Japanese Journal 4: Food and Culture

I decided to make カツ丼 (katsudon) for New Year’s this year. It’s definitely the most complicated thing I’ve ever made for New Year’s—our family’s usual dinner is fried chicken and New Year’s pretzel—but I really wanted to make it for everyone and I hadn’t thought of it in time for Chanukah and I was too busy making cookies during Christmas.

It was a wild goose chase of strange Asian markets to try and find the ingredients. I found a surprising number of them in my local grocery store—who knew Giant Eagle carried mirin?—but at the end of my day of shopping, during which I had asked かつおぶしはどこですか (katsuoboshi was the thing I was looking for: it’s dried tuna flakes) more times than I can count, I ended up in a strange little Oriental market in a tiny strip mall that shared a parking lot with a Red Lobster.

My siblings, who made the mistake of deciding to come along, petered around the market, whispering to each other because speaking English in the market felt a little bit like infringing on the delicate island of Asian culture within the massive sea of English-speaking America. When I muttered to myself, I very deliberately did so in Japanese, for the same reason. It felt like a heinous act of cultural appropriation to so much as exist in that store, and even more so to speak in a non-Asian language.

I failed to find what I was looking for, so I bought a poor substitute (dried scallops) and we went home. During the car ride, we talked about the way it felt to be Jews infringing on Asian culture. Then, as we walked into the house, I saw that my sister was carrying a bag with some brightly-colored packages in it. Knowing that she had a hard time even navigating the store since everything was in some combination of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, I wondered what it was that she had picked up.

“What is that?” I asked, gesturing to the packages.

“Oh! This is a dessert dumpling thingy that we all had when we went to Hong Kong! Everyone loved it, and I saw it, so I picked up some!” She proceeded to rant enthusiastically about how good the thing was, and as soon as we got home, she took out one of the packages and made it right there and then. She was right. It was awesome.

After we ate our dessert dumpling thingies, which turned out to be called milk yolk buns, I started cooking my カツ丼. The first thing I did was boil the dried scallops to make a poor substitute for だし (tuna broth). Then, I went about making とんかつ. I heated the oil and set up everything I needed to bread the pork tenderloins, then breaded them as I watched the oil heat up in the pot. When the oil was hot enough that a panko crumb dropped into it would float right to the top, I started frying the breaded pork. At some point, my sister put on some 80s rock.

As we all cooked and ate and hung around, I remembered something. One of our first missteps on our wild goose chase for katsuoboshi was an Indian market. While searching up and down the aisles, one of my sisters asked for help from an older Indian man. He said that he’d never heard of what we were looking for, since the store didn’t even carry Japanese foods, but he was very happy that we were here, and he recommended trying some Indian food if we’d never had some. He even gave us a specific restaurant at which we should do so.

And that got me thinking. If I was walking around a Jewish market—I’ve never been to one, since Giant Eagle has a good Kosher section, but if I had—and somebody came around and clearly had no clue what they were doing, I would have been happy to help them out. Obviously, if they’re here, they have some interest in Jewish food: how awesome is that?! Somebody who isn’t a part of my culture wants to learn about it! I couldn’t imagine myself thinking of it as anything other than flattering.

On a regular basis, my family has goyish visitors over for the High Holidays. We love sharing our culture with people who aren’t a part of it. And as I thought about it, so did that Indian man who saw clearly non-Indian people trolling through an Indian market looking confused. So did the person who hosted my siblings when they stayed in Hong Kong, who taught them about the milk yolk buns. And so would I, if I had been in either of those positions.

Nowadays, we hear all about cultural appropriation. It’s a terrible, awful thing to do, they say. But what exactly is it? What counts? Because if I saw a goy wearing a yarmulke or making latkas, my first thought would be “wow, that’s neat!”

As a member of a minority culture myself, I’ve never understood why “cultural appropriation” is a separate concept from “ridicule” and “theft”. The times when it makes sense for people to shout “cultural appropriation” seem to fall into those two categories: either someone is imitating a kind of cultural stereotype that ridicules the culture in question, or else a corporation is stealing art made by a culture without paying the people who actually came up with the art in the first place.

