Converting Meant Adding Judaism, Not Losing Japanese

  
Kristin conversion

Kristin at her synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el. Credit: Laurel Street Kitchen

On March 22, 2016, I completed a journey many years in the making when I sat before a beit din (rabbinical court), immersed myself in the waters of a mikveh (ritual bath), and converted to Judaism. It felt as if my soul had finally found the home it had been searching for my whole life. In Judaism, I found a sense of community I longed for, and so much comfort in the rituals of our thousands-of-years-old tradition. I also gained a new sense of responsibility as a Jew: to do my part to repair our world. It is a day I will always remember as one of the most powerful and meaningful days of my life.

My journey to Judaism started long before I met my now-husband Bryan, but my interest in it deepened because of him and his Jewish heritage. I’ve always been interested in learning about my Japanese heritage, so when Bryan and I started discussing our future together, I was quietly interested in conversion early on. Since I was not raised in a particular religion, I felt fortunate for the gift of choice given to me by both my parents. I’m grateful that they also fell in love with Bryan and supported my decision to convert wholeheartedly from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean the process was easy by any means.

After years of attending Jewish holiday gatherings at friends’ homes, Introduction to Judaism courses at our temple, countless meetings with my guide rabbi, Hebrew classes at the JCC, building Jewish community at our Reform synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el, regularly attending Shabbat services, reading Jewish books and cooking Jewish recipes, one would think that I would finally be ready.

There was just one problem: I was afraid that there wasn’t enough space within me to take on being Jewish. I felt I was barely holding onto my Japanese heritage. I had spent my entire life tightly gripping the few parts of my heritage that were left for me. My dad’s generation had lived through being Japanese-American in Hawaii during and after World War II, and they had to assimilate as quickly as possible if they were to keep their families safe and rebuild their lives here. Though my Mom is from Japan, she quickly learned the importance of assimilation as well. So much of my heritage was lost before I came into the world. The same can be said for Bryan’s Jewish heritage.

Luckily (though it did not feel so lucky on those early Saturday mornings), I grew up going to Japanese school and spending summers in Japan. But Saturday school and Japanese relatives don’t teach you how to navigate being Japanese-American in America. I’ve spent most of my life feeling painfully in between: Not behaving quite Japanese enough in Japan and not looking American enough in the US. To top that off, I’ve often felt the pressure of being the last “link” to the Japanese part of my family. I was hanging onto my complicated Japanese American heritage by a string. I worried that by adding Judaism to the mix I would lose it all, and my heart ached for my ancestors and for future generations of my family.

Synagogue

Kristin’s synagogue. Credit: Perfect Circle Photo

This is how I ended up in my guide rabbi’s office sobbing. I told him I wasn’t ready and that I didn’t think I could do it anymore. To which he responded, “You’re ready.” I was completely baffled, but he continued by asking me if I had ever considered that there was space for everything? I hadn’t. And that simple change of perspective was exactly what I needed to hear. I walked into his office only being able to see two options: Holding on to my Japanese heritage or letting go of it to be Jewish. Thankfully, he helped me to see there was a third choice: What if there was enough space for everything?

The funny thing is, now I have a company called Nourish that does exactly that: We help people define their cultural narrative, on their own terms. I’m not just Japanese. I’m not just Jewish. I’m not just American. I’m a Japanese-American Jew. While it’s complex, I have even more opportunities to celebrate who I am, and more opportunities to reinterpret my heritages in ways that help me connect more deeply. I may still use chopsticks incorrectly and unpack some takeout before lighting candles on Shabbat sometimes, but never have I felt so connected and nourished by my Japanese and Jewish traditions. I’d like to think that’s all our ancestors could have wanted for us, anyway.

Next spring, I will celebrate my bat mizvah at the same temple where Bryan and I were married. In a few weeks, I will travel to Japan to study my heritage. In some ways, I feel I am reclaiming the lost parts of my Jewish and Japanese heritage and now there’s plenty of room for both.

Being Jewish (and Buddhist and Christian and Chinese)

  

By Amourence Lee

Amourence Lee and her family

Amourence Lee and her family

A good story is supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, right? Well, this story about being Jewish only has a beginning. Yep, I’m Jewish. Exactly 50% Ashkenazi according to my genome. And Jewish law says I’m 100 percent because my mother is Jewish—which also makes my kids Jewish.

I spent the first half of my life knowing this about myself, but that was literally all I knew about being Jewish. I never went to synagogue, didn’t become a bat mitzvah, we didn’t light candles or celebrate Jewish holidays or eat Jewish food. Since I don’t “look” Jewish, the only Jewish things about me are that I lived in New York and have a passion for lox and bagels.

I grew up in a secular home with lots of influences—Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, atheist, New Age. My dad is a fourth generation Chinese-American, born in Hawaii. If you ever see a balding, long-haired Chinese guy in Berkeley wearing two different color crocs, that’s my dad! My “Jewish” mom wasn’t raised Jewish. My grandfather was atheist and my Austrian grandmother converted to Christianity. I can only imagine this was her best way to cope during the war. In the background, my Jewish auntie and uncle would assure me that I am Jewish, even though I didn’t know what that meant. Then there’s my god-mom, a Southern black woman who meditated every morning and only ate macrobiotic, unless she was cooking her famous mac-n-cheese.

It was a smorgasbord that was totally liberating and utterly confusing! As a kid I felt trapped in between—I was everything and nothing; not Chinese, not white, not black, not Jewish or Buddhist or atheist, but I also felt I had a claim to all these things. Have you ever had to answer the question, “What are you?” Growing up, this was always the first question that people asked me. Innocent curiosity about my ethnicity was exhausting. There were times when I envied people who could check one box and who knew what they were and where they belonged.

But that wasn’t being handed to me, so everything about my identity has been claimed and self-determined. I moved to China, learned to speak Mandarin, studied up on Asian-American history and married a Chinese guy. We’re raising our kids bilingual; my 4-year-old daughter can sing more songs in Chinese than I can and our 7-year-old does Kung Fu.

I was feeling pretty smug about raising my kids to be so culturally fluent, until one day at the JCC. When I took the kids swimming, I had gotten in the habit of pointing out the Hebrew on the pillars and telling them it’s the Jewish language (not that I could read it). I checked a mental box every time I reminded them, “You’re Jewish too.” That day, my son Simon stopped me and asked, “How do I know that I’m Jewish?” And I said, “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”

“How do you know you’re Jewish?”

“Well, because my mom’s Jewish.”

“No mom. How did the first person know they were Jewish?”

I was stumped. “That’s a good question.” That moment I realized that we don’t practice or express our identification as Jews in any outward way—it’s just been a statement of fact. Clearly this falls short, especially compared to the experiences, language and cultural ties that we’ve cultivated on the Chinese side. Simon in his 7-year-old wisdom knew: You have to do something to be part of it and for it to belong to you. Somehow he lasered in on this missing piece of our identity and it sent me spinning. 

So I threw myself into reading Jewish books and met with three different rabbis to start my Jewish education. I even went to my first Passover seder with the kids. It turns out there’s lots of ways to be Jewish and my version is part of the Jewish experience. I’m 38 years old and this is just the beginning of my story about being Jewish… whatever that means.

Amourence Lee lives in a fixer-upper in San Mateo, CA, with her husband, two kids, two chickens and two cats.