Chicken soup and sushi for the Japanese-Jewish soul

It’s not easy being a Japanese Jew.

Recently two of my closest relatives, one Japanese and one Jewish, found out they have life-threatening illnesses. I’m having trouble listening to the kvetching of one relative with Costco-size tissues at hand, while getting ready to hand over the hari-kari sword tucked under my skirt to the other.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother has always been culturally arduous, but the contrast between my two tribes has become more apparent since dealing with the sick, the needy and the neurotic.

Ailing members from both sides of my family are at once both loveable and impossible to be around, which makes for an equally poignant and frustrating experience. That is, if you call alternately acting as an amateur psychoanalyst and a weary samurai a real blast of a time.

I am reminded of two famous quotes I heard as a child: one from a Japanese emperor, “Generally speaking, the way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death,” and the other from Woody Allen, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

As a child, my parents cared for me quite differently when I was sick. My mother insisted that quiet, rest and stillness in bed was best; my father turned on any movie by the Marx Brothers or Mel Brooks, claiming that laughter was the only true way out of misery.

When I recently visited my Jewish relative at the hospital, he was predicting an imminent death and complaining the lunch portions were too small to satisfy even his cat.

My Japanese relative, however, swore me to secrecy never to reveal she is sick, especially not to family. Better that she simply disappear for three weeks during bed rest. As if this were possible: She hasn’t missed a day of work in 40 years, except for the births of her children, when a few hours at the hospital caused deep embarrassment (the lunch portions weren’t a problem because she never ate a meal that did not include fish and rice).

She says she doesn’t even want to know she is sick, so why should anyone else? This might bring shame — or “haji,” as the Japanese call it — to our family. Suffering privately is a much better solution. Her brother recently told her not to come to his funeral when he dies. But I’m not supposed to know about that either.

“Don’t visit me at the hospital or when I get home,” she said.

I am just as perturbed with her secrecy as I am with the neuroticism and hypochondria of my Jewish relative. Not only does he wish to discuss his ailments, he wants to dissect the parking conditions at the hospital. I’ll kindly spare you the details of his doctor visits.

Yesterday he asked me if I would ever be able to enjoy our favorite restaurant without him should he pass away. I answered no, to which he replied, “That’s a shame. So can you tell me why we have been dining there for all of these years?”

You can’t win, is one thing I have learned. But with these two uniquely different cultures blended into my DNA, you certainly can’t lose either.

And even though I have always struggled with whether the best cure for an illness is chicken soup or chazuke, a blend of Japanese rice and green tea, I have never thought that one culture deals with death better than the other. Still, it can be challenging to balance and blend the two.

For example, I had a migraine recently. I thought I was surely dying of a brain tumor, which was treated best, of course, with a viewing of Groucho Marx in “Duck Soup.” But then I was struck with a centuries-old sense of samurai honor: Even if I was in my final hours, I needed to prepare dinner for my family.

Perhaps I will one day better bridge my two cultures, teaching my children to learn from Japanese and Jewish traditions, customs and wisdom in order to live a more tranquil and balanced life.

And should anyone catch a cold, I will gladly make my grandfather’s soothing chicken soup on one burner while boiling my mother’s recipe of perfect Japanese rice on another. After all, chicken soup and rice together isn’t so shabby, is it?

Francesca Biller-Safran is a journalist who lives in Benicia. She can be reached at [email protected]