'The challenge is to move beyond racial, religious or national tribes and embrace multiculturalism'

Shalom Japan, where dishes sound like punchlines

Check out the Matzo Ball Ramen and the Oy Vey Iz Kir cocktail at Brooklyn’s newest hybrid eatery, where you’ll find intermarriage at its finest

From left: married chefs Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel, with manager Micaela Grossman, in front of Brooklyn's Shalom Japan. (photo credit: courtesy)
From left: married chefs Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel, with manager Micaela Grossman, in front of Brooklyn's Shalom Japan. (photo credit: courtesy)

NEW YORK — Jewpanese? It may sound like an unlikely fusion, but in Brooklyn at least it works — both in the kitchen and in life.

Williamsburg, one of the densest food hubs in Brooklyn, is no stranger to un-kosher Jewish spinoffs. Bordering one of the largest Hasidic enclaves in New York, Williamsburg already has given birth to pork-happy Jewy eatery Traif and its Mexican-Asian version, Xixa (pronounced shiksa), both owned by the same Jewish-Christian couple.

But even these hybrids pale in comparison with Shalom Japan, a non-kosher restaurant crossbreeding traditional Jewish and Japanese dishes. Items like the Matzo Ball Ramen, the Sake-Kasu Challah, the Jew Egg (a soft-boiled egg encased in a shell of crispy falafel) or the Oy Vey Iz Kir cocktail (Palmer Brut and Manischewitz) might sound more like punchlines than actual food; but Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi, the husband-wife master chef duo behind this venture, weave the two seemingly disparate cuisines together quite well.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working and cooking together, introducing each other to things, and discovered that there’s a lot of common ground,” says Israel. “For example, the neri-goma [a common sesame-based Japanese dressing]. When I first tasted it, I was like wow, this is just like tahini. Or the Chirashi dish, of fish scatted over rice, that tasted a lot like lox. We started riffing off each other… I brought in the Challah, she added the Sake-Kasu to it, it worked.”

The cultural crossover is also demonstrated in the decor, most viscerally in the bathroom. A fully automated toilet lights up from within as soon as the door is opened, lifts its lid, and offers several options for rinsing your private parts. Across from this unmistakably Japanese artifact hangs a large poster of a Japanese child holding a rye bread sandwich. “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s,” it suggests.

‘Playfulness and light heartedness are big components of what we’re trying to do here’

“Playfulness and light heartedness are big components of what we’re trying to do here,” smiles partner and general manager, Micaela Grossman.

Shalom Japan serves a diverse clientele, in tandem with the neighborhood’s demographics. But in the three months since its conception, it has become a mecca to one group in particular: “We have a lot of Jewish-Japanese couples coming here from all over New York,” says Grossman. “They say that ‘This is us, this is exactly who we are.’”

Israel was raised in Great Neck, Long Island, and was always into the arts. His path into cooking, he says, began in high school, when he first discovered and fell in love with sushi.

“It was too expensive at the time to keep buying, so I had to learn how to make it for myself… and over time I realized that I love doing this,” says Israel.

Okochi was born in Hiroshima, Japan, and moved to Texas as a teen in 1995. In 2000 she relocated to New York City to undertake the culinary program at the New York Restaurant School.

A little over two years ago, when both were working as chefs in popular Brooklyn restaurants (Okochi in the Good Fork and Israel at the Mile End, a Canadian-Jewish deli), the two were set up on a date by their mutual sous-chefs. They bonded over their experiences as participants on the reality TV show The Iron Chef, and began working and spending time together.

Their common passion for cooking and overarching identities as New Yorkers seem to dwarf any ethnic or cultural gaps that might otherwise have come between them as a couple.

The Sake-Kasu Challah (photo credit: courtesy)
The Sake-Kasu Challah (photo credit: courtesy)

“I learned a little Japanese, and started to take my shoes off when I’m in the house… That’s about it,” shrugs Israel. Their parents gave them no trouble, he adds. “So no, Sawa being Japanese and me being Jewish was never an issue.”

According to a Pew Research survey published earlier this month, 44% of all currently married Jewish respondents in the US are married to a non-Jewish spouse. While many Jewish community leaders (and parents) lament this as the tribe’s harbinger of doom, others argue that it doesn’t have to be. In many cases, intermarriage does not erase Jewish identity but rather broadens, enriches and diversifies it, giving it new forms of expressions.

Research suggests that in the case of Jewish-Asian intermarriage in particular, Judaism is indeed the benefactor: In a 2012 study published by Whitman College’s Department of Sociology, all of the 37 Asian-Jewish American families interviewed maintained their Jewish religious practices and Jewish ethnic identity[1] .

Paul Golin, who runs a Facebook page called “Jewpanese — Where Jewish and Japanese Converge,” has been has been documenting the intersection of Jewish and Japanese cultures for years that has swelled to over 500 members. The opening of Shalom Japan represents a nifty little step forward, he suggests, both for the Jewish community and for the Jewpanese.

From the the Jewish point of view, “here is a household that many who are reacting to the Pew survey would say is lost to Judaism,” he notes. “And yet they made this effort to build their professional identity around being Jewish, as well as Japanese. To me, this says volumes about what the organized Jewish establishment just isn’t getting.”

Golin is the Associate Executive Director of the Jewish outreach group, Big Tent Judaism. His job is to consult Jewish community organizations on matters of engagement, intermarriage, and disaffiliation, advice he draws from being a Jewish man married to a Japanese woman. In his opinion, the Jewish-American establishment’s approach towards intermarriage constitutes a big missed opportunity.

‘Organized Judaism is very invested in tribalism, and still has a big problem with the racial issue’

“Organized Judaism is very invested in tribalism, and still has a big problem with the racial issue,” he says. “The expression ‘funny, you don’t look Jewish’ is still in wide circulation.”

Considering that half of the people under age 30 who define themselves as Jewish are members of at least two tribes, he remarks, this is a problem.

“By definition, tribalism is about belonging exclusively to one group. But things are changing now, and the challenge is to move beyond racial, religious or national tribes and embrace multiculturalism.”

Shalom Japan is an example to the kind of multicultural thinking he hopes the Jewish establishment can learn to adopt, one of congruity.

“When my son grows up, I hope he won’t feel that he has to be one thing or the other, but he can feel wholly Japaneses and wholly Jewish.”

For New-York’s Jewish-Japanese households, Shalom Japan is a tasty and clever way to celebrate both sides of their identity. When his Facebook page hits a thousand followers, Golin muses, maybe he’ll arrange a meet-up there.

“As far as I known there haven’t been any Jewpanese events for families like mine, but if there were, that would be the logical place.”

Other cultural hybrids have formed from New York’s crucible over the years. The Nuyorican culture of the Seventies (a cross between “New York” and “Puerto Rican) for example, found one of its focal points in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine how Shalom Japan could become a Jewpanese hangout, a place and concept to congregate around, perhaps even a nucleus of a new community. It could become an important reference point in the conversation about assimilation and diversity, and what they mean for the Jewish community at large.

But for Israel and Okochi it’s not about any of that.

“Our role in relation to the Jewish culture? Impossible to answer,” says Israel. “It’s not for us to say how people will see the place — we just take care of the food.”

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