I Had Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

It was the hardest year of my life.

I was ashamed that I wasn’t enjoying motherhood as much as I had expected to.

While I was on maternity leave, I thought a lot about what I was going through but I wasn’t able to talk about it. Not only because I couldn’t articulate my feelings but also because it was just too upsetting to talk about. Now that I’m feeling better, I want to talk about it and I want people to know they can talk about it with me. This is an article I wrote on LinkedIn:

Why I’m Talking about My Postpartum Depression after Returning to Work

A Refugee’s Daughter Returns Home

And it feels like the middle of nowhere.

My father’s hometown is nestled among the hills near the Slovakian border.

As we wound our way through the countryside, I felt like we were heading into the middle of nowhere. Even in this age of the Internet and globalization, I still felt so far away from everything else. As we inched closer to the Czech town of Brumov-Bylnice, I couldn’t help but think, “How the hell did my dad get the idea to leave this little corner of the world?” Even Prague was five hours away by train.

Escape from Czechoslovakia

My father left Czechoslovakia in 1966 when he was 19 years old. This was two years before travel restrictions would be temporarily relaxed during Prague Spring, so he had to think of another way to get out of the communist country. Though border controls were strict at the time, he managed to get on a tourist bus to neighbouring Austria with the promise he would return, of course. But when that time came, he was nowhere to be found and the others had no choice but to make the return journey without him.

Knowing the bus was long gone, he walked into the local police station and requested political asylum.

That was just the start of a journey that would take him to the Traiskirchen refugee camp, then to Vienna and finally to Canada. With the Iron Curtain still firmly shut on Eastern Europe, it would be another two decades before my father would return to Czechoslovakia. In the meantime, he met and married my mother, a Japanese woman who was also in Vancouver to satisfy an adventurous spirit.

Enter JapaCzech

This is where his story takes a pause and mine begins. My parents raised me to be proud of my multicultural heritage, and I was raised with a mishmash of both my parents’ traditions. I spoke Japanese with my mother, and while my Czech never really moved past the basic listening comprehension stage, I enthusiastically sang along to the my father’s old world lullabies. In the kitchen, we were doing fusion long before it was cool – eating goulash and dumplings with a side of homemade sushi rolls. As much as they could, my parents tried to cultivate our family ties, though it was much easier for us to travel to Japan than to Czechoslovakia at that time.

In the late ‘80s the political climate had thawed enough for us to comfortably travel there as a family. Even as a child, I was well aware of the differences between my home and this Eastern Bloc country still stuck in time. My parents had stocked up on gifts of items that were not yet available locally, and I got a kick out of my dad handing out Hubba Bubba gum, AC/DC cassette tapes and branded t-shirts to all the neighbourhood kids from the trunk of our rental car like some New York City hawker. I would find out years later from a family friend that my dad had also mailed them treats like a Bruce Springsteen tape and Walkman, which they had to keep under wraps from their friends at school to avoid seeming subversive.

In the years following that first visit, I travelled back with my family two more times during which communism fell and the country split into two. Then… nothing. Life happened, as it does to everyone in their twenties, and thoughts of the Czech Republic were inadvertently pushed from my mind. I was busy with university, travel to other far-flung places and then with the start of my first real job. It wasn’t until getting married that I felt the pull of my ancestral homeland once again.

A Visit After 20 Years

As we arrived in Brumov-Bylnice in the car driven by my friend (and recipient of the aforementioned tape and Walkman), I was on high alert for the only landmark I could remember: my babicka’s house. For 20 years, I had kept the memory of my father’s childhood home and surroundings alive in my mind. I was certain I could find my cousin’s home, which was built right beside it. Although the colour of the house had changed from a teracotta yellow to a matte cherry red, I was able to point it out right away. We knocked on the door and, after the initial shock of not having seen each other for two decades, were welcomed in and celebrated with round upon round of slivovice.

The rest of the day was a jet lag-induced blur of reuniting with more family members, going on a walking tour of the quaint town and seeing my grandparents’ graves at the cemetery beside the church on the hill. I was just so happy to be walking arm-in-arm with the uncle I never really got to know before. At his and my aunt’s insistence, we spent the night at their apartment, despite them not speaking any English and us not speaking any Czech. But this slight inconvenience was mitigated by body gestures, Google translate, more plum brandy and knowing that it didn’t really matter anyway. After all, we were together and I had returned home.