If cultural appropriation is just ridicule and theft as they relate to culture, then obviously it’s bad, but ridicule and theft are already bad. Why have a separate word? And further, I’ve heard some people calling “cultural appropriation” when someone does something like show genuine interest in a culture, or want to combine parts of that culture with parts of their own. And, speaking again as a member of a minority culture… I appreciate the effort, but I think people are trying to protect me from something I really don’t need to be protected from.

When some other culture steals American majority culture, nobody complains. In Japan, people celebrate Christmas, but they do it in some notably Japanese ways. Notably, there is no “Christ” in Japanese Christmas: a very small fraction of Japanese people are Christian. Further, they have a specific Christmas cake; Christmas is time for couples, not families; and on Christmas Day, they eat KFC. Basically, Japanese people stole American Christmas and made it theirs. They committed the sin of cultural appropriation. Right?

Not really. Here’s the key difference, and it doesn’t have to do with minority vs majority cultures. The things that we call “cultural appropriation” that are genuinely despicable happen when someone steals a culture or cultural tradition and pretends that it’s theirs, that they own it. The sorts of things people call “cultural appropriation” that are actually fine happen when someone uses aspects of a culture or cultural tradition, but respects the origins of the culture and defers to the people who actually have that cultural background. They borrow, they don’t steal.

You don’t need a “get out of cultural appropriation free” card from a Real Member Of That Culture™ in order to be able to borrow culture. You can borrow whatever culture you want, so long as you do it respectfully. Understand that the Real Members Of The Culture are the keepers of their culture, if not the proprietary practitioners of it. And ask them questions, not permission.

We native Jews are the keepers of our culture. If you would like to borrow it, we would be flattered. Yes, you should learn about our culture before you try to imitate it, since otherwise you might accidentally imitate a stereotype. Yes, you shouldn’t mass market Jewish art without compensating the Jews who did the art. (Art theft is still art theft, and it’s still bad.) But none of that means you’re not allowed to have latkas for the Fourth of July if you like. In fact, they’ll fit in perfectly with all that deep-fried American goodness. (Please eat latkas. I love them and I’m sick of having to explain to people what they are.)

Here’s a passage from the Passover Haggadah. “All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and make Passover.” Basically, if you want to come in and celebrate our holiday with us, we’d be happy to grab you a yarmulke and a place setting. I think if everyone had that kind of attitude towards culture, the would could be a better, more unified place.

よいお年をお迎えください。(Happy New Year.)


The Importance of Support

Being Jewish was always something I felt like I was in the abstract. I had a different culture than most people, I celebrated different holidays, I had a different native country, my family spoke a different language. I was different, sure, but not in any way that mattered.

Otherwise, I’m just like every other American. I celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks. I stay up late on New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop on TV. Unlike many Jews, I even celebrate Christmas: my dad grew up Christian, so we decided to maintain the tradition from his side of the family. Being Jewish never got in the way of these things.

When I told people I was Jewish, I was sometimes met with confusion, but rarely with hate. In fact, it happened so infrequently that I can recall each individual instance.

This is why I was so shaken when I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. I didn’t understand how this man could look at a bunch of people who celebrated our holidays like he celebrated Christmas, who had a native culture and history like other Americans might be Irish or Norse, but who were also American citizens just like anyone else, and decide we must be eradicated off the face of the earth.

How do you look at my family on Rosh Hashannah, smiling and laughing and passing around a brisket like many families would pass around a honey ham on Christmas, and decide that “all Jews must die”?

I don’t think I can hope to know, but I was scared nonetheless.

I personally am relatively safe. I go to a different synagogue which doesn’t happen to be in a Jewish neighborhood, and I only go on high holidays when they have a decent amount of security. Everyone I know personally, even those who go to the Tree of Life, is okay. But though that diminishes the fear for the personal safety of those I know, it doesn’t do anything about the more general fear I have for my people.

