It was that time of the year again. The high holidays were coming up. This can be a very anxiety-inducing time for many Jews, since there's a lot of big, important holidays all within a single month. Considering I'd have to celebrate them all while being in Japan, I thought it would be particularly stressful for me this year. However, this time I had a plan.
Thankfully, for this year, every single high holiday (except for Yom Kippur) occurs on either a Saturday or Sunday, so I wouldn't have to miss much class. At first, I thought that that would just be making things a little easier for me, but it turned out to be more than just that.
Don't get deported
During our orientation in Japan, they explained to us that in order to keep your student visa, you have to continuously demonstrate participation in your studies. Therefore, if you are absent for a certain amount of days, your student visa can be revoked, even if those absences are excused. So, If you're planning on studying abroad in Japan, please check the calendar and coordinate with your study abroad program to make sure you don't get deported.
However, for the days where you will have to miss class, the professors are very accommodating. Attendance is taken much more seriously in Japan than in the US, and Japanese people aren't as familiar with Jewish stuff, so I thought there might be a problem there, too. But in the end, they were very understanding, so that wasn't an issue either.
With that out of the way, now I needed to figure out what I was going to do for food and shul. I decided that I would spend all the chagim at the Chabad house run by the Edery family, which is located in an area called Sanno, about an hour and a half by train from my apartment. The reason for this was that they had a very clear schedule and an easy way to purchase meals on their website, and they also had an apartment that they let people stay in for the very reasonable price of $35 a night. Also, it was the only Jewish place in Tokyo I hadn't been to yet, so I wanted to go there at some point.
So, on Friday afternoon, I gathered my stuff and set out for Sanno.
The Edery Chabad
I had heard a lot about this Chabad house. I heard that they were the first Chabad in Japan. I heard that they daven very... energetically. I also heard that they had the best food. I heard that they had beef with the other Chabad house. What I did not hear, however, was that there would be a typhoon.
As I headed from school to my apartment on Friday, I noticed it started to drizzle a bit. As I transferred from the Keiyo line to the Keihin-Tohoku line at Tokyo station, I noticed it had started to rain outside. But by the time I got to Omori station, it was a full-on storm.
Fortunately, I had gotten into the habit of carrying a collapsible umbrella with me in my bag at all times, since it rains a lot here, and very suddenly, too. However, despite a valiant effort, my tiny umbrella couldn't quite protect me entirely. Even though the walk from the station to the chabad house was only 10 minutes, my duffel bag got totally soaked. Thankfully, the books I brought with me somehow made it out unscathed, but a lot of my clothes got wet.
When I got to the Chabad house, they gave me a very warm welcome, and then showed me to the apartment, which was a 5-minute walk away.
The apartment was a building that consisted of two floors, with a total of (I think) four air-conditioned rooms, each of which has two beds. There were two toilets, a shower, a washing machine, a dryer, and a kitchen as well.
I settled down and started to get ready for the holiday. I took a shower, wrote down the zmanim, and got out all the books and snacks I brought in case I got bored. I was fortunate enough to find a blowdryer, which I used to dry the wet spots on my nice clothes.
By the time I got all dressed and ready, the rain had already ended, just like that.
The sun was about to set. Rosh Hashanah was about to begin. I started to make my way towards the Chabad house.
Erev Rosh Hashanah was by far the most popular time of the whole holiday. We got a minyan pretty easily, but most people showed up after maariv had already ended. I would say there were about 75 people there at its peak, most of whom were Israelis or travelers, with some of the guests being foreigners who moved to Japan, and even a couple Japanese-Israelis. I ended up at a table with two couples on their honeymoons, one from Israel and the other from LA. As someone who had never been in a relationship before, I felt somewhat out of place.
For dinner, a small portion of people ate inside the tiny dining room in the house, and the rest ate outside. The Ederys have a very spacious backyard, which they share with their neighbor, a 90 year old Japanese lady who quietly smiled and waved to us from her living room as Rabbi Edery thanked her for her cooperation.
After Rabbi Edery made kiddush, everyone began to eat, with a couple people stopping to wash their hands and make hamotzi first. All kinds of food was served – eggs, salads, hummus, fish, rice, and even kosher meat, flown in from Iowa. Some of the Edery kids brought beers to the tables, while Rabbi Edery stopped by table after table to chime in on a conversation. He talked about the onsen-mikveh he's building in his backyard. Occasionally, he would tell a story about how he met his wife, or about this one time some guy asked him a question, or about how he once gifted a sweet potato to the vice prime minister of Japan.
"We are in the car, and my friend, he tells me, 'Rabbi, you cannot give potato as gift to vice prime minister,'" he recounted in his thick Israeli accent. "So I said, 'Don't tell me what to do!'"
I can't remember what special significance the potato had, or why it was a gift for the vice prime minister, but I thought that line was very funny.
After dinner, I went back to the apartment to get some sleep.
The next day, I walked back to the Chabad house at 10 a.m. for shacharit, which was about 2.5 hours long. They didn't do too much singing, which made the service much shorter than it would be at a regular shul. Also, since it was shabbat, there was no shofar blowing or tashlich.
