Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

NB The names and the gender of the characters in this posting have been changed. Might have been changed. Or not.

It all started with a phone call: “Rabbi, I am Uso, Makoto’s son. Can you do my father’s funeral?” I had never met Makoto even though the stories I had heard had created some sort of connection between us. Months before this phone call someone had told me that Makoto had made aliyah and now was back in Japan but had resigned after my arrival because he didn’t like who I am; that Makoto was in Japan but had resigned after my arrival because he couldn’t afford the dues; that Makoto was seriously ill; that Makoto’s health had improved and now he was out of the hospital; that Makoto wanted me to visit him at the hospital; that Makoto’s family, namely older brothers and mother, would not allow me at the hospital; that Makoto did not want to see me because he didn’t like who I am; that Makoto was in a hospice; that Makoto was dead, and this, being so final, had to be the one truth of the story.
Despite the bits and pieces that people knew or imagined about Makoto, whom everyone had seen for a number of years at services, none really knew him. Only one person knew his last name; for most he wasn’t but one of the many Japanese who would like to convert or who attend services at the JCJ out of curiosity, in the hope of getting a glimpse of the ancient esoteric knowledge we Jews allegedly own.
That phone call I received from Uso surprised me, mainly because I had heard Makoto had died already two months earlier. After a graceless attempt to express my condolences in a slowed down English, I asked the question I had to ask: “Where is the body?” to which “In our living room” was the answer. The sudden nausea attack caused by the image of a coffin sitting in a crammed Japanese living room, maybe even very casually being used as a coffee table, prevented me from saying anything else. Uso must have noticed the awkwardness of that moment as he added: “No! No! We have cremated him. It’s only the ashes.” This gave me some relief from my nausea and at the same time it posed the question of what to do with the remains, because according to halakhah someone who has been cremated cannot receive a proper funeral. Anyway we agreed that we would meet the following day to talk about the next steps, and this would give me time to look in the books and in myself in order to find a procedural answer.
Uso and I met in a coffee-shop and for the next couple of hours I learned a lot about Makoto’s past and family life, which cannot be shared here. The stories I heard and the love in Uso’s voice made me regret that I had never met Makoto during his lifetime even though I could not get rid of the feeling that Makoto was hovering around us, not only because of the picture Uso had brought.
Now our immediate problem was what I had been dreading since my arrival in Japan: where will we bury the Japanese gerim when it will happen? By Japanese laws and regulations they are not allowed to be buried in the Jewish section of the Foreign General Cemetery in Yokohama because, well, they are not foreigners. Still we thought that we would try and call the Cemetery and pretend we didn’t know, just in case. Uso called the Cemetery office, explained the situation in polite Japanese, with all the proper humble forms. Despite his extremely formal language and his literal bows to the Cemetery employee the answer was no, a polite but firm no. So Uso took upon himself to search for a non-denominational cemetery, which was the closest we could get to honor Makoto’s request. And finally last week, twelve days after our initial meeting we buried Makoto.
For the record Makoto had requested no cremation and a Jewish burial, but the elders of the family had opposed his request and thwarted Uso’s attempts to get in touch with the Jewish community. Acting against his will, they had the body cremated and were planning to get him buried in the cemetery kept by the religious institution with which they are affiliated. At that point Uso found the courage to oppose the family hierarchy and managed to stall until he was able to take full control of the situation and call me. I felt Makoto had been wronged enough and so I decided he should receive a proper (well, as close as possible to proper) Jewish burial.
When we arrived at the cemetery a man, the MC, was standing at the entrance waiting for us and as we parked the cars a plain wooden box seemed to have materialized in his hands, and so the funeral started. We followed him along the paths of the cemetery, a garden with an infelicitous mixture of Japanese and Western landscaping elements: patches of grass, water-fountains with cheesy puffed putti, a crimson arched bridge, stone lanterns and an artificial brook with a waterfall. The MC stopped underneath a portable gazebo shielding the grave - a small niche dug in the ground and lined with granite - and a few chairs for the mourners to sit. The headstone was similar to the other ones in the cemetery except for the fact that it bore Makoto’s name in Japanese and in Hebrew, the date of his birth according to the Japanese calendar, the date of his death according to the Jewish calendar, and also the traditional Hebrew inscription תנצב"ה.
The MC opened the wooden box, took out a plain, charcoal glazed urn and remained standing next to the niche, the urn in his hands. As I was about to start chanting the prayers Uso stopped with a request from grandma: “Can grandma keep a bone?” I shook my head violently as if to wake my brain up, because what I had just heard did not make any sense. Again the same question: “Can grandma keep a bone?” I had heard correctly indeed. One of the first things any foreigner reads upon her arrival to Japan is that the Japanese after a cremation collect the bones with chopsticks and place them in the urn, which somewhat justified grandma’s relaxed attitude. I had also read that some great Japanese figures had more than one burial site thanks to this system of burying bones in places away from the main grave, and knowing this fact made me think immediately that grandma still wanted to organize for Makoto a non-Jewish burial. So I had to give a brief impromptu lesson in halakhah in slowed down, simplified English which Uso translated. Grandma however had every intention to get her way, and asked again the same request with querulous voice, but this time Uso did not translate it and I took that omission as the sign to start chanting the funeral service.
At the point of the funeral when it would have been time to lower the casket into the grave, I approached the MC wishing to get the urn with Makoto’s remains and put it inside the grave myself: after all in Judaism burying someone is the highest act of love one can possible perform. Seeing I was clearly reaching out to the urn the MC, who had stood quietly and composed next to the niche, with a roar stopped me and turned his upper body sideways, and then stepped back. He almost touched me in order to prevent me from reaching the urn! I told him that I wanted to put it inside the grave, so he moved closer to me and then, while we are studying each other like in one of those cheap samurai movies always shown on TV, with one hand he lifted the lid and revealed the urn’s content. Most powerful than any unsheathed sword! Involuntarily I turned my head in disgust at the sight of those bones haphazardly placed in the urn. When I looked back he had won, the urn was in the niche already. I asked if I could, at least help him put the stone on top of the grave but the answer was, of course, another no.
Before we left the gravesite to go back to a sitting room in the office building, where we were offered green tea and Japanese confectionery the MC started talking with Uso and it was clear that he was whispering about me. My eyes kept going from Uso to the MC to Uso, until Uso reported the MC’s concern that I might have skipped some prayers. Of course my first thought was, “Oh my gosh, what did I forget!?” and quickly I went in my mind through the steps that make a standard Jewish funeral. But then I remembered that this was the first Jewish funeral the MC had seen, what could he possibly know? So, practicing a grammatical form I had just studied in class, I asked directly the MC what did he mean. His answer: “When the Japanese bonzes perform the funeral rites it takes much longer.” Foreign bonzes instead…