JapaJew: One Year Later

Reflecting on my Jewish life.

While we don’t consider ourselves to be religious Jews, my husband and I try to make it to shul (synagogue), every once in a while, because we believe it’s an important part in maintaining our Judaism (so to speak). There’s the community aspect, the ritual aspect, and most importantly for me, the learning aspect. After not having been at shul for quite a while (we’re busy people, ok?!), there we were last Saturday morning when I suddenly realized my mikvah was exactly one year ago today! One year a Jew. Quite a significant moment for me.

One year ago, I was a tentative Jew. It was all a bit abstract – what was it all going to mean for me? But I have realized that life, is just life. You live your life and things happen. There’s not too much thinking that goes into the day-to-day stuff. That has been a nice realization for me – that being Jewish just happens in the same way I make dinner every night or go to work every morning.

The year has flown by, as I expect future years to do too. There will come a time when I will have lived more years being Jewish than not. In the meantime, there is still so much more I want to do to honour the path I have chosen: re-learn how to read biblical Hebrew (to be able to follow along in shul), volunteer in the Jewish community and, yes, attend shul just a little more often.

The great thing about establishing myself as JapaJew from the very beginning (while also considering my Czech heritage) is that I made it clear to myself this was not an adoption of a new life, it was the combination of multiple parts of my life. For everything I’ve learned about being Jewish, my husband has learned something about what it means to be Japanese or Czech, and we’re richer in experience for this.

Wow. Jewish for one year already. Can’t wait for what the upcoming years will bring!

So You Wanna Convert? 8 Steps to Becoming Jewish

It’s as easy as one, two… eight!

I was gifted this beautiful challah cover upon my conversion.

As a new-ish JBC (Jew By Choice), my mikvah is still fresh in my mind. The warmth of the water as I walked the seven steps down. The accomplishment I felt after my final immersion. The excitement of everyone singing Siman Tov (it really gets going at 0:40) on the other side of the door…

I can say with 100% certainty I had a wonderful conversion experience. Although my parents seemed a little uncertain at times (due to this being a new experience for all of us), I had their support as well as the support of my now-husband, his family and my synagogue. But my experience is far from typical and it isn’t always a seamless experience. Conversion can be challenging for people who don’t have a lot of guidance, may still be tied to their former beliefs or feel pressured to convert.

There’s no cookie-cutter conversion journey but these steps might help you think about whether conversion is the next step in your life.

1. Make this decision for YOU. Don’t allow anyone to coerce you into conversion. It is extremely personal and has to come from deep within. Ask your yourself why you want to become Jewish. Is it only because you feel you have to do so to get married? Can you imagine a Jewish identity separate from your partner? No engaged woman wants to think about the end of her marriage, but I had to ask myself if I was prepared to continue living Jewishly should I ever separate from my husband.

2. Meet with rabbis in your community. If it’s not obvious which stream of Judaism you want to follow, meet with different rabbis. I treated it a little like a job interview in which they were not only checking me out but I was doing the same to them. Which rabbi excites you? Are they someone you trust and respect? The rabbi will likely play an important role in your family’s life cycle events so you want to make sure they’re someone you want to have around.

3. Choose your synagogue. This isn’t necessarily tied to the above step, especially if there are different options of the various streams in your area (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.). You may be influenced by the stream your partner grew up with or by the values that are important to you. Though my husband grew up Conservative, we got a good feeling from the Reform rabbi after attending the synagogue’s A Taste of Judaism information session and decided to stay on with him. It was a new experience for the both of us to share.

4. Sign up for a Jewish Information Class (conversion course). This will likely be a requirement for conversion at your synagogue. The timeline may differ but fall to spring is typical. My class was once a week for two and a half hours. One hour was devoted to learning how to read biblical Hebrew (in order to follow along in the prayer book) and the rest was devoted to Jewish religion, history and everyday life. My husband was required to attend, which was helpful to me because I could ask him to expand on things we had learned, and it felt like we were doing this together.