When I went to the Jewish Center, the walk had taken so long that I missed the entire service. So, last night and today was my first time back in a real shul environment since I left the states.
Lunch was just as delicious as dinner was last night, with my favorite dish being this delicious tempura-style salmon. At lunch, I met a man named Yonatan who was from Azerbaijan. I'd never met anyone from Azerbaijan before.
He explained to me that his parents run the Chabad house in Azerbaijan, and that he grew up there. Apparently, there's actually a decent-sized Jewish community over there, and they even have a Jewish day school. Now, he's in yeshiva in Israel, and he got sent to Japan to help the Chabad house out with high holiday stuff for three weeks.
I also met a man named Patrick, who came from New Zealand with his family so they could be closer to his sick Japanese mother-in-law. Patrick wasn't Jewish, but apparently he thought Jewish culture was very interesting, and had gone to the Chabad in New Zealand several times before. Since he was one of the few people in the room who spoke English better than Hebrew, I was able to have a nice conversation with him during lunch.
After lunch, I went back to the apartment, read a book, and took a nap. I accidentally slept through mincha, but I came back for maariv and dinner. This time, there weren't nearly as many people as there were for the first night, but there was still a decent number of guests. We all fit inside the house's dining room this time, though.
After Rabbi Edery made havdalah and kiddush, dinner went pretty much the same as the night before, with Rabbi Edery repeating some of the stories he told last night and also mixing in some new ones. Eventually, he brought out some Japanese saké - a certain brand called Dassai that is one of the few Japanese products to be certified kosher, by none other than Rabbi Edery himself through his small kashrut organization, Kosher Japan. He said you can find this brand in any 7-11, but after chag, I took a quick look and didn't see any.
Quick fun fact: sake (酒) in Japanese just means "alcohol" in general. What we call saké in English is actually called nihonshu (日本酒).
After dinner, I went back to the apartment and went to sleep.
For day 2, shacharit was once again at 10 a.m. Shacharit went pretty much the same as the day before, but it was a little longer due to the shofar blowing. There were many shofars in the Edery house, though one of them was received as a gift and potentially not kosher. As for the blowing of the shofar itself, let's just say that I've heard better tokeas. Not that I blame any of them. Blowing a shofar is tough, and I know for sure that they're the best tokeas in Japan. Many failed attempts were made by multiple people on multiple shofars, but eventually all 100 blasts were made.
Lunch was amazing on day 2, too. They had vegan cholent this time, and other traditional Rosh Hashanah foods, such as a giant head of a fish (which I personally refrained from eating) and pomegranate seeds. But that wasn't all. I was surprised to see a dish you'd probably never find anywhere else – kugel made from Japanese soba noodles. I love it when cultures intersect, so seeing this soba kugel made me happy. And it was absolutely delicious, to boot.
This time, at lunch, I met a Japanese-American Jew named Henry. Although his father, who was also present, was American, Henry grew up in Japan. He spoke Japanese and English natively, and was a familiar face at both Chabad houses and the Jewish Center. Apparently, he went somewhere else for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and came here for the second. He was also one of the few people there close to my age, so we talked a lot about America, Japan, and Jewish stuff. No Jewish geography though—it's not so easy to do that here.
It was at this point, while talking to Henry, that I learned more about why the two Tokyo Chabads don't quite get along. Apparently, this one, as was made evident by the interior decor, believes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Moshiach, while the other one is more in line with mainstream Chabad and does not.
For tashlich, we didn't have to go very far at all. The Ederys had an aquarium tank on their patio full of beautiful koi fish in all sorts of colors and sizes. I couldn't count them all because they kept moving around, but there had to be at least 15-20 of them. I can't stress enough how stunning they were. Often, I would just go out into the patio and watch them swim, and try to decide which one was my favorite. When I asked Rabbi Edery why he had so many, he jokingly told me he likes to make gefilte fish out of them sometimes.
By the time maariv came around, I was the only one left. It seemed that other than the two volunteers who came from Israel to help out, and, of course, the Ederys themselves, I was the only shomer Shabbat person there. Not that I minded, I expected as such. But they seemed very thrilled about that fact. "I think it's so amazing that you keep," Efrat, Rabbi Edery's wife, told me. "Hashem will certainly bless you for this." I don't do it for that, I thought. But I didn't say that out loud.
It made me wonder, however, how often remote Chabads such as this one run into Jews who keep Shabbat or keep kosher. How long had it been for this Chabad? It could have been years. And how long would it be after I'm gone?
We finished maariv. Night had fallen. The Rabbi made havdalah, and then... it was over.
I went back to the apartment and packed my bags, a traveller on the road once again. Most of the rest of the world was still in the year 5783. But here, on this cloudy night in the calm, narrow streets of the neighborhood called Sanno, that was no longer the case.
I stepped out into the night. A new year had just begun.
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Hey, my name is Zev. I'm a current senior at Brandeis University from Oakland, California. This fall, I'll be spending a semester in Japan! I love drawing, playing games, web development, skiing, singing, and learning languages.