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

If the light of a thousand suns blazed forth together (Bhag. 11:12)

There is a time of the year when the spirits of the dead come back to Japan in order to visit their living relatives, the Buddhist festival called O-Bon. It’s a time for Japan to reconnect with its roots: offices and plants close, most people travel back to their hometowns to visit with relatives, tend to the ancestral graves and offer food and drinks at gravesite or on the family altars at home. Together with these more intimate commemorations, in many places communal celebrations are held, involving traditional dances and music performances. Yesterday (August 17th, 2011), the last day of O-Bon, I was in Hiroshima and found my way to the Peace Memorial Park, which stands on the ground where the bomb was dropped.
When you approach the Park what welcomes you is a big fieldstone that bears engraved on it two kanji, 慰霊 (irei, appeasing the spirits of the dead), a plain memorial that any other time would have gone unnoticed. What caught my eye were several water and tea bottles lined up in front of it: some half-empty, some with their cap still on, some uncapped. Others visitors had placed them there next to a few memorial wooden sticks and they were clearly a colorful and spontaneous offer to the dead. Along with many other visitors I was following a map, courtesy of Hiroshima Tourist Bureau, dotted with numbers marking different spots. The Peace Memorial Park was too big and too many other numbers were marked on my map for me to dwell on this simple memorial for long. Just enough to decode the characters, take a few pictures, move on to the next number. I was moving from one point to the next, like in a puzzle of “connect the dots,” but I could not see the picture because the pain was too big to be grasped by a single heart.
At every spot in the Park you read numbers so large your mind cannot relate to them. I silently said El male in front of the Cenotaph that contains the list of names of the almost 240.000 victims of the bomb, but their sheer number did not make their pain real; the thousands of colorful origami cranes in the Children’s Peace Monument had me wonder about the effectiveness of a vain hope; the turtle of the memorial to the 35.000 victims of Korean origin, evoked images of celestial turtles and hexagrams, nothing more. But it all hit home in the Peace Memorial Museum. There you cannot hide any more behind figures with too many zeroes.
After a physics lesson on how an atomic bomb works you’re taken by hand along a route where you have to confront the suffering and the horrors that the A-bomb caused in individual lives. A corridor reproducing what the color of the sky was, what the streets looked like after the bomb dropped, and then a gory diorama with mannequins in tattered clothes, faces blackened by the ashes of the fire, and their flesh, melting or peeling off, hanging from their limbs. But these are still fake. 
Items with name, age, personal stories of the former owners make it all real. What was this girl carrying in her lunch box that morning? Did this girl ever finish sewing a Western style shirt, as per her class notes? How painful must have been for this woman to have the pattern of her kimono branded forever in her flesh by the heat? Where did this mother find water for her thirsty, dying son? Where did all the other survivors find water to quell their perched bodies? What it feels when your face melts in the heat? What does a 3 year old understand when his tricycle is suddenly burning under him? 6000-7000 degrees C, again I can’t fathom past 45C… I pushed myself to walk through the entire exhibit, all of it, without skipping, rushing or quitting; I forced my eyes to stare at the pictures, only witnesses to suffering men and women; I wished those I love will never have to experience an agony such as this. Through a veil of tears I read the brief accounts about those people, about deaths and their connection with the objects now on display, carefully reading also the names of each individual, hoping this simple gesture could serve as some sort of memorial service for them.
In the hot air outside the building thoughts about what I had just absorbed started mixing with thoughts about Israel and my friends there who live with the ticking threat of an Iranian atomic bomb. I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.
Later on, before leaving the park I bought two bottles of tea. One for the big memorial fieldstone.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The valley of shadow of death

