Recipe: Naturally gluten-free Japanese summer dishes


These days, many are choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. But artificially contrived gluten-free products such as pasta, bread and baked goods can be disappointing. With its rich tradition of rice-based dishes, Japanese cuisine beautifully suits a gluten-free diet. Here are delicious, easy to prepare, gluten-free Japanese rice dishes for spring and summer.

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan

Stir-fried rice dishes make use of one- or two-day-old rice and other ingredients that happen to be on hand. This recipe is one I invented for American audiences to showcase hijiki, my favorite Japanese seaweed. Rich in dietary fiber and minerals, it also has a pleasantly crunchy texture and tastes of the sea. It uses the black hijiki along with Parmesan cheese, cilantro and ginger.

The cheese is the secret to the success of this dish, whose recipe was in my first cookbook, “The Japanese Kitchen.” Fifteen years later, hijiki is much more widely available in this country.

Maze-gohan with parsley, shiso and egg

Maze-gohan, translated as “tossed rice,” is a simple dish of cooked rice tossed with flavorings. This version uses chopped parsley, dried purple shiso leaves and scrambled egg — ingredients that elevate the flavor, color and texture of plain cooked rice into a festive dish. Western-style flavorings can be used instead, such as ground black pepper, crisp butter-browned sliced garlic, finely chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Maze-gohan goes well with any protein dish, such as fish, chicken or meat.

Donburi with teriyaki steak

Donburi dishes combine cooked rice with a topping of separately cooked ingredients and sauce. This one is a beef lover's favorite: I cook the steak in a skillet, cut it into cubes and flavor them with a sizzling sauce of shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) to create everyone's favorite teriyaki sauce.

When it's time to serve the donburi, put the teriyaki beef and sauce over freshly cooked rice for a quick, mouthwatering dish. The sauce trickles down and gives its delicious flavor to the rice. A similar dish can be made with chicken teriyaki.

Corn rice with shoyu and butter

This version of takikomi-gohan is my favorite summer rice dish. I toss the steaming hot, corn-studded rice with the butter and shoyu. As the butter melts in the hot rice with shoyu, it creates a rich and savory flavor that everyone loves.

The diverse world of Japanese cuisine contains hundreds of such naturally gluten-free dishes. If you are looking for more recipes, consult my two books, “The Japanese Kitchen” and “Hiroko's American Kitchen.” Both are widely available and contain detailed instructions to make some of the dishes described here.

Corn and Ginger Rice with Shoyu and Butter

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 ears corn
  • 2 1/4 cups short or medium grain polished white rice, rinsed and soaked 10 minutes, then drained
  • 2 1/2 cups kelp stock or low-sodium vegetable stock
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 1/2 ounces peeled ginger, finely julienned (1/2 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

 

Directions

1. Remove the corn husks and quickly grill the ears over a medium open flame on a gas stove, turning them until the entire surface becomes lightly golden. Or, boil the corn in salted water for 1 minute.

2. Cut each ear of corn in half. Place each half ear on the cut end in a large, shallow bowl and use a knife to separate the individual kernels from the cob. Repeat with all the pieces. You will have about 1 1/2 cups of kernels.

3. Place the drained rice and the stock in a medium heavy pot. Sprinkle the corn, salt and ginger evenly over the rice. Cover the pot with a lid and cook the rice over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until the stock comes to a full boil.

4. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the rice for 6 to 7 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat to very low and cook for 10 minutes.

5. Remove the lid and add the soy sauce and butter. With a spatula, gently and quickly toss and mix the rice. Divide the rice into small bowls and serve.

The long journey from POW to veterans’ advocate


Harry Corre, held as a prisoner of war during World War II by Japanese military forces in the city of Omuta, was behind a brick building when he saw a “tremendous flash.” Looking around the building, he saw an enormous cloud 30 miles across the bay, above Nagasaki, and assumed there had been an air raid in an oil tank field.

