It’s happened once more. My mother has come for a visit. It’s been more than four years since I’ve seen her in the flesh, but she continues to stay close and prod me along. She’s been saying to me for some time: “When’s your memoir going to be published?” And I’ve said to her on repeated occasions, just let’s be patient. Let’s see if I can snag an editor’s attention on Chabad.org. Their readers are my readers. Their journey is my journey. Their about face toward a Torah-led way of life came at a high cost to their closest relationships and lifestyle choices. But they did it. We did it. And we all have Chabad to thank.
So without further ado, as my mother – the London trained actress – would have said, here’s Chanukah in Montreal: a 1957 cause for celebration. Because without it, I wouldn’t be here…And without Chabad.org to publish excerpts, I wouldn’t be reaching my audience.
Today 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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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).
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 Jacobi 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. Thanks to Fritz, who inducted me into the world of public relations and journalism, 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.
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.