A Year without Questions

By Amy Elkes


I have spent years thinking about, analyzing, worrying over, and dissecting the issue of interfaith relationships. As time has passed, I have become more comfortable with my status as one-half of an interfaith couple. I have come to the conclusion that I can still be committed to my Jewish heritage, can still raise Jewish children and generally am not be the threat to Judaism that many think I am. It seems that just about everyone has an opinion on interfaith relationships, but I have worked hard to focus more on my own opinion. In essence, I try to be part of the discourse while blocking out as much as I can of the anger, fear and disdain that are all part of the debate. But this is not always easy.

A year or so ago, when my fiancé and I decided to move to Japan for a job assignment, I was excited about the many unique experiences we would have in the Far East. Neither of us had traveled to this part of the world before, and we were eager to experience a variety of firsts: first authentic sushi dinner, first kimono sighting, first visit to a Shinto shrine, first visit to a Japanese home, and so on. But there was one “first” I did not anticipate–my first time in a culture where almost no one has an opinion about Jewish/non-Jewish relationships. For the last year, we have lived our lives blissfully free of explanation or debate. No one has asked if we have both a Christmas tree and a menorah, who will preside over our wedding, or how we plan to raise our kids. In Japan, we are a couple without the “interfaith” descriptor.

Our union is so breezily accepted here because the vast majority of Japanese people are not Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Though most are aware of each of these religions, they have no history with or attachment to them. Almost all Japanese are a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto (a religion practiced solely by Japanese people, the origins of which can be traced back to the 2nd century B.C.E.). So they are free of many of the historical rivalries, suspicions, and stereotypes associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Tell someone in Japan that you are Jewish, and unless he speaks pretty good English and has spent some time in the West, he is unlikely to understand what you mean. Explain to him in Japanese that you are Yudayajin, and he is likely to look at you as an exotic figure, the way most Americans view robe-clad Buddhist monks.

When visiting the family of my fiancé’s Japanese co-worker last December, the topic of Christmas plans came up. The co-worker’s wife asked if we had found a church in Tokyo where we could attend Christmas services. I explained that because I am Jewish, I do not attend church. “You’re Jewish?” she squealed. “My daughter was good friends with a Jewish girl when we lived in New York! Her family was so kind to us. We love Jewish people!”

In the U.S., I would probably find this sort of tokenism uncomfortable. No one likes her entire religion/ethnicity to be judged on the basis of a single person or experience. But, in Japan, I take these comments for what they are: genuine expressions of curiosity and awe from one of the most homogenous populations in the world. Japan is about as far from the proverbial “melting pot” as a country can be, and many Japanese people will go through their entire lives interacting with very few non-Japanese, let alone Jews. I am a true rarity here.

This brings me to the other reason why I am neither ill at ease being so much in the minority, nor uncomfortable being in an interfaith relationship here. For a society with such a long history of being closed to all outsiders (Japan was closed by law for hundreds of years, until Commodore Perry forced the opening of its borders, if only to trade, in 1858), Japanese people seem remarkably open to other cultures and religions. The very fact that most Japanese people practice both Buddhism and Shintoism without any sense of conflict is indicative of the modern Japanese approach to religion. There may not be many Christians in Japan, but Christmas is widely embraced and celebrated, and the church wedding is a highly sought alternative to the more traditional Japanese ceremony. Japanese people enjoy mixing bits and pieces of other religions with their own, without the fear that surrounds this sort of assimilation in other societies. You can imagine that having, say, a seder and Easter candy would be seen not as a potentially dangerous dilution of two religions, but twice the fun!

When I stop to think about all of this, I find it truly amazing that I feel so relaxed as both an American and a Jew in a country whose not-so-distant history is closely tied to Nazi Germany. Even more remarkable is the fact that it took some 6,000 miles of travel–to another continent and hemisphere–to experience what it is like to be unconditionally accepted as a couple, without anyone questioning us because we don’t practice the same religion.

Of course, I know this is not reality–at least not our reality. We cannot run away and live in a foreign country forever, just because the people there are so tolerant of our interfaith relationship. And I also know that it is easy to be accepting when you do not have a stake in the outcome. The fate of Japanese culture does not rest on the religious practices of Jews married to non-Jews; the fate of Jewish culture in the United States does.

On the other hand, I cannot discount the open attitude the Japanese have toward religion. It is such a unique pleasure to be in a country where each individual is, in fact, interfaith, and where the mixing of religions is seen as an enriching experience.


About Amy Elkes

Amy Elkes and her husband live in New Jersey. They were married in June of 2007.