New memoir paves way for Holocaust survivor's stories

The Wagamama Bride by Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi debuts a personal tale whine shining a light on a Holocaust survivor's story.

The couples' wedding in the hotel.  (photo credit: LIANE GRUNBERG WAKABAYASHI)
The couples' wedding in the hotel.
One would imagine that the most difficult part of writing a memoir is deciding what to put in and what to leave out, bearing in mind who of one’s living relatives and friends might be insulted either way. Some memoir writers can just dive in and swim in a flow of consciousness, completing their memoir in the space of a week. Even though she has been a journalist and author for more than half her lifetime, it took Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi nine years to complete her memoir, The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan.
It is the story of a cross-cultural, religiously pluralistic marriage. While trying to understand each other’s cultural heritage, and to raise their two children in both traditions, husband and wife gradually drift back to their inherent roots, causing their marriage to come unstuck, while still maintaining their mutual respect for each other and support in time of need, regardless of the geographic distance that separates them.
Grunberg Wakabayashi took a long time to complete her memoir, not so much for reasons of writer’s block or fear of offending living persons, but because she was involved in so many other projects, including a writing course that provided a platform for her and her fellow writers to bare their souls and to critique each other.
The importance of the critiques to her and to her colleagues can be assessed at the end of the book, in which the acknowledgments take up seven pages. Judging by the names of some of the people who read the drafts of the book from its early stages onward, they, like she, were involved in East-West relationships that were initially fascinating but sometimes heartbreaking, as the protagonists in such relationships began to seek and discover their true identities, and in so doing moved further apart from each other rather than closer together.
The Wagamama Bride by Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi. (Credit: LIANE GRUNBERG WAKABAYASHI)The Wagamama Bride by Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi. (Credit: LIANE GRUNBERG WAKABAYASHI)
GRUNBERG WAKABAYASHI is not only a journalist and author but also an artist and teacher, who was born in Montreal to a British mother and Romanian father who eventually divorced. She grew up in New York City, spent vacations in London with her maternal family, and found love and marriage in Tokyo, where she also became a mother.
It was there that her background in Conservative Judaism lite and her desire as a stranger in a strange land to be among Jews – at least on Shabbat – were the gateway that opened up to her spiritual home and to Jerusalem, where she arrived with her two children in 2017.
The catalyst was, of course, Chabad, whose emissaries came to Tokyo in 2007 and, like most Chabadniks, were nonjudgmental and accepted the Wakabayashi family in toto.
Grunberg Wakabayashi, in her younger years, was never particularly drawn to religion – certainly not her own – when living in New York, where she was engaged to a Roman Catholic potter. That relationship came to an end when he got cold feet about a mixed marriage.
She was not looking for love when she arrived in Tokyo in 1985 and again in 1987. On both occasions, she was on a journalistic assignment.
But then she got a job on The Japan Times, and quickly made friends with a diverse group of people. She wanted to try out traditional oriental medicine and one of her friends recommended the White Crane clinic, which was where she met Ichiro, her husband-to-be, interested in macrobiotics and an expert in shiatsu massage and acupuncture.
Their romance blossomed at the Jewish Community Center in Tokyo, where she took him for Shabbat lunch on what proved to be their first date. Microbiology notwithstanding, Ichiro dug into the sweet challah, devouring slice after slice.
Throughout their 26-year marriage, Grunberg Wakabayashi took notes and engaged in meticulous research, writing and rewriting her memoir in bits and pieces.
It’s now an edited and published book which has been through two launch events in the garden of her home.
Wagamama is the Japanese word for selfish, which is what Ichiro considered her to be when she wanted to move to Israel and take their children with her, or even before that when she wanted to send their son Akiva to a boarding school in Israel.
Her argument was that, up to adolescence, their son and daughter had been raised in accordance with the Japanese lifestyle. Now, it was time for them to experience the second half of their identities.
As is obvious from the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Grunberg Wakabayashi makes friends quickly and she likes to share.