In the work camp the next day, said Corre, who was honored by Union Bank and KCETLink at the 16th annual Local Heroes Awards on Oct. 22. “We knew something big had happened.” His fellow prisoners heard the number 25,000, and then 50,000, and presumed there had been a big battle. But on the third day after the flash, the guards of the work camps disappeared. The war that had made Corre a POW twice over had ended.

Raised Jewish in Boston by a single mother, Corre graduated from school at 16, during the Great Depression. 

At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. “I was out of a job at the time,” he said. “The war was getting pretty fierce in Europe,” so he chose to go to the Philippines, the place he thought was least likely to see any fighting. He was “entirely wrong.”

Before the war, American soldiers in the Philippines enjoyed having services like laundry and cleaning done for $1 a month, Corre remembered. When, in 1941, fighting commenced, U.S. Army supplies were sparse and in very bad condition, Corre remembers. “Unfortunately, 90 percent of what we had was from World War I, and a lot had deteriorated.”

Several months into the war, Corre was transferred to Bataan to train Philippine civilians to be soldiers. He remembers it quickly became “an on-the-job type of training,” because of aggressive attacks by the Japanese military. Corre’s men lived on “one-third rations,” less than 800 calories a day. They ate transportation animals, including horses and mules, and, eventually, snakes and monkeys.

Corre recalls his fellow soldiers maintained good morale, but the superior officers ordered them to surrender. “They just did not realize the difference in the culture between the Japanese and American military discipline,” Corre said. “In the American discipline, a superior cannot lay a hand on an American soldier, whereas the Japanese discipline was very harsh physical abuse, such as beating them, and in many cases they would shoot them or cut their heads off.” Corre said the Japanese emperor had declared they should be treated as less than animals.

The infamous Bataan death march followed. By Corre’s estimate, 60,000 Philippine soldiers and 10,000 Americans were forced on the 100-mile trek without food or clean water in sweltering heat. “The men were in very poor physical condition … to begin with,” said Corre, who marched for 24 hours a day with very few stops. Anyone who stopped for any reason, including to get food or water, was shot, bayoneted or beheaded. 

“I found that, after two days, I thought I would not be able to finish [the] march without getting killed for some reason, so I escaped at night in the middle of a storm,” Corre said. He built a raft of any buoyant material he could find and swam four miles in the middle of the night to Corregidor. As he approached, American Marines shot at him, believing he was an infiltrator. Four days after his escape, he arrived in the city of Mariveles. 

Four months later, Corregidor surrendered, and Corre became a prisoner once again. He was moved to the “zero ward” of a prison camp in the Philippines so that he would not spread his recently contracted diphtheria to Japanese soldiers. The disease made him lose control of his right foot, but he could still walk, and he was made to bury some 50 to 70 bodies a day, sometimes as many as 150. 

In 1943, Corre was transported to Fukuoka, Japan, in “more of a rust bucket than anything else,” to work in the coal mines. He worked for a year and a half in a mine that was so hazardous it had been closed to Japanese soldiers, until the atomic bomb was dropped 30 miles across the bay from him, and the war ended.

After spending two months in the aftermath of the nuclear explosion, Corre found a way to return home by boat. Discharged months later at Long Island, N.Y., he sought out a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to inquire about his benefits. The man sitting at the desk in front of him rudely accused Corre of just wanting a “handout.”

“So I gave him the finger and told him to put it where the sun don’t shine and walked out,” said Corre, recalling that the reputation of VA hospitals at that time was “very bad.” 

Corre worked various jobs while attending night school to become an electronics engineer. He worked in the aerospace business for about 30 years, including helping to launch spacecraft from Cape Canaveral and to develop various types of missiles. His last project was at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, working on the “Star Wars” missile defense project. He worked for 26 years for TRW in Redondo Beach, leaving as an assistant project manager. 

After retiring from the aerospace industry, Corre worked in electric repair, before retiring for a second time. Still, he wanted to stay busy. He became a service officer for the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization. After about five years of this work, the director of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center asked him to work part time as a patient advocate for the hospital, a job he has now been doing for more than five years. 