If you’re a member of a majority culture, you may not understand the strong bond between members of a minority one. Try to think of it as if all Jews are members of the same extended family. (Technically speaking, with Jews in particular this is actually true; you can only become Jewish by marriage or by being the child of a Jewish family, so all Jews are in some sense related.) So, though nobody I knew personally was killed or injured, many members of my extended family were. And that feels pretty awful.

There is a light in the fog, though. It’s the reason I decided to write this essay, as opposed to many others I could have written around a similar topic. And that light is the fact that a lot of people, all of them goyim, have been asking me questions like these.

“Jen… are you okay? I mean I know you weren’t in it but… anyone you knew?”

“Hey, you okay? Cole mentioned you live near Pittsburgh.”

“Is your family safe?”

I’ve never had so many people asking after me before. It was really nice to know that so many people cared. It helped me to realize that, in the words of my skating coach, “Those who hate are a small percentage of the country. The people who love are so many more in number and power and we will always win in the end.” Just because one man thinks that I shouldn’t exist doesn’t mean that everyone thinks that.

This is the importance of support. And it’s not just about mass shootings that make national news; it’s about every crisis, big and small. If you ask one simple question, “are you okay”, you can lift one straw off someone’s breaking back. You can make their day that much more bearable. If you ever question whether or not to reach out to someone going through hardship, do it. Reach out.

It really does help.

Why My Rabbi Asked, “Who Here is an Atheist?”

One morning in autumn many years ago, I was sitting in synagogue with my family. My granddad used to drag us there when he came over for the high holidays. Most of the service was spent on ritual prayers and readings in Hebrew, so I wasn’t paying much attention.

That is, until my rabbi asked a very odd question. “Who here is an atheist? Please raise your hands.”

I blinked in confusion as I watched the hands go up around me. From my vantage point (standing on top of the chair so I could see when the rabbi blew the shofar, which was always my favorite part of every service), I could see that maybe three-quarters of the synagogue had put their hands up.

Seeing the hands of my family raised around me as an indication that it was socially acceptable to do so, I put mine up as well. None of us had ever really believed the God stuff, after all, but I’d always thought we were a minority in this respect. Evidently not.

The rabbi nodded. Though his speech has eroded in my memory, it went something like this. “Faith is a tool to be used towards the goal of doing good deeds. If you wish to use that tool, you may; though I see many of you are not in need of it. But all of us must remember that it is just a tool. If you have all the faith and love for God in the world, but you are cruel to your fellow man, you are not a good Jew. You cannot fall into the Christian trap of worshipping the tool in absence of its purpose; you would not praise a hammer except for its ability to pound in nails.”

I came away from this with the realization cemented in my mind that Judaism is not fundamentally a religion. It is fundamentally an ethnicity and a culture.

If Judaism were primarily a religion, it would have some pretty major problems. For one, Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize: that thing that Christians do where they try to convert you to Christianity, we can’t do that. Nowhere in our holy books does it say that you’ll go to Hell if you’re not a Jew. And the reason for that is another reason that Judaism wouldn’t work well as a major religion: converting to Judaism is really hard. The two main ways of converting are marrying a Jew and being adopted by a Jewish family.

If you look at Judaism as a culture and ethnicity that simply arose from a religion, though, these things make sense. The quality of “Jewish-ness” is within my family, within my bloodline, and unless I choose to marry or adopt you (either of which would add you to my family), I can’t convert you.

Further, all Jews have what’s called right of return. Since I have it, I would be able to immigrate to Israel and gain Israeli citizenship if I wanted to, because it is my homeland, albeit indirectly. This right couldn’t exist if Judaism were much of anything besides an ethnicity.

Because Judaism isn’t primarily a religion, being a good Jew is the same thing as being a good person in general: be kind, don’t break just laws, have good morals, etc. Again, this makes pretty intuitive sense: we can’t be judged against our faith, so the only thing we can be judged against is our morality.

