledgling articles. We would start small from down the block in my studio apartment.

To be a writer in Brooklyn Heights is no joke. The legacy of its most famous residents Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller, to name just a few, hang in the air between the leaves and specks of sunlight that reflect in pane-glass windows, cheerful grids of light flanking the top of each steep flight of brownstone stairs. Those charming Brooklyn Heights homes, even in the 1980s, exuded such welcome, but they were only for the spectacularly rich and successful.

I knew that Norman Mailer still lived in the neighborhood on the poshest street of all, Columbia Heights, which faces the Promenade, an oasis for strollers, dog-walkers and film crews who come to admire the breath-taking view of lower Manhattan from its bench-lined boardwalk.

The White Pages gave the name and phone number of a  poet –Norman Rosten–whom I heard also lived in the neighborhood, and I assumed was more approachable when it came to working with young writers. Norman Rosten answered my phone call on the first try and immediately accepted my invitation to speak at my studio a few weeks later.

I was so excited about this visit that I invited my mother to come. She brought her friend Norma Schlager and her famous apricot cake. Twelve people squeezed into my studio apartment, furnished with French Provincial hotel room suite rejects from the Helmsley Middletowne Hotel, which my mother’s brother, Uncle Graham, had kindly sent over seeing my fiscal plight and overing to rescue me from furniture penury–at the very least.

I put an announcement in the Brooklyn Heights Newspaper and the launderette and, thank God, twelve people came to hear Norman Rosten speak. I was so worried nobody would show up. Instead the group was so fired up by Normans encouraging words that he left us all with the challenge of writing  a collection of short profiles about Broklyn Heights people we had come to know. I was very excited about the idea. And so was Norman, who offered to collaborate even after letting us all know that his wife had passed away the wek before. My mouth dropped in disbelief. This man’s wife had just died and yet he was so committed to writing and encouraging young writers and he refused to back out of his appearance.

Until meeting Norman, I knew that writing was a commitment to myself, but I was so impressed by the discovery that evening that writing would require a profound commitment to other writers as well.

Not long after Norman’s visit, I received a letter from District Attorney Robert Abram’s office. What did they want from me? I was informed that  since I was living in a rent-controlled apartment … drum roll… the  rent would forever be $295.   And I would be refunded for excess charges on the $495 paid over the past several months.

“Lordie,” as my mother said when she heard the news. “Someone upstairs is definitely looking out for you.”

It was true. But who?