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Japanese-Jew Doesn't "Oy Veh" So Much Since Obama

As a Japanese-Jew, I have historically used self deprecating humor at my own expense as a way to explain and defend to others who I was and to feel accepted.

My cultural confusion can be summed up in this anonymous quote, “There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?”

Until recently I believed “everything” was my fault.

And I would certainly be the last person I would ever want to visit, with all of my kvetching to anyone kind enough to listen. “Oy Veh,” I would lament. “No one accepts me; I am neither a truly Japanese or Jewish soul, so I will just sit here alone in the dark, eating a knish in my kimono.”

But gratefully, since Obama has become president, not only do I feel more comfortable as the multiracial shikseh that I am, but engage in thoughtful conversations about my heritage and background, without jokes, defense, or much self-deprecation.

I only hope that I conduct myself with an ounce of the class, genius, and moral fortitude the president has displayed when continually questioned about his cultural identity.

In his keynote 2004 speech to the Democratic Convention, Obama said, “In a sense I have no choice but to believe in this vision of America. As a child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of race.”

Family in Hawaii, 1970's

I too was born in Hawaii and attended University High School in Hawaii a few years before Obama just a couple miles from his school, Punahoe High, whose students I shared long bus rides with from remote areas in order to get a good education; a value that my parents, like his, believed was invaluable.

Like my mother and father, Obama’s parents are from two different cultures, yet he never feels the need to defend or justify his background, rather, he consistently responds to questions and assumptions with dignity and forethought.

When asked during the presidential campaign what he considered his ethnicity to be, Obama answered simply that he is an American from two equally rich and diverse cultures.

In a 2004 speech, Obama said, “My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or blessed, believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential.”

As a blend of cultures with a Jewish-Russian, Irish father and Japanese-Hawaiian mother, I too have faced continual questions as to what I considered my race, people, culture, and ethnicity to be.

I was given several names, including three middle names, all five on my birth certificate. One is named after my Jewish great grandmother, Beatrice, the other a Japanese name, Yukari, and the third, Caitlin, named after the wife of my father’s favorite poet, Dylan Thomas. My first name is named after a man—the Italian Renaissance painter, Piero Della Francesca, with his last name chosen for my first.

Who was I, where did I come from, was I merely a mistake, an experiment, and how I might actually exist as a identifiable human—have been relentless questions that have sewn experiences throughout my culturally odd and unasked for politically patch-worked life.

This sentiment from an anonymous quote defines the neurotic dichotomy of my life, “To find the Buddha, look within. Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten thousand petals. You might want to see a specialist.”

One searing memory I experienced involves a boy who told me on the schoolyard there was no such thing as a Japanese-Jewish person. Afterwards, I ran all the way home from this boy with the piercing blue eyes and looked into the mirror wondering if I really didn’t exist at all; at least in any real identifiable sense that mattered.

This was just one comment amongst countless surreal exclamations that secured my stalwart allegiance to defining myself as a person from different cultures, but never defined by them.

In his keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention, Obama said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.”

I can assume that President Obama has heard countless comments denying his existence as a fortified American as well, but was intrepid enough to remain an honorable candidate despite cultural ignorance on the part of others.

This is the essential definition for any strong person; the ability, will, and might to face oppression and hatred and march forward anyway.

No one thought it was truly possible that a man who was Black may become president yet, no one. Some hoped, some feared, some dreamed, and many imagined a courageous, ambitious reality, but not one of us truly believed with full breadth that this young country was ready to make such a fearless and autonomous leap for the betterment of us and for the world.

Like Obama’s parents, the marriage of my parents confounded some, upset others, and was dismissed by the rest.

My father was raised in Los Angeles and then attended The University of Hawaii not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He came back with an education and a wife, who was a second-generation Japanese-American known as the Nisei generation, who grew up as a farmer on the coffee plantations of Kona, Hawaii.

My Japanese-American uncles were part of the 442nd Infantry, also known as The Purple Heart Battalion, the most highly decorated fighter pilots in United States History. This includes some 4,000 Bronze stars and nearly 9,500 Purple Hearts.

In this period, many Japanese-Americans were interned throughout the U.S, with land taken away, families torn apart, and lives devastated, not unlike Jewish family members of my husband’s during the Second World War with more tragic results.

A lot of anti-Japanese sentiment existed at this time, and yet my parents married, with whispers heard loudly as shouts and bombs from some family, while others chose to keep quiet with disdain; perhaps even more devastating.

Martin Luther King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

My Family, 1960's California

My parents had four children during the 1950s and ‘60s, and thankfully we were raised in Southern California, a region more liberal and tolerant of interracial marriage than many other parts of the country.

A visceral account of the confused cultural identity I experienced in a Japanese-Jewish household can be summed up in the following quotes, the first from a Japanese emperor, “Generally speaking, the way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death,” and the second from Woody Allen, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

At least as a writer, my life experiences give me more material to work with than my mother’s hundreds of antique kimonos combined with all the chuppah’s this side of Golden Gate Bridge.

A perfect example of conflicting philosophies learned during childhood includes Buddha’s lesson that “Life as we know it ultimately leads to suffering,” while we were told simultaneously that although Jesus was indeed a suffering member of our tribe, we should never actually worship him.

But nevertheless, I have made it, I have arrived, and I am as they say in Yiddish, I’m “Nisht geferlech,” which basically means “Not so shabby.”

Surely President Obama must realize this profound effect he has had on a nation who soldiers so many different religions, races, and cultures while speaking in native tongues more freely understood now at least now in spirit, if not yet comprehended in each syllable, syntax, or inflection.

And because we now have a president with a different story than presidents past, who holds his head high with his own proud blend of integral cultural being, each language and culture that is different is now more highly revered, as is each person’s individual journey.

Each story sheds an even broader and brighter light on a nation that not only endures, but empowers; not only inspires but includes, and not only validates, but values each lesson, paragraph, and infinitesimal anecdote that boasts the value of us all.

This is now an axiomatic concept for the country, one that is only beginning to change America’s story and each person willing to tell their cultural rhythms on their own.

For this one Japanese-Jewish woman who always thought she was strange; even once given the title of “Shikseh Princess” at a Bar Mitzvah by some nice Jewish boys, my story has now changed for the better and interestingly enough, still interesting all the same.

Finally I can stop commiserating with Woody Allen when he said, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Except those rare moments when I begin to doubt the integrity and veracity of my own personal story that is just as valuable as anyone else’s.

In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote, “This is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. That we can say what we think; write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door.”

The doors for us all now open with greater ease and determination, and the answers and questions we hear on the other sides of each door are purely reflective of a nation that is now more unified in its diversity, and more open to discussion, depth, profundity, and inclusion.


*This article was originally published on The Huffpost Healthy Living Blog on June 4, 2009.

© 2009 Francesca Yukari Biller

hapa Jewish Obama