Jewish Brooklyn, Through Japanese Eyes


For Jews, sitting in a cramped, clumsily crafted wooden Tabernacle for seven days is simply a cheerful part of the holiday calendar. For Japanese scholar of Jewish history, Mina Muraoka, who had never met a Jew before in her life before arriving in Brooklyn, in 2003, the experience was pleasantly exotic.

“My close Jewish friend who I interned with at the Museum of Jewish Heritage invited me to her aunt’s house for the Sukkot holidays,” Muraoka recalled in a recent interview. “I was excited to come, but confused when my friend pointed to the hut in the backyard and said that’s where we would be eating dinner…” — hasty laughter, followed by quick qualification — “but I really enjoyed the experience. The family time together was really beautiful. And there was a real feeling of connecting with an ancient tradition.”

Surprisingly, given her background, Muraoka has spent much of her young life connecting with all things Jewish. Currently a research fellow at the Center for Jewish History and pursuing a doctorate in Jewish history at Brandeis University, she probably knows more about Jews and Jewish history than many practicing members of the tribe.

“Today, most of my friends are Jewish,” confessed Muraoka. “I’ve been in the academic community with Jews for so long that I no longer feel like an outsider.” Although a self-described “secular Buddhist,” Muraoka admits, “All my Jewish friends are convinced I’m going to convert. But, I’m not so sure. For now, I’m happy where I am.”

Muraoka’s confrontation with racial discrimination at a young age stimulated her lasting interest with the Jewish people. From ages 10-12, Muraoka’s father, a geologist, moved the family to New Zealand where Mina attended a local public school.

“The other children saw that I was different and singled me out,” Mina said of her experience being the only Japanese student in the class. “They treated me differently, and, as a young girl, I couldn’t understand why. I barely knew the language, but I was very hurt. It left a lasting impression.”

Around the same time, Muraoka saw a film on the Holocaust. “I felt a deep sense of identification with the Jewish people,” she said. “I saw how Jewish children were turned away from schools, how Jewish men lost their jobs because they were Jewish. I was shocked. I knew I had to find out more about this people.”

The two experiences were the beginning of a long arc that would take her from Anne Frank to Jewish cultural icons like Man Ray and George Gershwin, and, eventually, to Brooklyn.

The heavily Jewish borough promised to provide Muraoka with the “authentic Jewish experience” she was seeking. A recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, Muraoka spent two years studying in the Judaic studies department at Brooklyn College. And riding the bus with chasidim on the way to class.

“As the Yiddish saying goes, ‘a gast af zayl, zet a mayl’ — a temporary guest sees everything,” said Robert Shapiro, professor of East European Jewish history at Brooklyn College and Muraoka’s close adviser. “Mina was able to come into a completely foreign environment and see it with completely new eyes. That’s what makes Mina’s experiences and insights so unique, so important.”

Brooklyn, with its diversity of Jewish religious life and culture, became her new classroom. “Before coming to Brooklyn, I had only ever read books about the Jewish people,” Muraoka said. “Many books, but coming to Brooklyn was still quite a shock.

“In Japan, there are three primary associations with Jewish people: Israel, the Holocaust and chasidim. I was very naïve about what it meant to be Jewish. I didn’t realize the amount of diversity there was. I always knew there were different types of Jews — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative — but I didn’t know what those differences actually meant until I came here.”

That diversity was a marked contrast to Japan, a homogenous country. “In a population of nearly 127 million today, the Jewish population in Japan has remained negligible,” Muraoka said, “even during the refugee influx during World War II. That’s why people in Japan know so little about the Jewish people, and that’s why I had to come to America to study more about Jewish history.”

Muraoka’s determination to trace and disseminate the story of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, originating from her childhood sense of identification with Anne Frank, found voice during a summer internship at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. After a summer of rigorous study, she was sent to several public schools in the Bronx, Queens, and Roosevelt Island to educate students about the Holocaust.

“The first question the students had for me was, ‘Why aren’t you Jewish?’” she recalled with a good-natured laugh. The students were accustomed to receiving Jewish interns from the museum — but Muraoka was something new. “They wanted to know why I wanted to teach about the Jewish people if I wasn’t Jewish. I told them my story about encountering discrimination and intolerance and how I found myself interested in Jewish history. In the end, the students were extremely receptive to my message because I was from a different background.”

Muraoka plans to continue teaching Jewish history when she returns to Japan after completing her dissertation. “Since there is no department for Jewish studies in Japan, I hope to start by teaching basic courses about Jewish history, literature and culture.” Muraoka’s dissertation focuses on Jews and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, examining the role played by Jacob H. Schiff, a German-born Jewish American banker and philanthropist, who provided financial services and support to the Japanese in the war, at the time of the First Russian Revolution.

Besides a pile of books on Jewish history, “I have been collecting Jewish artifacts to bring back with me to Japan,” Muraoka explained. “So far I’ve collected kippot, a mezuzah, Shabbat candlesticks, a seder plate, a menorah, and chanukiah — I’ve started with the basics. I want to be able to show my future students that the Jewish people, the Jewish culture, is real and alive today.”

Asked what she admired most about Jews and their survival instinct, Muraoka said, “It’s the concept of peoplehood — that all Jews are responsibly for one another. It’s a loyalty that goes beyond country, or family history, or specific religious practice. All of Israel is one. I find that extremely special.”