We were done earlier than planned and I was over the moon. There we were in Takamatsu, close to Temple 84 of the Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage Route: I didn’t care for lunch, didn’t care for rest. All I wanted to do was to see the 8th century temple and the Heian period Kannon statue. When the map on my iPhone told me that I could reach the temple by cable car, my mouth started watering at the thought of the next temple, Temple 85, built on a neighboring mountain. And yes, the second mountain too had a cable car. How convenient! I could have seen both places in a few hours!
At 1:30 pm the train dropped me at Yashima, a small island now joined to Shikoku. The street leading up to the station of the cable car was up-hill and deserted: a lonely and empty restaurant, a couple of out-of-business Japanese inns, several run down establishments with windows broken or closed by plywood, a few new single family houses, and the ubiquitous vending machines. From a distance the building of the cable car station looked dilapidated, but I still had great hopes in the cable car. “Business mustn’t be good, so they don’t invest in the outside look… Yes, it looks quiet, but I’m sure it’s just because I missed the previous ride. It must have just left… Who in his right mind would attempt this excursion at this time of the day… Well, it’s rural Japan, they don’t care about fancy. That’s why it looks abandoned, but it works, it works… It’s not the season for tourists or pilgrim to climb the mountain…” I reached the padlocked station, and shook the door a couple of times. It is interesting how we choose to believe the little lies we tell ourselves: “They must be out for lunch!” I had to stop kidding myself because no spider could have weaved so big a cobweb during the employees' lunch hour.
With my hopes shattered I started walking back down towards the train station, and then I had this great idea: I should knock on some door and ask how to reach the mountain top. This is not something that I would normally do, not here not in Italy not anywhere else. To my defense I should say that it must have been the sun hitting me over the head that made me do it, or maybe I couldn’t think straight because I hadn’t had lunch, or maybe the fact that I am a henna gaijin, a strange stranger, anyway, so I had nothing to lose. Whatever the motivating factor, I did it. I looked around, and picked a house, walked in the patio, slid the door open and called inside.
A tiny old lady, responding to my “Shitsurei shimasu, excuse me” opened the door. She was bent in two like many old Japanese ladies who have spent their best years huddled over rice pads. And there was the second big disappointment of the day: she did not show any signs of surprise seeing me, as if Japanese speaking foreigners are the norm in this part of the Country. I told her that I wanted to reach Yashimaji (Temple 84) and I was wondering if there was another way to go, as the cable car wasn’t working. “I will show o-gaijin-san (the honorable foreigner, i.e. me) a way to go” she slipped in her outside shoes, left the door open and started walking towards the cable car station. I followed her wobbly walk thinking that I had performed a feat of great luck: I had managed to find the only senile person in the whole neighborhood, someone who hadn’t noticed that the station had been abandoned and was taking me back there. As we walked my mind told me a couple of Japanese folk tales where naïve travelers had been devoured by blood-thirsty monsters disguised as tiny old ladies. Luckily none of those accidents has ever occurred in broad day light.
Instead of going straight to the station we turned left and went to the back of the building where the rusty cable car had been resting for several years now. The lady showed me the mountain and said that I could climb on the emergency steps that ran parallel to the cable car tracks. “Some people go this way. (“Do I want to be some people?”) It is difficult because it gets really steep but o-gaijin-san is strong and can do it, ne (can’t you)? (“I don’t want to find out half way through whether I can or not.”) Be careful. It’s a little dangerous because the wooden steps (“Oh, there’s wooden steps too! Great!”) can be xyzxyz.” “Sorry, I don’t understand.” “The wood can be xyzxyz, ne (can’t it).” “I don’t understand. The wood can be what?” “The wood can be xyzxyz. But, o-gaijin-san, don’t walk on the wood, walk on the tracks ne (won’t you).” (“So I’ll never find out what xyzxyz means?!”) “How long do I have to go?” I asked. “Three hundred, four hundred meters,” said she (in reality according to the map is a little more than 700 m, but she didn’t know and I am not sure this would have stopped me). “How long is the tunnel? Do I have to go inside?” “Hehe! It’s short, o-gaijin-san (“And you’ll be inside to devour o-gaijin-san!”). Don’t go on the right side of the tunnel, when you get out of the tunnel there is jkljkl. Climb it and…” There I stopped listening. “Should I ask what jkljkl is or just go for the surprise factor? Is it worth it? And what if she really devours me inside the tunnel?”  A couple of bows, a recommendation to be careful, and, sweet touch: “I am home until 4 pm, if you need something. 同行二人, Kobo Daishi be with you.”