Corre guides veterans through the system, helping them access the care they need. He believes veteran services have “100 percent turned around” since he was first snubbed after his return from World War II. The benefits department is now committed to helping all veterans, he said.

Working for the hospital has even allowed Corre himself to access treatment that he had been missing for decades. He said he did not know he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until he began working in the hospital. Now in his second marriage, he realizes his first wife had a “very, very hard marriage” because of his PTSD symptoms. When asked if he thinks if veterans these days are more aware that they might have the syndrome, he responded, “A crazy man does not know he’s crazy.”

“There is no soldier who has seen any kind of combat action … who has witnessed any kind of horrible scenes of bodies being blown apart, or suicide bombings or IEDs [improvised explosive devices], who can come home without having PTSD,” Corre said. 

Corre knows the war changed his perspectives in many things, including religion. “Yes, I am still Jewish, I will always be Jewish,” he said, but his practice is different from the way that he grew up. “The war changed that. … My viewpoint is very wide open,” Corre said. 

He believes he would now be considered an agnostic. “I have a very dim view of religion and what it can do for you. I will respect everybody for their own views and what they believe in. I have my own views, and now I am 90 years old, and I still feel the same way.”

Dining out: On a roll


Matana sounds Japanese, but it is actually the Hebrew word for “gift.” Matana Sushi & Grill, the Agoura Hills deli-grill-sushi bar that is gradually absorbing and adapting tastes from around the world, began its life as the much more prosaically named Agoura Kosher Deli, a spare dining establishment in a pleasant mini-mall off Reyes Adobe Road.

Owner Isaac Eylesh thought of the deli as “traditional,” which meant it offered the food of Eastern Europe and of Israel — pastrami sandwiches, pargiot (grilled, spiced chicken skewers), roast beef and falafel plates. Chef Yocheved Tessler worked on homemade soups and fresh salads and catered local Chabad events. Beer, wine, cold sodas, sweet teas and juices were available from the cooler case on the wall. Desserts were a selection of pastries and parve soy ice creams. It was a popular neighborhood eatery.

But customers asked for more. They wanted a variety of simple, “fast” foods made with good, kosher ingredients. Eylesh responded by upgrading the deli into a deli and grill. He added juicy burgers, kosher hot dogs and schnitzel to the menu. The food was popular with locals and travelers passing by on the freeway, alerted to the deli by smart-phone apps like Kosher Kritic.

Agoura Hills is a relatively new city, with a short food history. The area was developed after the construction of the Ventura Freeway changed the Conejo Valley from hills that were home to Basque sheepherders and valleys occupied by a few ranchers into a reasonable place for the diverse peoples of Southern California to find more space and quiet. The San Fernando Valley was already long suburbanized. Those who had fled the city for its open spaces were almost urban themselves. Agoura was the next frontier.

Eylesh himself came from Encino, where his immediate previous restaurant experience was at Super Sal market. The first sushi rolls on Matana’s menu came from Super Sal and were only available for families to pick up before the restaurant closed on Friday afternoons for Shabbat. Customers loved them.

And so, last April, Eylesh closed the deli completely to build a real sushi bar adjacent to the dining room. He hired Dennis Kim, a sushi chef, to create the menu. Subsequently, Kim hired sushi chef Giho You to greet customers from behind the traditional counter as he diced, chopped, folded and rolled. A blue and white cloth banner displaying a fish was hung between the sushi bar and the kitchen, and Matana Sushi & Grill was born.

Matana’s fish comes exclusively from a kosher supplier. Besides the obvious requirements of fins and scales, kashrut’s concern with fish is mostly about contact with nonkosher food or implements. Any whole permitted fish can be used for sushi as long as it is cut in a kosher setting.

So far, Matana’s customers mostly stick to rolls made with the familiar salmon, spicy tuna, whitefish and albacore, but if given the chance, Chef You can create unusual and delicious concoctions from just about any fish. The rolls are fresh and the salty taste of the crisp nori and salmon contrast nicely with the spicy flavors of the tuna, the spicy mayo and the dark sweet sauce.