By contrast, when you have an actual religion (I’m going to use Christianity as an example, but I’m not picking on Christians; many religions work this way), there tends to be a problem with morality. A good Christian is someone who puts their love of God first. But sometimes, people tack “to the exclusion of all else” onto the end of that sentence, and the religious leaders don’t seem to mind. Actually, frequently the people who think that way are the religious leaders.

As a result, you have a lot of Christians (some of whom I’ve met) who say they follow Christ, but who seem to have completely missed the whole “love thy neighbor” thing. They were praised for their faith instead of for being a good person.

But, as my rabbi said, you shouldn’t praise the tool in absence of its purpose. Don’t praise faith in absence of its ability to help you be kind.

Explain Your Culture

I answered a lot of questions about culture growing up. As an American Jew, my culture was a minority, so nobody really knew about it. They didn’t know what I believed, what foods I ate on what holidays, what purpose those foods or those holidays had within the culture, etc.

Like many people in minority cultures, I was always happy to answer these questions. My family has had several non-Jews over for our holidays over the years, and when our goyish (informal term for non-Jewish) guests inevitably ask questions about the rituals or foods, we tell them. Once time I brought in kosher macaroons to work for Rosh Hashanah and I got to explain both the holiday and the concept of kosher.

These are highly informal and easy explanations. Our goal isn’t to proselytize—Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize anyway, but even if it was allowed, that’s not our goal so we wouldn’t do it—our goal is simply to educate. For example:

“This little funny hat is called a yarmulka, and men are supposed to wear it to bring them closer to God. Women don’t need to wear them because the ability to give birth brings us closer to God.”

“We prepare these foods because they’re culturally significant, or just because we like them. But we need to make sure that if we make something just because we like it, that it follows our dietary rules for holidays. Those rules are called kosher.”

“Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year. Our holidays run on a lunar calendar, not a solar one, so they shift around on the Christian calendar. And the current Jewish year is 5779, because our years don’t start from the birth of Jesus, they start from the birth of the Jewish race.”

Christians in America have it completely the opposite way. They can practically assume that their culture is ubiquitous, which has a lot of implications.

If your culture is ubiquitous, you never have to explain your holidays. You can just presume that people know about them. You can talk in depth about highly specific issues with just about anyone, because you can presume they have the necessary cultural background. Every business closes its offices in observation of your holidays.

To help my American Christian pals understand what it’s like to not be a cultural majority, consider this.

Imagine you had to ask your boss for time off to celebrate Christmas, which he has never heard of. Imagine driving over an hour to get to the only church in your area, when at the same time there are three different synagogues within a two-mile radius of your house. Imagine your entire culture decides to make Labor Day into a huge celebration, because you’re all sick of not doing anything while the rest of the country celebrates Rosh Hashanah. (This is exactly what happened with Chanukah. It’s actually a very minor holiday that American Jews made into a much bigger deal because they wanted something to do at Christmastime.)

Unless you decide to move to a non-European country, you’re probably not going to experience any of this personally, but that’s fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right about being a member of either a majority or minority culture.

There is, however, one thing that members of majority cultures could learn from members of minority cultures: an attitude of explanation.

Growing up Jewish, I never really understood Christianity. Not for any lack of Christians around me, for a lack of Christians around me who were willing to answer questions. People in majority cultures aren’t used to answering simple questions about their culture; if I asked who Jesus was, people would look at me like I’d just said I’d never heard of toilet paper. In their eyes, I’ve just said I don’t know about something they thought was both ubiquitous and completely impossible to live without. By contrast, however, I’ve had a ton of people ask me who Moses is.

Similarly basic question, different culture.

But if every member of a majority culture has this attitude, then the small percentage of the population that wasn’t raised with that culture is left out of the loop. They didn’t learn about the culture growing up, and they never will.

So, the best thing to do if you’re a member of a majority culture is to be willing to answer questions. Even questions that seem like they ought to be obvious.