A few steps in the march I felt a cobweb all over my face. I sputtered as best as I could, and kept going. New sputtering several meters later, and then again.  And as I sputtered and cleaned the third cobweb off my face, there he was, on my white shirt: an orange spider, as big as an elephant (well, that’s what it felt anyway). I am sure my shriek deafened it. Did you know that one of the possible usages of iPhones is spider-removal? Then and there I understood why pilgrims wear a henro hat. The henro hat, a conical, wide hat made of straw, one of the accoutrements of pilgrims (henro), doubles as a shade, as umbrella, and probably as cobwebs catcher. After the third cobweb I could have turned back and call it a day but, stubborn me, I didn’t.
I couldn’t risk any more close encounters of this kind, so I had to proceed really slowly and alertly. From that moment the path revealed itself for what it was: an insidious labyrinth of cobwebs, and since I did not want to destroy them intentionally I found myself making all sort of somersaults: zigzagging, putting my feet on the rails, stopping to look where they ended and circumventing them. A couple of those cobwebs obstructed the way from one side to the other and I had no choice than breaking them in order to move forward, not with my hands, of course, not even with my iPhone (there’s a limit to what an iPhone can do) but with a little dried branch I had picked from the ground. Then and there I understood why henro carry a walking stick.
My tiny old lady was right, the climb was steep, and it became steeper. At the time I started climbing 20 minutes had gone by since my arrival to Yashima, and it was a scorching hot afternoon. No shade, no place to sit down and relax a little. I am not squeamish (some people might disagree), but two things I cannot stand: the sight of bloody bodily organs, and insects. Those steps were full of the latter. Why didn’t my tiny old lady tell me about the crawling little creeping creatures? This would have stopped me. Or not. To make things worse I realized my sandals, which would have been the perfect footwear for the cable car, were not suitable for that environment swarming with hostile beasts, but what the heck, too late. Since sitting down on those steps was not an option, lest some undesired guests decided to get a lift on my pants, I had to push through. Why didn’t you turn around and go back, you ask. I wish I had an answer. I was climbing, turning back every now and to see my progress, not as fast as I would have wished it, and to look at the city vibrating in the afternoon light that seemed to melt everything around me.
What really freaked me out was the moment I reached out for the water bottle supposedly in my backpack, but in reality I had put it down somewhere in the tiny old lady’s property. For the first time in my life I felt lost. It was 2:29 pm, I was past the middle point of the route, exhausted, limbs aching and shaking, shirt drenched in sweat, dry mouth, nothing to drink, the sun is hitting, and no phone signal to call and inform someone of my whereabouts. I had the absolute certainty I would not be able to reach the mountain top, and I did not feel the strength to go back. Panic. I knew none was around but I still cried for help. Silence. I shouted out to God. Silence. Then a verse from a famous Psalm: “גם כי אלך בגיא צלמות לא אירא רע כי אתה עמדי שבטך ומשענתך המה ינהגוני, Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, because you are with me. Your rod and your walking stick will lead me.” A walking stick was all I needed that moment. I repeated the verse a few times, and I suddenly I got my second wind and felt I could make it. So I pushed, past those wooden steps, inside the tunnel and finally climbing over the jkljkl, 5 pieces of bent metal embedded in a concrete wall, functioning as emergency ladder.
The tunnel was cool and pleasant. No oni or obake (ogres or monsters) in sight, no wild animals, no spiders: the perfect place to catch my breath before the end of the excursion.
The temple, like every other 8th century temple in Japan, had been reconstructed and restored several times, the last of which 60 years ago. Its front, however, was graced by beautiful vermillion beams, and polychromous wooden lions and dragon heads, where birds had nested. The Kannon statue carved by Kobo Daishi himself (or so the story goes) was, oddly enough, on display in a small museum adjacent to the temple. And it was so beautiful that after a couple of bottles of water, out of joy and gratitude, I decided to go down the same way instead of catching the bus. Ah, yeah, because there is a shuttle bus that connects the clearing behind Temple 84, where the ubiquitous vending machines stand, to the Yashima Station near the house of the tiny old lady.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