The restaurant is still a work in progress. The new sign over the entrance promises Chinese food as well as sushi, but the Chinese food and bento boxes are still in the planning stages. Eylesh and his staff monitor what customers enjoy and look for ways to expand the offerings and attract the adventurous.

They’ve taken on a lot already, and there are the typical new-venture kinks to work out: Waitresses don’t show up, some menu items are unexpectedly popular while others are left unordered. On a recent Monday morning, Eylesh was working the cash register, delivering orders to the tables, welcoming guests and ordering supplies on the phone. The sushi chef helped out, finding desserts in the kitchen, bringing a waiting child his brownie. Customers seemed pleasantly patient and eager to see the place succeed.

There is a spirit of community here. Two young girls at the sushi bar, just 14 and 10, are familiar with several sophisticated sushi restaurants in L.A. but were perfectly happy with the more American-style spicy mayo and sweet sauce on their sushi rolls.

They were excited to talk about Matana’s summertime experiment in which the restaurant opened after the end of Shabbat with a limited menu and music. One Saturday night, there was karaoke, another night there was a popular local band. Sushi chef You says there have been lines out the door for the sushi bar on Saturday nights.

Who knows what will develop next at Matana? Sushi doesn’t show up in traditional Jewish cookbooks. Traditions change. The abundance of possibility — and the possibility of abundance — is a gift, one that is celebrated right off the freeway, in this still beautiful, open, mostly quiet place.

Matana Sushi & Grill, Reyes Adobe Plaza, 30313 Canwood St., Agoura Hills. (818) 706-1255.

Sony, Japanese band apologize for Nazi costumes


Sony Music apologized after the popular Japanese rock group Kishidan appeared on MTV Japan wearing SS-like uniforms.

The apology Wednesday came after The Simon Wiesenthal Center called on the band, Sony and MTV to apologize.

In a message posted on the band’s website, Sony said it was sorry for the costume worn by the band during the MTV interview.

“Although it was not meant to carry any ideological meaning whatsoever we deeply regret and apologize for the distress it has caused Simon Wiesenthal Center and all concerned,” the letter read. “Members of Kishidan also deeply regret and apologize to you in this matter.

“We have duly received the words of advice from Simon Wiesenthal Center and take them very seriously. Kishidan will never again use this costume and it will be disposed of immediately. We will not broadcast, transmit, or distribute the video recording of Kishidan’s performance with the said costume and the recording will be disposed of immediately.”

The center had offered to bring a Holocaust survivor to Japan to be interviewed on MTV Japan.

The six male members of Kishidan are known for wearing Japanese school uniforms. The uniforms they wore for their Feb. 23 interview included an insignia used by the SS, according to reports.

‘‘As someone who has visited Japan over 30 times, I am fully aware that many young Japanese are woefully uneducated about the crimes against humanity committed during World War II by Imperial Japan in occupied Asia, let alone about Nazi Germany’s genocidal ‘Final Solution’ against the Jews in Europe,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement. “But global entities like MTV and Sony Music should know better.”

“Such garb like the uniform worn by Kishidan is never tolerated in the mainstream of any civilized country outside of Japan. In spite of all the efforts made by democracies to combat bigotry, racism and hate crimes, there are young people who are attracted to a racist ideology and the symbols of Nazism like those that inspired the uniforms worn by Kishidan. It is wrong for anyone, including people in Japan, to dismiss such marketing as mere ‘faux-rebellion.’ ”

Cooper called on the band to apologize to its fans and to the victims of Nazism.

Wiesenthal Center tells Japanese band to apologize for SS attire


The Simon Wiesenthal Center called on the Japanese rock group Kishidan to apologize for wearing SS-like uniforms during an MTV Japan interview.

The center also criticized MTV and Sony Music for allowing the interview with Kishidan to air and offered to bring a Holocaust survivor to Japan to be interviewed on MTV Japan.

The six male members of the popular Japanese pop group are known for wearing Japanese school uniforms. The uniforms they wore for their Feb. 23 interview included insignia used by the SS, according to reports.

