Author Archives: Johanna Berkman

Motherless Mothers

These past few days my facebook feed has been filled with essays about what it’s like to be a motherless daughter, and how much pain this causes on Mother’s Day. But the same is not true for me.

As mother to three young children caught up in my own celebratory day – well, “celebratory” may be a bit of a stretch; the big thing is that my husband takes the kids to their activities while I get to go for a long run and then lie around and read – I am not thinking so much about my mother.

The truth is that I miss my mother more on all the other days of the year when I am running around doing simple things, like on a Friday afternoon when I go to the bakery to buy dessert for Shabbat, which I used to do with her when I was little. I miss her when one of my children has an accomplishment, or says something knowing and hilarious and precocious that I know would make her proud, like the other night when my friend’s teenage daughter said she was going to China and my five year old replied, “I’m just not that into dictatorships.” And I miss my mother in the summer when we go out to my father’s house in Rockaway Beach and discover, as if it is somehow, after nearly eleven years, still news, that she is not there to open the door, kiss all of us hello, hug us and make us lunch. For what is a mother but someone who does things for you, and without any expectation that one day those acts of kindness might somehow be repaid?

I love my children more than anything, and on Mother’s Day it is a pleasure, and a gift, to see them express that love back to me be it in handwritten cards and their cleaning up the kitchen. And to be all caught up in the love and frenzy of that and not thinking about the love that I have lost, and she who I have lost, well, that seems like a gift to me too.

Dear Rabbi XOX Ivankaleh

Dear Rabbi xox Ivankaleh

Dear Rabbi—

First, thank you so much for the mazel tov on my father’s sweep of the Mid-Atlantic States this week. I am shepping so much nachas from his success. But frankly, Rabbi, you should be too, because, as per your suggestion, I did put mezuzahs in every doorway of Trump Tower the night before the election. True, my step-mother wasn’t so thrilled. She said in Slovenia there was no such thing as mezuzahs, plus she thought the Israeli wooden ones I had chosen didn’t go well with the gilded Louis Quatorze-inspired décor. But my father intervened, saying, “Let Ivanka my Jewess do whatever Jewish stuff she wants to do. The Jews are Uuuuge! It’s not for nothing that they have disproportionately dominated Congress, the Forbes 400 and the Nobel Prize for decades!”

Isn’t my father a mensch? Frankly, I just don’t understand how people can possibly think that he, a man who is really just a big teddy bear once you get to know him, is a dangerous demagogue and a racist. A racist? Between you and me, I sometimes wonder whether if, you know, after he’s done serving as our president, he too might convert to Judaism. Do you know how frequently he asks me questions about Jewish ritual? Can Jared and I have sex on Yom Kippur, he wants to know. Can a spray tan be applied on Shabbat?

I am heading to Indiana this afternoon to help my father get ready for the primary there and while I’m thankful Jared’s mother — Bubby, as Arabella likes to call her – will be at my apartment assisting all my non-immigrant help with the kids, I’m worried about what this trip means for my observance of Passover. Specifically, I’m sure my father and I will be going to eat at his beloved McDonald’s. While my father gets the Big Macs, I just get the fries. But if the fries are cooked in corn oil, can I eat them? Jared says the Conservative movement rabbis recently ruled that Ashkenazi Jews can now eat kitniyot, or corn, rice and legumes, during the holiday. But does this ruling apply to me? And does it apply to McDonald’s French fries? Thank G-d the holiday’s ending tomorrow! And on Shabbat, no less!

Speaking of Shabbat, Jared and I are thinking of inviting our friend Wendi Murdoch for Shabbat dinner next week when I’m back in New York. Before she got divorced, we used to have her over with her husband Rupert, that media mogul who is great on Israel. But Wendi is now dating Vladimir Putin. Yes, Putin! Do you think it’s kosher to invite Putin to our home for Shabbat dinner? Or is he too much of an anti-semite?

The other day my father told The New York Times that he would like to improve relations with Russia. “Some say the Russians want to be reasonable,” he said. “I intend to find out.” As far as I’m concerned, what better way to find out than over challah and a couple of glasses of Judean Hills’ finest pinot? Do you think having Putin for Shabbat would be good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Finally, about this whole Ted Cruz/ Carly Fiorina together on one ticket thing. Yes, of course we know that this is just a corrupt and desperate eleventh hour bid to steal the nomination from my father. But nonetheless, and especially given the whole unfortunate “woman card” flap this week, do you think I should encourage my father to do Cruz one better by announcing that he has chosen a running mate who is not only a woman, but a Jew?

Jared thinks I should go for it — not just encourage my father to choose a Jewish woman, but encourage him to choose, well, me. Considering what a boon I’ve been to his image, what do you think, Rabbi? Should I go for it? L’chaim to making America great again!

