Title: The Wagamama Bride
Author: Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi
Publisher: Goshen Books, 248 pages
Liane Grunberg Wakabayashi’s return to her Jewish roots began in earnest at a Chabad House in Tokyo, the city she had moved to as a young journalist and called home for more than 20 years. Ironically, it was at another Chabad House, at a weekly women’s Torah class, that I met Liane – in Jerusalem, where we both live.
With her glowing countenance and colorful, artsy vibe, I sensed that she, like so many globe-crossing transplants who find their true home here, had a story to tell. But it wasn’t until she shared her newly published memoir, The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan, that I learned the back story of her remarkable life.
In a memoir as gripping as – and often stranger than – fiction, Liane’s journey, a paean to Chabad’s unique recipe for love-filled, judgment-free outreach, unfolds in fascinating layers.
When I saw the book’s title, I assumed that Wagamama was the name of a place in Japan, perhaps where she’d met her Japanese husband. It turns out that wagamama is a Japanese word for a not exactly pejorative type of selfishness. As a Jewish acquaintance in Tokyo (who would soon flee her own intercultural marriage) explained to Liane, “Wagamama means to be strong and independent. A foreign wife married to a Japanese man must be wagamama to survive here.”
Born to a British mother and Romanian father who later divorced, Liane grew up in New York in what she describes as a Conservative Jewish home, but one woefully short on Jewish education and observance. Despite generations of assimilation and intermarriage, she was raised on the single, unmoored precept: Whatever you do, don’t marry out.
Unfazed and open to adventure, Liane set off for Tokyo for what was supposed to be a one-year stint writing there for Conde Nast Traveler. Not unlike some Israeli backpackers, Liane found comfort in the driven yet spiritually in tune, tradition-rich, and surprisingly welcoming Eastern culture. She took a job at The Japan Times and made herself at home in her new city. Although she visited the local Jewish Community Center from time to time, that experience was more social than religious.
Then she met Ichiro.
Stepping into a shiatsu and Oriental medicine clinic to help her find her Zen, she found herself attracted to the bearded, pantalooned Japanese practitioner apprenticing with the clinic’s master teacher, or sensei. Like Liane, Ichiro was committed to personal growth, his journey inspired by the teachings of the Tao. Despite their hugely different backgrounds, Liane was charmed by his unflappable optimism, worldly insights, and unwittingly comical English. They began a romance which progressed quickly toward a proposal.
Their Japanese wedding, held in the Shinto tradition, was a grand affair, as Ichiro hailed from a respected, well-to-do family. But even at that early stage, Liane had doubts. “Dear, just remember,” her mother warned, “you’re marrying into his culture, not the other way around.” The more Liane realized this, the more she began to consider what part of herself she was letting go. It’s amazing – a testament to the pintele yid, I suppose – how a Jew raised with minimal religion can still feel visceral discomfort when asked to pray in front of a Buddha or participate in a cremation ceremony. That growing feeling of disjointedness ever so slowly spurred Liane’s interest in her own heritage.
I found it surprising, and quite moving, how much understanding and openness Ichiro’s parents displayed toward their Jewish daughter-in-law. She became close to Okaasan (Japanese for mother), who was kind and supportive when Liane and Ichiro found themselves in conflict over their different approaches to finances and work-life balance (yes, even a spiritual-guide-in-training can be a workaholic) – and even years later after their marriage ended.
Liane, who had studied art history and graduated with an MFA from Columbia, found inner peace in painting and yearned to move to the countryside to work on her art and make a new start. Ichiro didn’t want to leave Tokyo. On top of this, their struggle with infertility compounded Liane’s enveloping uncertainty. But they continued to work on their marriage, and eventually, were blessed with a baby girl.
One day, Liane was surprised to receive a pre-Rosh Hashanah package from Chabad of Tokyo. She called the number on the card and soon found her way to the Chabad House, her young daughter in tow. Expecting a rebuke for her attire and life choices, Liane received a warm welcome. She quickly developed a close bond with these new shluchim, began learning Chumash with the rebbetzin, and became a regular hand in their kitchen. Going to Chabad became a Shabbat ritual, first on the bus, eventually on foot. Ichiro, while supportive of his wife’s journey, felt comfortable enough on his own spiritual path and saw no need to wade into Judaism.
But Liane kept at it. “My faith in the G-d of Avraham didn’t happen overnight. But week by week, it gained traction, as I absorbed Torah word by word,” she writes. Her new faith also renewed her hope that she could have another child, something she yearned for deeply. Her baby boy was born when she was 42, after she was introduced to mikvah by the rebbetzin.
As her children grew, a desire to give shape to their Jewish birthright put Liane’s journey into high gear. I’m not going to give away the details of her road to observance and eventually to Jerusalem in 2017, except to say that it was deeply veined with challenges, heartache, and Divine Providence. Like the rest of the book, that part of the story is told in a spirit of awe and gratitude.
Although not written for this purpose, The Wagamama Bride is a cautionary tale about intermarriage. We’ve seen it before: Latent religious identity has a way of asserting itself under evolutionary pressure. Even the most open-hearted spouses can’t always overcome the existential stress. While Liane clearly embraces her past – which made her who she is today – her story is proof that a strong “marry in” message does not, by itself, make a good guarantor for Jewish continuity. It’s also interesting to consider that had the sexes been reversed here, the children in question would not be halachically Jewish and could not simply have taken their rightful place among their people. Rocky terrain no matter how you slice it.
The Wagamama Bride leaves some questions unanswered. I was especially curious about Liane’s relationship with Ichiro now. She shared that fortunately they still maintain a warm relationship – and that he’s delighted with her book. Today, from her home in Jerusalem, she gives what she calls “intuitive art” workshops, in person and online, based on the Genesis Cards she developed while living in Japan (www.genesiscards.com). Her art, like her story, is full of soul.