‘‘As someone who has visited Japan over 30 times, I am fully aware that many young Japanese are woefully uneducated about the crimes against humanity committed during World War II by Imperial Japan in occupied Asia, let alone about Nazi Germany’s genocidal ‘Final Solution’ against the Jews in Europe. But global entities like MTV and Sony Music should know better,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said in the statement.

“Such garb like the uniform worn by Kishidan is never tolerated in the mainstream of any civilized country outside of Japan. In spite of all the efforts made by democracies to combat bigotry, racism and hate crimes, there are young people who are attracted to a racist ideology and the symbols of Nazism like those that inspired the uniforms worn by Kishidan. It is wrong for anyone, including people in Japan, to dismiss such marketing as mere ‘faux-rebellion.’ ”

Cooper called on the band to apologize to its fans and to the victims of Nazism.

The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?


For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at fsafran@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.

And Mari Makes Three


Another woman has come into my relationship with my boyfriend, and she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us.

A week ago, a 22-year-old Japanese foreign exchange student named Mari moved in with us for the month while she studies English in the morning and hip-hop dances in the afternoon.

She is everything you could want in a boarder. She’s polite, she came bearing gifts — a bottle of sake, two sets of lacquered chopsticks and a fan splashed with a Japanese mountain range — and she insists on washing dishes. I actually had to stop her from washing a paper bowl, that’s how sweet she is.

Mari, though she would never know it, may be saving my hobbled and frequently toxic relationship, at least for now.

Aside from being tiny, a taut wisp of a thing with streaky highlights in her bobbed hair, she is totally vulnerable. Even with her handheld electronic translating device, it’s difficult for her to communicate. She has never been to this country before, and everything from her bus pass to our currency is unfamiliar. We are all she has.

As her “home stay” parents, we are only required to provide a room, breakfast and dinner. Still, Mari, with her plastic bag full of gifts and her misspelled “Monkey Buisiness” T-shirt, is bringing out the best in us.

The night before her first day of school, my boyfriend, Brandon, spent an hour mapping out her bus route on the Internet.

“I think she’ll be OK,” he said, looking worried. “But maybe you should walk her. Don’t forget, her bus leaves at 11:46 a.m.”

The next morning, Mari made herself a bowl of cereal, washed her dishes and packed up her backpack for school. When we arrived at her bus stop on Virgil Street, the bench was littered with a pile of gnarled chicken bones. I was slightly embarrassed for my countrymen.

“Gross,” I said pointing.

“Yes, gross,” she said, but just laughed, gamely.

An urge from somewhere in the kishkas compelled me to give the girl a hug as I wished her luck in school. On my walk home, I was already planning what to make the three of us for dinner. Later that afternoon, I picked up some extra milk for her cereal.

As it happens, having a witness to your life and to your relationship can be positive. With Mari around, we can’t leave messes or get in three-hour fights about nothing or eat a tub of macaroni and cheese for dinner on the couch while watching six TiVo’ed episodes of “Lost.” Without discussing it, we have morphed into this “show” couple; part real, part what we wish we were.

We have this routine at the dinner table. Brandon teases me if I finish a beer, making a drinking motion with his hand, as if to imply that I drink too much. That’s when I say: “He is handsome, but not smart,” pointing to my head. This makes Mari laugh every time, a kind of remedial vocabulary vaudeville act. It’s the kind of faux-sparring an actual, real-life happy couple might engage in, and even though it’s forced by our joint need to entertain our guest — and even though we’ve been fighting for months since he moved out here from New York — it makes us feel happy, like a forced smile can make you feel happy.

One night, she was taking a late dance class and wasn’t scheduled to be home until after dark. I could see Brandon looking out the window, pacing. We decided to pick her up at the subway stop, waiting across the street at the Circle K. When she saw us waving to her out the car window, the look on her face was pure euphoria and gratitude.

“Thank you! Thank you!” she kept repeating all the way home.

And I don’t even mind how cheesy this sounds: money can’t buy that feeling.

Speaking of money, don’t think I’m some Mother Teresa taking in needy students to get closer to God. No, I’m just a girl with a mortgage.