Yours in Torah study,
Xox Ivankaleh

Going Back to Cali

“It sure is taking a long time to get to California,” says my five year old. We are aboard a Virgin America flight to LA, and somehow I have landed the middle seat, sandwiched between him and a muscle bound twenty something who is inhabiting his window seat and all of his space – what little of it there is to begin with you can hardly blame him – with a forthrightness and self-assurance that I only ever really encounter in men. Which is not surprising for many reasons, not least of all the article I’ve just read, while my son was happily ensconced in the Disney Channel, in today’s New York Times about wage disparities between men and women. Of course such disparities have been around forever, as have the articles about them, but what was new about today’s piece, on the cover of the Business section, was Harvard economist Claudia Goldin’s research which shows that even when women perform the same work as men they are paid less – that women doctors earn 71% of what male doctors do, and that women lawyers earn 82% of their male counterparts.

“Mommy, you can just end your story there,” says my son, now working his way through a book of hidden pictures and looking up to notice my laptop open on the miniscule tray table next to his. “Vacation is not for working.” Across the aisle my husband is watching “The Affair” for the first time because, through the auction of a theater we support, we have won, as part of a package of other things we wanted more (yes, Hamilton!), a tour of “The Affair’s” set. I don’t know much about the show other than what one can easily intuit from its title, and when I try to get my husband’s attention by calling his name several times – yes, I’d like help with our son now – he is so deeply engrossed in the show that he doesn’t even hear me. Finally I wave my hand into his peripheral vision and he whips off his headphones. “How is it?” I ask him. “Intense,” he says, and we switch seats.

In my new row, our thirteen year old son is watching the NCAA tournament on the little back of the seat TV, and our nine year old daughter is knitting, the two of them inhabiting their gender stereotypes so seemingly perfectly it’s scary unless you know that our daughter has a business selling hand knit necklaces for the school ID tags that parents are required to wear to enter school, and that she is currently working her way through $15 worth of commissions, at $5 bucks a piece. “I used to sell them for $3,” she says sheepishly. “But people are willing to pay $5,” I remind her, and she smiles and goes back to her knitting.

The Last of the Okonomiyaki

It is New Year’s Eve in Kyoto and to celebrate we have finally given up all pretensions of trying to blend into, or even absorb, the Japanese culture: We have ordered in pizzas and burgers from room service, and are watching Matt Damon in “Martian.” God bless America! We have been in Japan for nearly two weeks now, and though we love it, we are all exhausted, at that point in the trip where we are no longer even bothering to pretend we’re going to get up early to go to the gym (ha! We’ve been once), and are wearing dirty clothes and getting a touch lax about hygiene (I won’t name names but it is not, I repeat NOT, me).

We have wound down our trip here in Kyoto so that my husband, who lived here twenty seven years ago, could take us around and show us all his old haunts, but as it turns out, much to his surprise, and certainly ours, he recognizes almost nothing. “I feel like an amnesia victim,” he says, as he leads us up the charming, if jam-packed, Chawan-zaka, (Teapot Lane), to the iconically Kyotoan Kiyomizu-dera temple not with the help of his memory, but rather, the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook. “I don’t even think I’ve ever been here before,” he says, a fact which seems difficult to imagine given the beauty of both the temple and its environs. But alas this amnesia-like phenomenon will occur again and again as my husband leads us from astonishingly beautiful temple to astonishingly beautiful shrine, pagoda, or garden. And at a certain point I will even begin to wonder if he ever really lived here at all.

Until today.

After a morning spent at a tiny Zen rock garden consisting of exactly fifteeen rocks which my husband swears he remembers visiting, and frequently, to meditate, he decides we should have okonomiyaki, or cabbage pancakes cooked on a griddle, for lunch. Sure twenty seven years ago a woman who owned such a restaurant sponsored him for his visa, but as that restaurant has long since closed and he cannot remember the name of any other such restaurant that he frequented — “This was before Facebook,” he reminds me — we walk into the first okonomiyaki-ya that we see.

The place is a greasy spoon and though me, my husband and our 13-year old are more than satisfied with our lunch, our two younger children do not like theirs and we begin to talk, a bad habit, I know, about what else they might like to eat. Perhaps the restaurant has soba? Did I see something on the menu about tofu? “No,” my husband suddenly says, putting an end to all the indulgence. “I haven’t eaten okonomiyaki in twenty seven years, and I may not be back in Japan for another 27 years, or ever. This may be the last okonomiyaki I’ll ever have and I’d like to enjoy it.” At fifty years old, I know, he is merely stating something that is actuarially true, if morbid. But it is something so true and so morbid that for a minute I can barely catch my breath.

“But maybe we’ll come back soon,” I say, trying at once to reassure him, our kids, who have fallen silent, and not least of all, myself. “We’ll rent an apartment one summer when the kids are in camp. Or just move here for the year and put them in an American school.” He can open a Zen investment fund and I can write a book about Japan and become a foreign correspondent. Tomorrow is a new year, a completely new slate. And though it’s unlikely we’ll ever do any of it, isn’t it nice to dream?

