When Binyomin Edery, the chief rabbi of Japan, was a child growing up in the farming village of Kfar Chabad in Israel, the nine-pronged menorah could be seen everywhere during the winter Hanukkah festival.
So when he arrived in Japan during Hanukkah 18 years ago, he made it his first order of business to persuade National Azabu — an international supermarket in Tokyo’s Hiroo neighborhood — to display a menorah along with the store’s Christmas tree.
However, with the number of permanent Jewish residents in Tokyo said to hover around a thousand, with another thousand or so spread across the country, the supermarket didn’t quite know what to make of the rabbi’s request.
A sacred candelabrum with eight branches and one central prong, the object used to be a rare sight in Japan and was only available for purchase at the Jewish Community of Japan center, also in Hiroo. But now, thanks to the presence of four Hasidic Chabad Houses in the country (two in Tokyo, one in Kyoto and one in Kobe), the small population of Jewish people in Japan have a home away from home where they can introduce their children to culinary delights and the light of goodness and kindness that, according to Edery, the menorah represents.
“All are welcome to celebrate Hanukkah with us in Japan,” the 40-year-old rabbi explains. “That’s why I drive around Tokyo with a menorah on my van. I want people to stop me and ask what it is.”
Taking to the streets of Tokyo in a black van with a huge, glittering gold menorah fixed to the top of it makes Edery ridiculously easy to spot. He says it has been a welcome sight to fellow Jews.
“A man stopped me the other day and said, ‘I was just thinking about what was I going to do for Hanukkah. I look up and see your car with a menorah on it, and I haven’t set foot in a synagogue in years. I’m definitely going to attend.’ ”
Edery explains that the menorah is the symbol of a miraculous victory for the Jewish people that took place more than 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, when the ancient Holy Temple was overrun and defiled by their rulers, the ancient Greeks. The Jews were ordered to follow the Greek idol-worshipping culture or be killed.
Under the leadership of the Jewish priest Judah Maccabee and his small army, a plan was devised to liberate Jerusalem from the Greeks. The Maccabean revolt was an astonishing success, and the first order of business afterward was to rededicate the Holy Temple, the center of Jewish life, by lighting a menorah. Following the victory, though, there was only enough olive oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the fuel lasted eight days — the exact amount of time required to produce more of the ultra-pure olive oil.
Thus Hanukkah commemorates the miracle by retelling the story as one candle is used over eight days to light the others. Along with the lighting of the candles, families sing traditional songs, play games and enjoy traditional foods such as fried potato latkes and jelly doughnuts. As the holiday is set by the Jewish calendar, its dates on the Gregorian calendar vary from year to year. This year Hanukkah begins on the evening of Dec. 24 and ends on the evening of Jan. 1.
Welcoming non-Jews to celebrate Hanukkah is a time-honored tradition. It actually changed the course of history when an invitation was sent to Chifune Sugihara (1900-1986), a war hero who saved thousands of Jewish lives from death in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Sugihara had been asked to attend a candle-lighting ceremony in Vilnius while he was in the position of Japan Consul there.
According to Solly Ganor, a Jewish survivor who escaped from Lithuania along with thousands of others whom Sugihara issued passports for, the rescue operation was set in motion on Hanukkah, when a refugee in an ill-fitting borrowed suit approached the Japan Consul to tell him about the dire situation of the Jews in Poland. The man said that his and many others’ only hope of escape was to be issued visas to Japan where they could then board boats to a safe haven provided by the Dutch on the Caribbean island of Curacao. For the next three weeks until the consulate was shut down, Sugihara stamped every passport holder who came to see him — an endless stream of war refugees fleeing from the terror of Adolf Hitler.
“Hanukkah has the power to move people of all backgrounds. They see what’s right and they do what’s right,” Edery says about how a simple exchange of culture led to saving lives.
Edery now refers to National Azabu manager Dale Toriumi as his brother. Over the years, the supermarket has asked the rabbi and his wife, Efrat, to host Hanukkah food promotions. They’ve turned up with their portable stove and frying pans to delight customers with their homemade fried potato latkes.
“National Azabu and many other Japanese who didn’t understand (what the menorah represents) at first have figured out its light is for everyone,” Edery says. “I approached National Azabu immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake to offer to take any donations from its customers up north for distribution to quake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown survivors. The manager put a big box by the entrance and customers donated so much food, clothing and money that every day they filled up 50 huge crates.”
This is, in a sense, the true meaning of Hanukkah, and Edery can take pride in the connection he has forged with his community —no matter how small it is — and non-Jewish people in Japan.
“(They) see a connection between acts of kindness and the lights we kindle,” he says. “(We all) see that the light we illuminate comes from our motivation to do goodness and kindness.”
A light in the window for all
The Chabad of Tokyo Japan is located at 1-25-18 Sanno in Ota Ward. Headed by rabbi Binyomin Edery, the Chabad is currently taking reservations for a Hanukkah cruise that will take place Dec. 25 on the Sumida River. For details, call 03-3772-7707 or visit www.chabadjapan.org.
Rabbi Mendi Sudakevich heads the Chabad Lubavitch of Japan, Tokyo, which is located at 1-5-23 Takanawa in Minato Ward. For more information, call 03-5789-2846 or visit www.chabad.jp.
In Kobe, rabbi Shmuel Vishedsky is in charge of the Chabad of Kansai at 4-12-12 Kitano-cho. For more details, visit 078-242-7254 or visit www.jcckobe.org.
Chabad Kyoto Japan is located at 30-3 Okazaki Tennocho, Sakyo Ward and is also headed by rabbi Edery. For more information, call 075-751-7707 or visit www.chabadkyoto.com.
In addition to the Chabad Houses, the Jewish Community of Japan is open to visitors and located at 3-8-8 Hiroo in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. Headed by Rabbi David Kunin, the center asks that guests register at www.jccjapan.or.jp before dropping by.