Here’s the equation: spotty freelance income + many months since last fulltime television job + three-bedroom house = foreclosure. When a friend forwarded the language school’s Craig’s List posting, I thought, I’m saved.

So, as I bragged to my friends about becoming Mrs. Garrett from “The Facts of Life,” I booked not only Mari and another Japanese student for when she leaves, but also a 17-year-old French girl who arrives in October. My friends joke that maybe I shouldn’t be welcoming a parade of young women into my relationship. This concern is beyond me. I’m not the jealous type. If one of my students gets a job hosting a network show, she’ll be out on the street. But sleeping with my boyfriend? I don’t even worry about it. I may have problems with Brandon, but he’s no sleazebag.

And when it comes to playing the role of tall, handsome happy American man who can make spaghetti and who cares about your bus route, he’s pretty convincing. Even to me.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

Japane wish American Reflections


If there is such a thing, I am your typical Japanewish
American Princess.

My Mom is Japanese American, my Dad is ethnically Jewish
and, in a wonderful embrace, I came to be. Growing up in a town in which racial
and religious combinations were not the norm, my two heritages naturally
blended into one. Kamaboko (fish cake) and matzah ball soup were just as normal
to me as they were odd to everyone else. On several occasions, my brother and I
would joke about being double-teamed by our parents, whose academic standards
were sky-high. Mom and Dad seemed to be the only ones on the block who
strategically transformed games of report cards and SAT scores into two-on-one
situations. But no matter how much I still accuse them of being ruthless, they
didn’t team up to be mean — they just wanted us to be the best we could be.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Mom and Dad when they
decided to marry — particularly Dad. Sure, he was committing himself to Mom.
But what he was really committing himself to was a lifetime of fish heads and
pickled weeds (as he calls Japanese food), chopsticks and a New Year’s
superstition — if you don’t arrive for breakfast by 8 a.m. sharp, you’ll have
an unlucky year. He was entering a world in which strong opinions weren’t
always vocally expressed, and oishikunai (unappetizing) dinners ruined entire
evenings. Life was all about the family — and all about the family meal.

Dad likes to tell me that he and Mom were like night and
day, that their looks, foods and personalities didn’t match up. But what
mattered most did match. Beneath the superficialities, they discovered
deep-rooted similarities like the centrality of family, the value of education,
a curiosity about the world around them and a strong belief in doing the right
thing. No matter how odd a couple they might have seemed to others during their
high school and college days, they in fact belonged together.

Like Dad, Mom also encountered another culture. Visiting
Dad’s family meant stepping out of her house, into his, where food was half as
important and conversation was twice as loud. Mom tiptoed between bursts of
song and unrestrained vocalized opinions at the dinner table. But no matter how
much her culture initially clashed with Dad’s, it was nothing that time
couldn’t resolve.

In fact, in time, the two cultures cross-sectioned so much
that they eventually flipped sides. In a cabinet beside my parents’ bedroom, an
otafuku (a charm symbolizing motherhood) sits next to a Sandy Koufax mug. The
great marriage of Japanese woman to Jewish man displayed in our own bookcase!
And yet the irony of this odd juxtaposition is that Sandy Koufax was Mom’s
childhood idol and otafuku was omiyage (a souvenir) Dad brought back from a
trip to Japan. If cultural harmony can exist inside a cabinet, it sure as heck
can exist in the world — can’t it?

Mom and Dad didn’t raise my brother and me in the Jewish
religious tradition. To make up for it, Dad likes to remind us that we are in
fact Jewish — even if just by culture. He loves to point out Jewish-sounding
names like “Schulman” and “Leibowitz,” tell me I get my “good looks and poysonality”
from hi, and comments after whistling “Nice Work If You Can Get It” that the
Gershwins — two Jewish guys from New York — “could sure write ’em!” He also
never misses the opportunity to nudge me and say, “How about finding a nice
Jewish boy?” I think most of the time he’s just kidding — but I’m not always
sure.