Jackie Mason of Japan

“Kaiseiki was one of the highlights of my time in Japan,” says my husband, as we make our way through ours, a seasonal twelve course winter dinner. “And now,” he declares, with not at all mock seriousness, “it’s one of the low.” Drama kinginess aside, I know just what he means. We are having kaiseki in the traditional Japanese ryokan, or inn, where we are staying in Hakone, and it is being served to us, as is traditional, not just on the floor, but right smack dab in the center of our room. The food is spectacular, but our kids, who have no interest in horse mackerel balls, and kelp and tofu cheese sushi, are all bopping about our series of mostly windowless rooms, slamming open and shut the sliding paper screen doors so loudly that our overly deferential somewhat ancient waitress who does not at all speak English miraculously bursts into it only to say, “People downstairs, they complaining.”

This is, to put it mildly, a sake buzzkill, as is the fact that while we are indeed, wild nanny-less children aside, dining like Edo-era governors, we are also doing so under the physically and metaphysically depleting glare of a high wattage fluorescent bulb.

“Next vacation I just want to go somewhere where I can go running,” says my husband, whose idea it was to come to Japan in the first place and who happens to be currently suffering from Plantar fascitis. “Somewhere I can go running and play video games. I just want to get Runner’s World magazine and look up the best places to go running in the world and then go there. Sure one of these places is probably Central Park but. . . . .”

I love my husband, perhaps all the more so for his dry, unsparing wit, but it is a wit that, at least here in Japan, seems to owe a bigger debt to the Jews, specifically the Borscht Belt, than I’d ever before realized.

One afternoon, in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, fresh off a visit to the dazzling and enormous Sensoji Buddhist temple, we find ourselves in a coffee shop which turns out to be a kisaten, a coffee house where, my husband swears, customers are deliberately charged more so that they can stay as long as they like and entertain friends since, their apartments being so small, this is something that can be difficult to do at home. All of us order drinks, the obligatory hot cocoas and teas, and then our 13 year-old, still lean and growing at 5’11, orders an ice cream parfait. “He ordered the parfait?” my husband mutters in fury as the waitress recedes. “What is he doing? We’re in the fucking Carnegie Deli of Tokyo! You don’t order the parfait!” Later, my husband will compare the aggressive solicitations of the rickshaw drivers to a Yom Kippur appeal at our synagogue.

Me, my husband and our three children are all large here, and not just physically large as compared with the Japanese, which we are, but we are all also writ large as well, as if when seen against a new, completely altered backdrop we are all swelled up to Alice-after-she-drank-the-potion proportions. Each time we ask a Japanese maître d’ for a table for five, his face falls apart a little, he gets flustered and then asks us to wait for a minute as he moves around tables, and moves them around again, in order to come up with the right configuration. “The population’s shrinking here,” says my husband. “Birth and marriage rates are falling. In Japan our family’s as big as the rebbe’s.”

Lost in Translation

The other morning, over breakfast at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, the hotel where Sophia Coppola shot “Lost in Translation” starring Bill Murray as a washed up celebrity, I meet a former celebrity of my own. “Well that’s about as babka as you’re gonna get,” I overhear a woman saying to her son as he hovers over a Japanese cake, inspecting it suspiciously, and I immediately like her. Her name is Oskar (yes, Oskar!), and it turns out she too has three children, is from Manhattan, and though we live in different neighborhoods – she lives on the Lower East Side, but hell, when you’re in Japan that’s practically the same thing as the Upper West – and have different careers – she’s a transformational healer, which one could argue qualifies her, if a bit tenuously, as an artist – it seems we are leading quite similar, almost parallel lives. She even looks, and sounds, familiar. We haven’t met before, but perhaps I’ve met my doppelganger. Could we be soul sisters? And then I can’t help it. I do what every New York mother of young children does whenever she meets another New York mother of young children: I ask Oskar where her children go to school.

Oskar’s kids, as it turns out, go not to Friends Seminary or NEST or their local zoned public school, but to The Blue School, the school founded by Blue Man Group, where teachers follow their students’ interests and let the children do hands on projects rather than formal learning. “Like City and Country?” I ask hopefully, thinking of the school where once upon a time I’d dreamed of sending my own children. “City and Country?” laughs Oskar. “City and Country is like, ‘Let’s do progressive things, but then we’re all going to Yale.’ The Blue School is like ‘We’re all great and everybody’s fantastic and let’s just see where it leads us.’ Because if we’re all doing things to get into a school so we can get a job so people can be miserable and then pay me boatloads of money to help them heal. . . . .” and she shakes her head disdainfully. I know just what Oskar is talking about of course, because the world she is describing is the one I one I live in, for better or worse. Or perhaps just worse. But this hardly disqualifies us as soul sisters. Or does it?

And then Oskar tells me how her three year old accidentally dropped his plate on the floor of the dining room, smashing it loudly. Before I can even commiserate, offering up my own tale of child dining woe, Oskar pumps her fist. “Yes!” she says, “I was like, ‘That. . . . . was. . . . . awesome.’” Awesome? There is an awkward silence as I take this in. And then our whole awesome sister thing evaporates in a flash.

Later, when I get back to my room I will google Oskar and find out who she is, or rather was, before she became a healer. She is Oskar Saville, former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. No wonder she seemed so familiar. And yes, no wonder we’re so different.