In the path between the vineyards

The dawn of my first night in my hometown was only a couple of hours away. I was standing on the balcony,  facing the mountain on the North-Eastern border of the village, and gazing at the unperturbed sky. As I searched for words for a spell to stop the drunken and high motorbikes racing all around, one word echoed in my  mind.
It came to the foreground, took the full scene, obstructed my thoughts.
Here I was, trying and push it aside, climb over it, move past it in my effort to resume phrasing the curse, when another word stood next to it. A Greek  word, very similar in sound to the previous one: methorios and  then I knew what was it all about.
Methorios :  “that stands on the border between two areas.” Without belonging to either one.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Esther did not reveal her birthplace

It happened again. This time in the least likely of all places, on Shoshazan, Mt. Shosha, a mountain where Tendai Buddhist monks receive their training. One would think that such lofty places are shielded from the world, that certain pieces of information would not reach such heights…

It had been a great morning, I had explored mountain paths for more than three hours, looked at stunning views, and sat quietly in a corner of the Maniden, the main structure of the Engyouji for some time. As I was about to exit the hall a monk, one of the few human beings I had seen on the mountain, addressed me with the simple, innocent, question: "Where are you from?"

His was the first voice I heard since entering the mountain’s precincts earlier. Even in the rope-way, on the first ride of the day, there was silence this time. As I was the only passenger the hostess asked me if I cared for a recorded explanation, and probably she was quite relieved by my “no.” So we both stood in front of the glass wall of the cabin, silently looking at the breathtaking view of the trees below us. On top of the mountain we greeted each other good-bye with a silent bow. How lucky! Because of the freezing cold no one else was on the mountain, no pilgrims or tourists. The elderly, bundled up couple inside the ticket booth were the last ones who addressed me: “Gambatte, ne – do your best!” After them the sparse barefoot monks walking hastily on the freezing ground, the handful of workers tending the small patches of green and the forest, didn’t even acknowledged me. Along the path up to the top - no one, just the silent statues of Kannon in his many forms.

Shoshazan. Quieter, more beautiful, more peaceful than my previous visits.

Before the monk in the Maniden, earlier in another building, the Jikidou, I had interacted with a younger monk. A wordless interaction, but with a strongly conveyed message. The Jikidou, formerly a dining hall, stores and displays some of the treasures of the monasteries of the mountain. But to my eyes the real treasure of the Jikidou was this young monk copying with the tip of a thin brush what must have been a text of his esoteric Tendai sect. He was sitting seiza-style next to a display with the usual trinkets for pilgrims (amulets, pocket sutra books, blessed cell-phone straps etc.), and so his assumption that I was looking at those chachkes gave me some time to spy on his gentle, steady hand. Both manuscripts, the source and the copy, looked extremely neat, as if they had been printed. The page he was copying must have discussed how to perform in, mudra, because it had 3 beautifully drawn hands with the fingers in different positions. The vertical lines of text framed the images of the hands, some characters had the standard print-like form, others where more like cursive calligraphy; some words were in red; some kanji had their pronunciation written next to them. My spying lasted for as long as it lasted. When the novice lifted his eyes and saw me staring at his work, took a piece of black cloth from his lap, covered with it the books, stretched his arm out, pointed me to the arrow marking the beginning of the tour route, and kept it firm and stretched until I moved in that direction.

