In a city of 13 million where the Jewish population is under 300, being Jewish suddenly seems more foreign than ever. Keeping kosher? Forget it. But having a small, tight-knit community of mostly American expats and Israeli immigrants is not so bad, especially when your synagogue was designed by Fumihiko Maki, who also designed the new Four World Trade Center complex in Manhattan. Or when Izaki-San makes some of the best challah in the world and has been baking it fresh for the Tokyo Jewish community for over 40 years. Food is not an afterthought at the Jewish Community Center in Tokyo. Every Friday, the community gathers for a Shabbat dinner, filled with Jewish and Israeli favorites as well as Japanese staples.
Food is an integral part of being Jewish; it is also an integral part of being Japanese. The Jewish community of Tokyo created its own cookbook, cataloguing recipes from community members and Shabbat favorites. Helmed by Izaki-San, who is devoted to the kitchen at the synagogue, the cookbook features everything from matzah ball soup to Japanese rice and sour cream coffee cake. According to the director of the Jewish Community Center, Jews in Tokyo are more focused on the cultural and social aspects of being Jewish.
In a city so massive and draining, having your own pocket of people with whom you can connect is a welcome respite. Dan Zuckerman runs Ta-im (“delicious” in Hebrew), a cozy Israeli restaurant in the hip neighborhood of Ebisu. Although his food isn’t kosher, it reflects the spirit of Israel in its food and décor. Zuckerman makes everything from scratch, in the tiny open kitchen that takes up almost half the space.
Whether it’s tender fried eggplant rounds topped with labneh and a generous drizzle of aromatic olive oil or crisp falafel, Zuckerman and his team dish out his childhood favorites to a largely Japanese public. The walls are covered in Hebrew scribbles, and Israeli radio is constantly blaring in the restaurant. Last Passover, Zuckerman had his Jewish friends come in to celebrate together at his restaurant. “The community feels like a second family to me, and the restaurant is my second home,” he said.
After finishing the army, Zuckerman decided to travel around Asia like many of his peers. He fell in love with Tokyo, and after landing a job at David’s Deli, one of the five restaurants in Tokyo specializing in Jewish/Israeli cuisine, he decided to stay. Zuckerman has a Japanese wife, and Ta-im recently celebrated its five-year anniversary.
At another Israeli restaurant in Tokyo, Shamaim (“sky” in Hebrew), the food is also a reflection of its owner’s heritage. Tal Kitaoka grew up in Israel to a Japanese father and wanted to reconnect with his father’s side of the family. After moving to Tokyo and learning Japanese, Kitaoka worked at Shamaim before becoming its current owner.
Kitaoka doesn’t miss Israeli food; he cooks it every day just the way he likes it. Whether it’s vibrant Israeli salad, freshly whipped hummus or baba ganoush, he uses local ingredients as much as possible and imports what he can’t get. But Kitaoka does miss the quintessential Israeli shuks (markets). “That interaction, the sounds and smells of the markets, you just can’t replicate or find that here,” he said.
So if you do find yourself in Tokyo, it may feel foreign and far, but you always have a seat at the table. Whether it’s at the Jewish Community Center or one of the various Israeli restaurants, Zuckerman and Kitaoka will welcome you and fill your belly with hummus and pita. Cheating on Japanese food has never been more delicious.