Marilyn Green After graduating from college with a degree in literature, Marilyn Green spent two years in rural Japan teaching English, practicing martial arts and writing novels. She is now in the U.S. visiting as many of her Cuban and Jewish relatives as possible before moving to Beijing in the fall.
Interdating in a Foreign Land
I was pretty sure I would be the only one eating the gefilte fish.
My mother had shipped two jars all the way to Japan for me, along with four boxes of matzah (unleavened bread, eaten at Passover), two bottles of horseradish sauce, a tin of macaroons, and a box of matzah ball soup mix. I had intended to make baked gefilte fish, which looks reasonably appetizing. But my kitchen, or rather my boyfriend Javier's kitchen, was limited to a single gas burner and a microwave with buttons labeled in Japanese. Considering everything else that I had to prepare for the seder (ritual meal) that night, I had the feeling that the gefilte fish was going to end up on a plate in its natural state, with maybe a garnish of parsley.
I would be the only Jew at my seder. It would be a first seder for all my guests, but the Americans at least knew what I was talking about when I invited them. Javier, an Argentine of Japanese descent, had never even heard of Passover.
I found that I was a little nervous when I asked Javier, a month before, if I could hold a ceremony he knew nothing about, for a religion that was not his own, in his apartment. Yet I had a practical reason for wanting it there: Javier lived in the capital city of the prefecture, while I lived in a small town an hour away that would be impossible for most of my city friends to get to.
I also wanted to make sure that Javier would be able to come.
"Sure," he had said, smiling, I could hold the seder there. I wondered if he could really be that comfortable with the idea. I doubted that I would have been.
A month later, as he watched me unpack flat bread and unrecognizable fish products, Javier said, "Maybe I'll go somewhere else tonight."
"I don't have to do it here, if you don't want me to," I said, looking up from the box of whole wheat matzah that I'd been unearthing from among pages of old Boston Globes.
"No, but maybe you'd be more comfortable without me here," he said.
"No, no," I said. "I want you here, if you're okay with it. It's a holiday that we celebrate with family, but we always invite some non-Jews, to share the culture with them."
I did want Javier to experience part of my culture, but the seder was also a way of showing him that my religion was important to me.
We hadn't talked that much about religion; or if we had, it had been in the context of our lives in our home countries, not our life together in Japan. I knew that he was Catholic, that he had been active in the church. He knew that I was Jewish and that I didn't keep kosher. I had grown accustomed to the cross swinging from the key chain that he wore on a cord around his neck, and I didn't want him to think that just because I only wore my Star of David occasionally, that my religion was not part of my life.
But living in Japan, for both of us, meant that our religions were very far away. He didn't go to church; I hadn't made the ten-hour drive to the nearest synagogue since Rosh Hashanah, before I met Javier.
In our daily lives we found more than enough other differences--national, cultural, linguistic--to keep us busy, and it seemed that neither of us had a problem with a mixed relationship, at least in theory. I didn't want that to mean simply avoiding any mention of religion. However, nor did I want Javier to feel that I was trying to impose my traditions on him.
I was still nervous about my seder, but I needn't have been. All my guests were open and interested, and, at my urging, everyone managed to at least try the gefilte fish.
But the seder is only the beginning of Passover, just as Judaism is more than the holidays. It is one thing to tolerate someone's differences on the feast days, and another to deal with them on a daily basis. I kept eating matzah, and my steady resistance to leavening spoke more for my commitment to my religion than any amount of cooking I might have done for the seder.
While Javier did, predictably, enjoy the traditional game of eating bread in front of a Passover-observing Jew, he managed not to order pizza that week. More importantly, he shared the matzah with me, even when he didn't have to. That was what I had hoped for: that we would each be able to take part in the other's religion and culture without fearing that it meant compromising our own.
And not all our traditions are as hard to swallow as we might think. After Passover was over, when we were searching the empty refrigerator for a snack, Javier was the one who suggested the gefilte fish.