I have to confess I was glad that the monk in the Maniden had addressed me, so I happily answered his simple, innocent, question "Where are you from?" After all, it was a chance to practice some Japanese.

“Italy.” “Sugoi, Excellent!” “Where in Italy?” “Sicily.” “Mafia?” asked he with smiling eyes, pointing his finger at me, in a surprisingly un-Japanese way. Will there ever be a spot on earth where I will not be asked this question? How on earth would any ascetic living on a mountain, allegedly without TV, know about mafia? “Yes.” “What do you do here?” “The mafia sent me to you!” He found it funny, and it was indeed. As for me I was pleased that I had remembered the appropriate verbal form that shows respect and benefit for the listener. After a chuckle he started telling me the history of the monastery, which I didn't understand but kept nodding and uttering very Japanese sounds of approval and marvel. Towards the end of the narration he added a detail he thought would impress the gaijin, i.e. that the movie The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise had been shot there. I knew about it. This piece of trivia is written in every pamphlet that mentions Shoshazan, as if it could add anything to the beauty, the history, the energy of this mountain. I didn’t really care, and I told him instead that this was my third visit to Shoshazan and I had never seen the 如意輪観音坐像. The bewildered expression on the monk’s face at this point betrayed his thoughts: How does the gaijin know about the 如意輪観音坐像? How can he even say 如意輪観音坐像 all in one breath? After a short embarrassed laugh he answered: “The Nyoirinkannonzazou is closed behind that door. None can see it. Not even the abbot. Here’s a picture of it.” Thank you. Really thank you! It’s exactly the same thing. As beautiful as the original! That's why I came up here, to look at this 250 yen picture!

“So, what do you do in Japan?” “I’m a rabbi.” I could see he had no clue of what the word meant. What I really wanted to say was: Man, like, you’re in the religion business and you don’t know about rabbis, but you do know about mafia from Sicily?! Really!? However I realized I wouldn’t know how to structure so long a sentence without sounding really rude (jokes, sarcasm, funny stuff, still don’t work well in my Japanese…), so instead I gave him my usual gloss to the Japanese word rabi, “priest of the Jews.” I guess that must have been too much information because, after an initial deep bow feigning respect and admiration, he said “Sorosoro…four syllables from which I understood it was my time to leave.

By the way, the 如意輪観音坐像 is a 13th century statue of Kannon, a National Treasure kept there.

Written on February 2nd, 2011 returning from a trip to Himeji, and finally edited.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sulfur and salt burned all its soil

Piza with tuna and corn. Not bad eh? It was one of the best pizas I've had in Japan. Nothing close to Partenope's, of course, but I was almost willing to call it "pizza." Or maybe I was just trying to be nice, given the situation.

So here's the story.

On the way back from Miyagi-ken we stopped in a city called Koriyama. The evening before Pastor Heo had asked me "Are you ok stopping over at Koriyama for a couple of hours?" "Yes..." "You know about Koriyama, don't you?" "No..." "In Koriyama the level of radiations is 3 to 5 times higher than the safety threshold" and then he went on telling me numbers of becquerels and God knows what else, but all I could hear was the blood rushing through my veins and my heart drumming. Finally I reemerged: "I have to stop and visit another pastor who has to move his church to another location because of the radiation level in town. He feels alone and I wanted to give him some support. Is it ok if we stop there for a couple of hours?" I did not have the heart to say no to such an awful situation. How many radiations could I absorb in two, three hours? Much less than the people of Koriyama who have no other place to go. In the previous days I had already been rained on; we had drunk tap water most of the time; we had used it to make miso soup and cook, so what difference would a couple of hours make? "We all die once in a lifetime, so just do it" said the little voice inside.

During the trip I heard the word "kosher" in the middle of a long conversation in Korean and I knew exactly what they were talking about.

After a two-hour ride we arrived at Koriyama.

Koriyama looks exactly like every other small Japanese city: really high and low buildings, a mixture of new and old, of real and imitation wood, of single-family houses and small housing complexes; fake Edo Era business stores next to sleek modern ones. The other pastor, Pastor Pak, who would take us for lunch, was waiting for us in the lobby of the fanciest hotel in town, and from there we went to a very cool Italian (sic!) restaurant and bakery where we had to wait online. It took half an hour before we could be seated somewhere, as the place was packed. The whole menu was a feast of shrimp and other treif delicacies, but there was also the piza with tuna and corn. And all you can eat radioactive panini fresh out of the oven and really tasty.

