Experiencing Erev Rosh Hashanah in Tokyo

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As we were making plans to go on a baseball trip to Japan this past September, we realized that we would be in Tokyo for Rosh Hashanah. We made arrangements to attend Erev Rosh Hashanah services and a dinner sponsored by the Chabad Lubavitch of Tokyo.

The holiday service was held at the Tokyo American Club, in the Roppongi area of Tokyo, where many embassies and consulates are situated, as well as the Tokyo Tower. The Tokyo American Club is a private club that has been in existence since 1928.  

We got to the club about a half-hour before the service’s start time. We had no idea what the evening would bring. While we were waiting, we met visitors from Israel and the communications director from the American Embassy. When we told the communications director that we were on a baseball trip, she became very interested – she is from Chicago and is a Cubs fan. 

When Rabbi Mendi Sudakevich and his family arrived, they made sure all attendees felt welcome. 

The rabbi held a half-hour service for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Then, we moved on to an elaborate dinner. We sat at a table with people from Israel and the United States. The person sitting next to Lynne was an Israeli businessman who was in the midst of moving from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to Tokyo. He was there with his young daughter.  The others at the table were two young Israeli female lawyers of Yemenite descent, three Israeli young men who appeared to be traveling in Japan after a tour in the Israeli military, and a young man who was a U.S. Navy flyer.

Besides the people at our table, there were about 140 people from almost all corners of the world, including Australia and South Africa. There were tourists, business people and diplomats.

During the evening, Lynne talked with an Australian woman who was there with her young daughter. Her husband worked in the Australian diplomatic corp. They were in the process of moving back home. It was a great experience to share a few moments of the holiday with her.

The rabbi started the meal by providing a Rosh Hashanah “seder plate” for every attendee. The plate included dates, black-eyed peas, honey, apple, pomegranate and beets. We had never seen this tradition before – apparently, it is Sephardic. The seder plate referenced wishes for a sweet new year. The rabbi had one person at each table recite a prayer for one of the foods on the plate.

There was challah and wine on each table. The rabbi said the blessings for the bread and wine before we ate.

The food had a Japanese influence in terms of flavoring and portion size. The course following the seder plate included carrots, Israeli eggplant and a cold potato. A plate of small roasted salmon steaks was then passed around the table in lieu of gefilte fish.

Matzo ball soup was the next course, with a matzo ball the size of a golf ball. It was served in beautiful glass bowls – however, since it was Rosh Hashanah, we didn’t take any photos. The next course included small pieces of chicken. Sliced Japanese Kabocha squash and rice with a dollop of tsimis was then served. Dessert was dairy-free cake. Wine, as well as soft drinks and water, flowed freely during the meal.

Before dessert, the rabbi gave a short talk welcoming us to the services and dinner. During his talk, he told a story about a boy who was offered either $1 or $5 daily for work he was doing for a merchant. The boy took the $1. His friends thought that he was a poor negotiator. However, he informed them that he took the $1 because then the merchant would keep asking for his services, whereas if he had taken the $5, the merchant might have given him more money that one time, but would not ask for his services again. We believe that the story was about the downside of being greedy.

The rabbi’s warmth made for a wonderful evening. He walked to each table and inquired why we were in Japan and about our careers. He appeared to be attempting to make a shidduch with the Navy flyer and either of the Israeli lawyers. He also encouraged discussions between the business people. 

We always enjoy partaking in Jewish activities during our international travels. Celebrating Rosh Hashanah with Jews from all over the globe was a wonderful experience, and proved to be a highlight of our trip.

All who attended appeared to have a wonderful time celebrating Erev Rosh Hashanah with the Chabad Lubavitch in, of all places, Tokyo, Japan.

MARK KANTER and LYNNE GLICKMAN live in Portsmouth.