CHABAD RABBI Moshe Leider flew in from San Diego for 24 hours to perform son Akiva's bris. At far left: Rabbi Binyamin Edery of Chabad Tokyo. (Credit: LIANE GRUNBERG WAKABAYASHI)CHABAD RABBI Moshe Leider flew in from San Diego for 24 hours to perform son Akiva's bris. At far left: Rabbi Binyamin Edery of Chabad Tokyo. (Credit: LIANE GRUNBERG WAKABAYASHI)
SHE INVITED everyone in her garden to write a memoir, and had as guests the coauthors of another memoir, Julie Gray and Gidon Lev, whose book, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev – Rascal, Holocaust Survivor, Optimist has received favorable reviews.
Grunberg Wakabayashi had read the book, loved it and wanted to meet the authors – which she had managed to do a week earlier, courtesy of her dentist, who drove her to their home.
Czechoslovakian-born Lev was one of what is believed to be 92 child Holocaust survivors of Theresienstadt concentration camp. He was there from the ages of six to 10. His mother survived, but his father died in Auschwitz.
Following his liberation, he spent several years in America and Canada before arriving in Israel in 1959. He had a bad first marriage, fought in the Six Day War, married a second time and lost his wife after 40 happy years of wedlock. He survived two bouts of cancer, has six children, 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
After his wife died, he started writing his memoir. He hadn’t thought of writing a book, he just wanted to leave something of himself to his family. But after 70,000 words, he figured that he needed an editor.
That was how he met Gray, a writer and editor, who after suffering great grief in Los Angeles came to Israel in 2012, two months after the death of Lev’s wife Susan.
Gray is a convert to Judaism, though she didn’t explain what prompted that decision. However, she was already Jewish when she came to Israel to write her autobiography, and ended up joining him in writing his. The collaborative effort led to what Gray called “the love of my life,” saying that she wished she had met him 50 years earlier.
Lev said that he was trying to enjoy life as much as possible. He was enjoying Liane’s book, he said, even though they were not exactly on the same page in relation to God. But he did acknowledge that there was some higher force, because he had not planned to have as large a family as he has. “If Hitler destroyed my family, I got it back,” he said. “It was not a plan.”
AT THE book launch on June 4: (seated from left) Grunberg Wakabayashi, Gidon Lev and Julie Gray. (Credit: MICHIO NAGATA)AT THE book launch on June 4: (seated from left) Grunberg Wakabayashi, Gidon Lev and Julie Gray. (Credit: MICHIO NAGATA)
ANOTHER GUEST was Mordechai Yosef Ben Avraham, a Black American who hails from LA and whose birth name was Shariff Hasan. Ben Avraham, who was a Muslim at the time, was introduced to Judaism via the Kabbalah Center, with which he paid his first visit to Israel in 2003. He became increasingly interested in Judaism and underwent an Orthodox conversion.
Five years ago, he returned to Israel, intending to spend three months studying at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He’s still here.
Grunberg Wakabayashi heard him speak at a lecture he gave at the Jerusalem Press Club and excitedly asked to interview him. The interview appeared two years ago in The Jerusalem Post.
In the interim the two have become very close friends and have had endless discussions on religious topics.
What he, Grunberg Wakabayashi, Gray and Lev have in common is that they all speak of a journey.
That, after all, is what life is, and memoirs such as The Wagamama Bride and The True Adventures of Gidon Lev are the legacies of those who want to share their journeys not only with their families, but with others who may need some guidelines along the way.
In speaking of his friend’s book, Ben Avraham said: “She created a platform for other people to share their stories. We all have tremendous stories – and they are what we leave behind us.”
MORDECHAI YOSEF BEN AVRAHAM spoke of his own journey. (Credit: MICHIO NAGATA)MORDECHAI YOSEF BEN AVRAHAM spoke of his own journey. (Credit: MICHIO NAGATA)
“You can’t do it alone,” said Grunberg Wakabayashi. “You need inspiration and support.”
It’s obvious that she had plenty of both. She has a wonderful gift for description, especially metaphoric descriptions that will delight any lover of the spoken or written word in English.
At the same time, she paints some very interesting pictures of life in Japan that will give the would-be traveler – Jewish or otherwise – new insights.
In her writing and in her friendships, she proves that there is no contradiction between diversity and unity.
The rainbow, after all, has many colors.
‘The Wagamama Bride’ is available at M. Pomeranz Bookseller in the city center and on Amazon.