Since there aren’t very many Asian Jews, I often wonder if
my unusual ethnic combination is simply weird. After all, it’s not every day
that I run into an edamame-eating Woody Allen movie-lover like myself.

 In the hope to discover I’m not alone, I’ve recently
scrounged for Asian/Jewish history. I discovered that three groups of Jews from
Spain, Portugal, Iraq and India lived in the Indian cities of Kerala and Bombay
during the 19th century, and Persian Jews lived in Kaifeng, China, as far back
as the 15th century.Â

In both India and China, cultural mixing took place — the
Jews of Cochin developed a version of the Indian caste system, and the Persian
Jews intermarried so much that they became physically indistinguishable from
the Chinese. Not to mention the Jews who fled from concentration camps to China
during World War II. These Asian Jews, and particularly the offspring of
intercultural marriage, must have felt what I feel now — both joy and distress
for being different.

My problem lies therein. I hate standing out in a crowd,
proving my American nationality, and justifying my nonreligious Jewishness. I
hate the discrimination, the classification, the ambiguity. But I love being
different. I love telling folks I am both Japanese and Jewish, that my nose may
be small and cute, but my hair is wild and frizzy.

After ranting to a friend about the absence of Japanewish
history, he in turn replied, “But that’s what makes you so interesting.”

I’m almost convinced I don’t really need a history, that I’m
strong enough without one. Put it that way, and I realize I’ve been running in
circles for the missing puzzle piece, not realizing that the puzzle was already
complete. But maybe the exercise has been good. Maybe I’ve just been running
through the cycle of self-discovery like everybody else.

Sure, I hope to find my place somehow, sometime. And if it’s
in a Japanewish American homeland, even better. But, until I find it, I’ll just
keep wandering. It’s too hard to know everything. And anyway, isn’t life more
exciting when you don’t? Â


Ellen Fuji is an L.A. native, a freelance writer and an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Divine Fight


When Benjamin Andron, a second-degree black belt, bows in at the beginning of the martial arts class he teaches, he always keeps his eyes raised.

This subtle variation on the traditional Chinese and Japanese lowering of the eyes acknowledges that respect for God is supreme above all else.

It is one of several differences in approach that makes Tora Dojo a distinctly Jewish discipline.
Founded about 35 years ago by Yeshiva University professor Haim I. Sober, Tora Dojo takes the philosophy and structure of the martial arts and places it in a Jewish framework.

Andron, whose father, Michael, was the first Tora Dojo black belt and mother, Lillian, was the first female black belt, for the first time brings this discipline to Los Angeles, with classes taught at a Westside congregation.

Tora Dojo — Tora is the Japanese word for tiger — focuses and channels a person’s energy to help him or her achieve the centeredness that is necessary to handle blows, both internal and external, as they come in, Andron says.

“The moves are combative by nature. But while we might be fighting anti-Semitism or an enemy, we are also fighting the things that are holding us back, the veils that hide the divine spark within us,” says Andron, a 24-year-old who moved to L.A. from Florida to get into the movie business, possibly choreographing fight scenes.

Thus, when Andron begins his class, the rooting, or guided meditation, is grounded in kabbalistic methods.
That kind of concentration can be an asset not only when doing battle. Andron, who is modern Orthodox, says it helps him achieve a higher level of kavanah, concentration, during his daily prayers.

And always there is the knowledge that the discipline, founded in the post-Holocaust era, can make the Jewish people stronger.

“It may be difficult for Jews to stand tall and try to be an example for other nations to follow, with all the things that keep pushing us down,” Andron says. “The martial arts helps us fight from a centered position so we don’t get knocked over.”

Benjamin Andron teaches Tora Dojo classes Monday and Thursday evenings at B’nai David-Judea Congregation, 8906 W. Pico Blvd. Children’s classes (ages 7-11) 6-7 p.m., adults 7-9 p.m.

Michael Andron, one of only two seventh-degree black belts in Tora Dojo, will be holding an exhibition in forms, weapons, breaking and meditation Thursday, Dec. 14, 8 p.m., at B’nai David-Judea.

