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half enough

What is a Jewpanese?

Someone recently asked me if I celebrated Passover because of my half Jewish heritage. I said I didn’t because I didn’t grow up practicing the Jewish religion. The only exceptions were when I went to a funeral for a family member on my father’s side or when I visited Jewish relatives on holidays. Other than that, I was Japanese, American and Buddhist most days of the week.

I don’t even know what Passover really means. I remember learning a little bit about the religious symbolism of the foods eaten on Passover in the second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Benzel, was a Japanese American from Hawaii. Her husband was Jewish and she was a Jewish convert. Mrs. Benzel taught us a lot about Jewish things like the Hebrew alphabet and the “Hava nagila” song. She even gave each student in my class a dreidl. All I know now are what I see in magazine advertisements at grocery stores reminding the public of the upcoming holiday. Seder dinners, fasting between dawn and dusk, matzo bread/crackers, matzo ball soup, and latkes (potato pancakes). I may be wrong about the foods and the fasting.

When I was five, a family friend told me he was “Japarican.” He was half Japanese and half Puerto Rican. A few years later, when I was eight, I asked my father very seriously to tell me what I was. The idea of being a mix of two different halves (or wholes depending on how you look at it) started kicking in then because I began to realize that I didn’t look like either of my parents. I asked him, “Dad, what am I? What is my race?” He lightheartedly said, “You’re Jewpanese. A Jewpanese Jewbu.” I thought about it. I liked the phonetics of the two terms. And they made sense. Jewish, Japanese and Buddhist. But I wasn’t settled with the Jewish thing. Was it a religion, an ethnic group, cultural traditions, or one or two or all of the above?

“What makes me Jewish?” I asked my dad. He said that it was because he was Jewish, even though he was Buddhist when it came to faith. He explained that he would always be Jewish culturally, especially because everyone on his side of the family was. He also had a lot of friends who were “Jewbus” (Jews turned Buddhists). Even though they no longer practiced the Judaic faith, they were still Jewish at heart when it came to family traditions and use of Yiddish vocabulary. My father also makes good latkes—his grandmother’s recipe.

My southern California Jewish experience consisted of the following: Eating breakfast at Canter’s on Fairfax —always the corned beef hash—with my grandparents, Bernie and Jeanette, every weekend growing up. They would teach me Yiddish words and phrases in a New York accent over breakfast, like “Hello! This is your Aunt Sylvie! You never call! I kaplotz because you never call. I’ll see you at Passover. And give my love to Rabbi Joffee at the next Shabbat! Ok. I love you all. Goodbye.” I’d perform this in a 40-second improv comedy sketch in my New York accent for them.

Someone I know who’s half Puerto Rican and half Jewish told me that I wasn’t Jewish because my mother wasn’t Jewish, and that he was Jewish because his mother was. I found this annoying. He based his view of my identity on a stupid technicality. (The technicality being that according to strict Jewish rules in the Jewish faith, one is not Jewish unless his mother is Jewish).

I was half Jewish enough to know and feel what I needed to know and feel about being Jewish. He was the one with the Puerto Rican last name. This guy didn’t even know Yiddish. He couldn’t pass for a Jewish New Yorker even if he tried.

One of four definitions of Jewpanese on UrbanDictionary.com is, “An individual of mixed Japanese and Jewish ancestry. There are probably like seven of them.”

I know five Jewpanese people. All of them are Jewbus. One of them is my brother.

© 2007 Victoria Kraus

hapa identity Jewish Jewpanese multiracial

Sobre esta serie

"Half Enough" is Victoria's first regular column series. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Discover Nikkei.