My two companions kept chatting in Korean, and Pastor Heo often translated their conversations. Pastor Pak also every now and then would switch to English for my sake and so during that meal sadly I got myself an education about Koriyama.

There is one part of the city where radiations are really not too high and one where radiations are really high: This latter part of town was where we had to be, of course, and that’s where Pastor Pak's church is. He is looking to relocate it, but not too far away, because he wants to keep his flock.

From the conversation at our table it emerged that everyone in town knows, it is not a secret, but people don't have another option. Young children in town have become increasingly sick, suffering from bleeding, breathing difficulties, lack of energy and other kinds of illnesses that some doctors connect with the high radiation-levels. Other doctors don’t. And everyone is left to their own devise, abandoned by the central government. What could Tokyo do, anyway? Where could they put all 350.000 people? With cash taken from which prefecture’s empty coffers? The enemy is invisible, so in a way it doesn’t exist. Why worry then?

Those who could, left, especially if they had family in another prefecture. According to Pastor Pak 10% of the population has moved. In some cases the working spouse is here, while the other spouse with the children are gone. The foreigners, mostly English teachers, have packed and left unless they had other personal reasons to stay in town.

From the window I saw young, little girls in their school uniforms trot along. They are a common sight in Tokyo too, on their way to and from school in the big city, alone despite their young age. When I see them I usually think of my nephew and niece, who live in a much smaller city but will never enjoy this kind of freedom and I feel envious of them. There, however, all I could feel was pity, sadness and a sense of relief that my nephew and niece are not in Japan. Because God only knows what will be of these 5, 6 y.o. girls with their cute hats and braids, who now wear also a mask as if the flimsy cloth could protect them and their young lungs. On top of the mask many parents have apparently decided to have their children wear always long sleeves and a hat. But what about the water they drink? The food they eat? The soil they walk on? By the way, City Hall has given school principals instructions to scrap the soil in their school yards, 3 to 5 cm to remove the radioactive particles. Now in those very courtyards mounds of soil await the day when they will be buried 3 feet under. Parents of the school pupils did the scraping, of course. The truth unfortunately is that no matter how much they scrap, more radioactive material gets there constantly, and what is already there will not disappear just because they shuffled them around in the court-yard. Unfortunately this plan of removing dirt and burying it under more dirt it’s only a way to feel they are doing something, all they can, to protect their children.

The stories told at our table were in complete dissonance with what was happening around us: customers apparently enjoying relaxed conversations and good, old, Italian-style treif; waiters and waitresses serving one dish after another and pampering the clients, in the usual Japanese way: “More water? Let me change this for you. Another panino?” What else is there to do when you kind of know what life has in store for you and you don’t like the cards fate has dealt you?

What I wouldn’t do for a piza…

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The earth saw and trembled

30 hours after the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history we are still shaking. The massive earthquake was followed by tsunami and by an alert from a nuclear plant damaged by the quake. And now we are waiting: for that elusive radioactive cloud and for a stronger earthquake that could hit Tokyo’s area. Fun!

We realized that this was not one of the usual muscle-twitches that regularly shake Japan when, on top of everything trembling really violently, the seismic alarm of the building went off. At that point we knew we had to go out. I rushed towards the exit door, hoped my ID was in my wallet, checked my pocket for the cell-phone while the floor was shaking underneath our feet and the walls looked as if moving towards us. At first I felt real fear, the kind of fear that grabs you at the stomach, hits you like a punch, and takes your strength away. But as I put my left shoe on it dawned on me I had nowhere to run, no way to get close to my parents for a comforting word, so fear was not going to help me in those circumstances, it would just harm me. Coming down the steps of the building, watching things sway all around me I thought I was in a movie, or someone else’s life.

Next to the JCJ there is a parking lot, that’s where I headed. The cars were bouncing, the JCJ was coming towards me and back, like a giant slow yoyo; the fire-escape of the school across the street was rattling loudly, louder than the alarm of cars that the quake set off; in the middle of the empty street three passers-by stood paralyzed, I hadn’t noticed them earlier when I ran to the parking lot. A strange thought crossed my mind: “Wow, I bet it was like this for Korach!” I said the blessing over earthquakes “shekocho male olam” and immediately I second-guessed myself “Or was it shekocho ugvurato male olam?” Does it really matter?

In the parking lot there were only a Japanese construction worker and me. The man might have been on a cigarette break, and was listening to the radio. He turned to me and said something I didn’t understand, but he repeated it patiently as many times as I asked him to until I got it: “Magnitude seven.”

