2022 Fall Identity Malaika Stambler religion Temple Japan

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Tokyo

 Tokyo is the most populated city in the world. 40 million people (about twice the population of New York) call this electric metropolitan area home (Macrotrends). I am used to big cities having a correspondingly high Jewish population, even though Jews make up just fractions of a percent of the world population (0.2% of the 7-billion-person world population). Maybe, it’s because I have experienced many Buddhist events in Los Angeles and am aware of the vast Japanese community there that I expected Tokyo to surprise me with a large community of Jewish expats. 

The bus ride to synagogue!

Conversely, there are really not so many Jews in Tokyo. Only approximately between 1,000 and 1,400 people, or 0.0016% to 0.0002% of the population of Japan is Jewish (World Jewish Congress). Coming to Japan this time around, I have made it a goal to explore the Jewish community here.  

Exterior of the synagogue.

Religion in Japan is a big deal. There are shrines and temples everywhere. I’ve seen them on hiking trails, in tourist traps, in nightlife districts and historic districts alike. The principal religions practiced here are Buddhism and Shintoism, which overlap quite a bit. Many Japanese people practice both religions, and many schools are affiliated with them. 

Unlike in the United States, where a separation between church and state impacts the political and educational landscape of schools, Buddhism and Shintoism don’t really impact political viewpoints, so it is not controversial the way it is in the U.S. to teach with these philosophies.  

This past two weeks, I observed the Jewish High Holy Days in Tokyo. I was so curious to see what it was like, with the Buddhist national philosophies of Japan in mind. My friend Aden wasn’t expecting that it would be any different from American synagogue services. But we were both pleasantly surprised and made extremely at home at the JCJ, Jewish Community of Japan.  

Inside of the sanctuary

Finding out how to attend services was pretty tricky. My friend and I worked together to research synagogues in the area. There are two, shockingly to me, in the biggest city in the world. There’s Chabad and there’s the JCJ. I will probably attend the Chabad shabbat services at some point out of curiosity, but since I’m a reformed Jew I opted towards the JCJ for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.  

Though I attend a relatively small congregation in Santa Monica, with a small facility compared to others in West LA, I am still used to the synagogue renting out a giant high school auditorium to hold services for this time of year. It is really when the least religious, non-practicing jews even get dragged to synagogue. This set of holidays typically draw almost every Jewish identifying person. But there were maybe 50 people at this service.  

Rosh Hashanah dinner room

The service itself was standard- a cantor chanting prayers, and a rabbi reading a sermon about the Jewish new year. And of course, a guy giving a fundraising speech. And lots of audience participation and joking and singing and chit chatting.  

What was so interesting about this service to me were the demographics. There were so many half Japanese and half Jewish children. There were plenty of Japanese people, but so many countries and accents were represented. There were Europeans, Americans, Middle Eastern people, and more.  

Aden and I ran into another Temple Japan student I recognized from my photography class, Mollie. Mollie also had a friend named Aden who I met at services who lives in my building here. We spent the nosh together and got to know each other over challah, wine, matzo ball soup… and more. 

Apples, dragonfruit and honey
Round challah.

The dinner was abundant. At Rosh Hashana, they served us a several course meal after services. I was so thankful to Rabbi Andrew for inviting us to attend. The table was dressed with round challah, apples and honey, Manischewitz and dates, traditional dishes for the day, but it also had a plate of Japanese Pitaya (dragonfruit) and gigantic grapes. The first course was a plate of lox, tomatoes, and onions. Before I was finished my plate was snatched by a server and replaced with a salad. Wow, it had been so long since I had eaten a salad. That was followed by a bowl of mind blowing, delicious matza ball soup and followed by a chicken dish. The matzo ball soup was probably the highlight of the meal, the day… maybe my whole time in Japan.  

Matzo Ball soup
Salad with beats
Dinner spread

…Just kidding. But it had been a while since I had been served traditional Jewish food. I didn’t realize it would exist in Japan. It is nice that they really try to make the synagogue feel like a community, hence the name. They served us Jewish food and many congregants came to our Temple student table to get to know us. One person we met at synagogue was a Temple Japan board member. Another was a Philadelphia native whose son, raised in Japan, now studies at Temple. I’m not used to a synagogue serving food like this, and facilitating a social setting where the Jewish community can mingle. I so appreciated that. 

Yom Kippur break the fast dinner was amazing too. It was buffet style, and there was challah, super delicious eggplant, hummus, salad, potato salad, egg salad, and chicken stew with rice. I hadn’t had real hummus since coming to Japan! It made my taste buds scream with joy. I wish I could buy these things in the grocery store, but that’s not quite possible. The JCJ has an in-house chef with home recipes.  

Yom Kippur break the fast buffet
Breaking the fast.
Outside the JCJ Synagogue, at dusk.

Attending services in Japan and meeting Jews that live here was both comforting and inspiring. The synagogue felt both extremely familiar and like it could’ve been in Los Angeles, while also being so different and unfamiliar to hear Japanese spoken among people at the dinner table. It is so good to know that if I move here long-term, I will be able to feel at home in this community. 

Check out my last blog on hiking mount fuji, or the rest of the student blogs about life in Tokyo!

Works Cited: 

“Tokyo Population 2022.” Tokyo Population 2022 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs), https://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/tokyo-population.  

“Tokyo, Japan Metro Area Population 1950-2022.” MacroTrends, https://www.macrotrends.net/cities/21671/tokyo/population#:~:text=The%20current%20metro%20area%20population,a%200.11%25%20decline%20from%202019.  

World Jewish Congress. “Community in Japan.” World Jewish Congress, https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/about/communities/JP

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