Happy Hannukah from my mother


I’m just six weeks into mourning the loss of my mother and my approach, at least so far, is to think of doing things that would please my mother,make her proud of what she herself accomplished in her 84 years, and even to do things that bring resolution to what she left unfinished.

My mother was always my greatest inspiration to be a writer. The scene emblazoned in my memory comes from childhood, when my mother would sit at the dining room table typing up her English literature essays for the BA college degree at Queens College that she was slowly but surely working toward. It took my mother ten years but she did it and with honors! She loved reading and writing and thinking about those literary assignments, and though she didn’t share much with me about the contents, she gave me the strong sense that reading literature and thinking about it were powerful ways of rounding out a busy work and family life. My mother commuted to Manhattan to work as an executive secretary, came home to prepare dinner for my Dad and her two daughters, then plopped down in the dining room chair to read and write.

My mother was vicariously pleased when I started publishing shortly after completing my BA in art history. She loved to see my name in print, but was aghast when she heard how much my articles were fetching:  $20 for an article in a Brooklyn Heights newspaper in 1983 was still a pittance. But when she saw I was mad about writing, and wasn’t doing it for the pay, but because I had to, I absolutely knew that this was my calling–even if it meant taking secretarial jobs in Manhattan, working as a waitress at Jewish delis, anything to support the self-imposed task of teaching myself to write the hard way: by trial and error. So what if an article took 20 hours to write for $20 pay.

Eventually that persistence paid off. Japan Airlines flew me first class to Tokyo in 1987 to write about the Tokyo department store exhibitions based on my small press publishing activities. My mother took this news with amazement. On the one hand, she was happy for me. On the other, she knew instinctively that the lure of Japan had somehow pulled me out of the New York City orbit. And though she never said it, and I didn’t say it either. We both knew if I could make it as a writer in Japan — a step that would propel me out of the NYC secretarial pool  —  then it was going to be Sayonara New York.

Within a month of arriving in Tokyo, the Japan Times hired me as a copy editor. Writing headlines and photo captions wasn’t exactly a journalism dream job, but my mother’s work ethic came with me. I used every chunk of free time to write articles, which I then submitted to the Japan Times editors in charge of art and culture, travel, book reviews, and what was then called the people pages.

I worked at the Japan Times for two years, 1987-1989.  I freelanced articles for the next 16 years. I got busy with raising my children and stopped writing until 2012 when meeting supermodel Dean Newcombe, who dropped  his career to give priority to helping tsunami victims in Ishinomaki immediately following the devastating March 11, 2011 triple disaster in Tohoku.  When he approached me about writing an article about his tsunami relief efforts for the Japan Times, I couldn’t refuse.

But this year was supposed to be different.   I think I knew in my heart that my mother’s life was coming to an end and everything I took on had that shadow of awareness. I wanted to write about things that were meaningful to me. And in to my mother. And so I put my energy into the Wagamama Bride. 

Well, my mother took a turn for the worse in the Fall. She passed away in November. Then she immediately got busy from the Other Side. No sooner had I returned from her funeral to Tokyo, then I got an unusual request from the Japan Times to write about Hannukah for the newspaper. I was stunned. With so few Jews in Japan, it would never occur to me to approach the newspaper from my side. I seriously do believe that my mother’s heart and soul wanted me to write this.There was no way to say no. I am deeply thankful to the newspaper for giving me this opportunity to share the Hannukah tradition that my mother passed down to me…

Get the latkes out for Hanukkah in Japan

Author: admin

Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi is a Tokyo-based artist and writer of a memoir in progress, The Wagamama Bride, based on her nearly 30 years of life in Japan, 25 of which she has been married to Taoist therapist Akihiko Wakabayashi, her inspiration, and her guide back to rediscovering her own Jewish roots owing to the presence of Chabad House of Japan.