Finally it was over. We went back inside and started looking for news online. Our office manager tried to get in touch with her children who were at home alone, and our security guard with his wife and daughter, but no one answered. We watched the first images streaming on our screen, telling each other that it was over, yes, there would be aftershocks, but hopefully not new earthquakes. Half an hour later another big quake set the alarm off again. All out again.

The second earthquake was shorter and weaker, and this time we went all together to the parking lot, so it felt a little like a company picnic. As soon as we returned back in the office the images of the violent waves sweeping everything they found along their path were more terrifying than the quake's. In the past 30 hours I have seen those videos dozens of times, because during this Shabbat that arrived despite the earthquake and the tsunami the TV was on as we were waiting for that alert notice that luckily so far hasn't come.

At Kabbalat Shabbat there were only three of us for services, but we sang much of the prayers anyway. As for myself I was looking for comfort in the words and the melodies, but I had a hard time with the images evoked by two verses of the Psalms included in the liturgy. The earth shaking in God's presence and the roaring waters shattered the fragile calm I was struggling to achieve.

We had nothing ready for dinner because our cooks left soon after the second quake, not that anyone was really in the mood to eat. All we could find was challot, pineapple and strawberries. Our security guard, thought we should at least eat in the lounge overlooking the city, which by itself added to our meal a more festive atmosphere. All we could talk about around the table was the quake, the aftershocks, and the radioactive threat. Same menu and same conversation today at lunch...

Our dinner was interrupted twice by a piercing buzz lasting a few seconds: the quake alerts coming from our cell-phones. That buzz has become the soundtrack of this Shabbat and I'm afraid it will keep us company for a while. Last night every time it rang I had to open my eyes to figure out where the quake was and then, finally, having found the area of the epicenter, try to fall asleep again.

Earlier this afternoon a little walk in the neighborhood brought back to my mind memories of Jerusalem. Yes, of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon, when some stores are already closed, other still open; the streets are almost empty with only a few cars and very few people rushing for the last errands, and in the air there is this feeling of waiting for something that is about to come.

Written on Sat March 12.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A man came upon him...

It all began when I wanted to see the Ukiyo-e Museum in Matsumoto, one of the richest collections of Japanese blocks prints. Getting there was relatively easy. “Just a 40 minutes bus ride from here,” I was told at the local tourist information office. What the pretty lady failed to mention was that at the end of those 40 minutes I would be out in the fields. Yes, because the JUM is a very large building surrounded by fields and rice pads. Ah, she also forgot to mention that there were no buses to come back after 2 pm and that the closest train station was several km away from the museum, past a national road, three graves, several rice-pads, and that in no possible way an unprepared gaijin could have found it.
I copied the map the cashier of the museum had showed me, and started the adventure. Like in most homemade maps proportions were not respected, and like in most Japanese maps the North was not marked. I make it past the national road, and I’m all genki and optimistic. Past the second grave I’m thinking that maybe I should come back and ask for help. At the third grave I know I’m lost, because what I thought were streets on the “map” were not other than thin demarcation paths separating rice-pads and there were many more than what the map showed. In most homemade maps out here not every street or alley is recorded, so when you count the blocks there is always something off. This map was not different… The country road I had followed ended a few meters past the third grave, and there wasn’t anyone in sight. And as I was laughing and laughing on the verge of crying, thinking I had to walk all the way back or try to reach one of the houses I could see in the distance, the there she was, a young woman walking in my direction.
My euphoria was immediately killed by the thought that if she was like all girls I know from Sicily or the US not only she would have not answered my request of help, but she would have also steered away from me, male, unknown, foreigner, virtually dangerous. And as she was walking next to me, I thought “it’s now or never” and I dared: “I’m lost can you show me the way to the train station?” And she responded, with spontaneity: “Follow me on the paths between the rice-pads.” Now “path between the rice-pads” in Japanese is aze and in that very moment I considered myself so happy I had stumbled into that word in the dictionary a couple of days earlier, so blessed. I was not alone, and I had not been alone either. Because stumbling into the word aze in the dictionary earlier that week, had not been a random thing. Reading it, remembering its meaning and seeing the kanji so vividly in my mind’s eye in that surreal circumstance, was all part of a larger plan.
My mind went through all the possible reasons why a Sicilian girl would have rejected my request to help in an identical circumstance, and stopped swirling only in front of the question: what kind of people are these still capable of such innocent act as trusting a stranger to follow them in an area when no one is around?
I followed my guide between the rice-pads, trotting in her footsteps, breathing in the fresh air of those fields.