For information, call (310) 788-0045 or e-mail heng-chi-neng@mindspring.com,
www.kodesh.org.

Sugihara’s Mitzvah


Diane Estelle Vicari and Robert Kirk cheered when the Japanese foreign ministry apologized to Chiune Sugihara’s family this month.

The filmmakers’ acclaimed documentary, “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” which screens at the International Jewish Film Festival this month, helped build the international pressure that pushed Japan to posthumously acknowledge its greatest Holocaust hero.

“Sugihara” tells of the diplomat who defied his government by issuing thousands of visas to help Jews flee Kovno, Lithuania, on the cusp of the Shoah. For four harrowing weeks in summer 1941, Sugihara worked 16-hour days to complete the visas before the Russians shut down his consulate. He scribbled more on the ride to the train station while leaving the country; still more on the railroad platform while desperate Jews clung to the window of his train compartment. “He was so exhausted, like a sick person,” his widow, Yukiko, recalls in the documentary.

Because of Sugihara’s courage, more than 40,000 Jews, survivors and their descendants, are alive today. But disobeying orders cost him dearly. After the war, the “Japanese Schindler” was dismissed from government service and reduced to menial work. He spent his later years working in Moscow, where he lived alone in a squalid hotel room. “He barely smiled,” Sugihara’s grandson says in the movie.

The attention granted “Conspiracy of Kindness” is helping to right the old wrong. This year, the movie won best documentary at the Hollywood Film Festival; there was a standing ovation at a United Nations screening and Japanese leaders have expressed interest in a private screening. Just last month, the filmmakers won the prestigious International Documentary Association/Pare Lorentz Award.

Producer Vicari, 45, who took up filmmaking eight years ago, accepted her prize while recovering from pneumonia contracted while completing the documentary. “It’s been an incredibly long, difficult journey,” she says,”but also an incredible honor.”

Vicari admits she’s the last person one would expect to obsess for more than four years about a Holocaust-themed film. She grew up French-Catholic in the flat farm country outside Montreal, the daughter of a barn-and-silo painter-contractor. Not a single Jew lived in her town, she says, and not a single word was taught about the Holocaust at her Catholic school.

“There wasn’t any anti-Semitism, but there was terrible racism,” adds the producer, who defied her parents by riding her bicycle onto the Indian reservation or meeting Iroquois friends at a Dairy Queen three miles from home. When her neighbors spewed epithets about Native Americans, she knew they were lying.

That explains why Vicari was riveted when she learned about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. In 1994, Vicari, a fashion designer-turned-filmmaker, volunteered to work at Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, where she was appalled to discover she knew next to nothing about the Holocaust. She immersed herself in Shoah research, sat in on interviews and then began to interview survivor after survivor.

But the endeavor took its toll. Vicari suffered nightmares after every interview – until she chanced to learn about Chiune Sugihara.

The scene was a reception honoring the diplomat’s widow at the Museum of Tolerance in February 1995. Tiny, graceful, soft-spoken Yukiko Sugihara recalled the sad crowd outside the Kovno consulate; the Jewish women gazing at her with “great sorrow” or pleading with clasped hands.

“Previously, I had learned only about the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust,” Vicari says. “Learning about Sugihara was like a pearl.”

Director Kirk, who is Jewish, admits he previously turned down every Holocaust-themed project that had come his way. “I was chicken,” he says. “I thought it would be too painful. But Sugihara’s story was uplifting.”

“Conspiracy of Kindness” posits that the diplomat dared disobey his government because he was an iconoclast: He defied his father by refusing to enter medical school; he quit his post in Manchuria after witnessing Japanese atrocities there; he spoke fluent Russian and German and was, Kirk says, “an internationalist.”

Vicari, for her part, hopes to dedicate the rest of her career to subjects worthy of Sugihara. Her next film will expose neo-Nazism in the U.S. “We see the Holocaust as something outside America, but we’re wearing blinders,” she says. “We don’t realize that hatred is alive and well among us.”

“Sugihara” screens 7:30 p.m., Nov. 14, at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (818) 786-4000.