5. Live Jewishly. This means observing Shabbat, attending services and taking part in holidays. I had my husband to guide me but there are a number of different resources including your rabbi, fellow congregants, books and Jewish websites. Start small and add to your Jewish way of living. Light Shabbat candles and nosh on some challah. Challenge yourself the next week to make a completely kosher meal.

6. Study, study, study. As part of my Jewish Information Class, I was required to read up on a variety of topics, practice reading Hebrew and write a weekly journal entry. It may be surprising how many people in your Jewish social circle don’t actually know too much about the history of the Jewish people or the stories in the Torah, so reading on your own or attending Torah study at your synagogue might be ways to fill in the blanks.

7. Prepare your family. “Becoming Jewish” may be very abstract to your family. They hear you saying it and they know you are taking classes but it still might not feel real to them. Tell them why you’ve made this decision and why it’s important to you. Invite them to ask questions about your decision and what it means to be Jewish. Invite them to have Shabbat dinner with you or take part in your mikvah (ritual bath) celebration.

8. Set a date for your mikvah. This is the last step in your conversion. Before you do the mikvah you will be required to sit in front of a beit din, a which is a panel of rabbis (usually three) that will ask you questions about your conversion journey. Don’t be concerned about trick questions. They want to see you succeed in becoming Jewish. They only want to make sure you have come to this important decision on your own and that you have every intention of living a Jewish life.

Everyone’s conversion journey is different. As long as you believe in what you’re doing, you are making the best decision for you.

While I like to jokingly remind my husband that my life was perfectly fine before I became Jewish, the journey to conversion (and beyond) has brought us closer together. It has also made me part of an active community and allowed me to tap into a spiritual side that I never knew I had before. In Judaism, I have found love on so many levels.

What do you remember most about your conversion journey? Please post below!

Story published on Kveller.com!

JapaJew reaches a wider audience.

ICYMI – I had an essay about being Japanese, Czech and now Jewish published the other day on Kveller.com. It was exciting to see my experience being shared with a much wider audience, and I loved hearing from people who reached out just to say the piece had resonated with them.

Have a read and let me know what you think in the comments section!

And Then I was Jewish

Just like that (no, not really).

As you can imagine, cameras were not allowed in the mikvah.

There I was, standing naked in the mikvah, having a life-changing spiritual moment, yet the man I was thinking about wasn’t my now-husband. It was Jonny. My husband’s friend.

Jonny had told me, just days before, not to screw up my mikvah by floating away like a pufferfish (my words, not his). He said to fully exhale so I would sink and remain curled like a ball without unfolding like an accordion.

After each of the three blessings, which I had spent all week memorizing, I thought of his stern but caring advice. I had done my best all year to be a model student.

I couldn’t all of a sudden have a less than perfect mikvah experience!

After each blessing, I inhaled deeply before slowly exhaling and sinking into the warm water.

In just a few minutes it was over. With the last “Kasher!” from the female rabbi who was making sure all my dunks were kosher, everyone waiting for me broke out into a hearty rendition of Siman Tov to celebrate. Overwhelmed, I took a moment to bury my face in my wet hands to collect myself.

I slowly made my way up the seven stairs, wrapped myself up in a towel and, as the door swung open into the foyer, introduced myself as a Jew.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

But don’t mistake it with that other one.

The actual seder table I sit at each year on the first night of Passover.

Passover that is, not Christmas. Which is not to say that I don’t like Christmas because I do, but I have grown to love Passover or Pesach as it’s also known.

Passover is the holiday that celebrates the Israelite exodus from Egypt. After generations of slavery, Moses led them back to the land of Israel. It’s a time to remember Jewish history, honour the sacrifices of the Jews that came before us and think about the chains that we, as a society, still wear. While there is a serious aspect to this holiday, it is still very much another “They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat!”-type of celebration too.

I just love everything about Passover. The long table at my fiance’s parents’ house that is arranged to accommodate lots of people, the bright tulips that usher in another spring, the familiar chatter of everyone as they find their places and the gefilte fish on my plate that seems to tease me as I sit hungrily through the pre-dinner rituals…

But perhaps the best thing about Passover for me is, with this being my third one, I now know what to expect during a seder. And, as someone who loves traditions, that is the best. This is not to say that I always know what’s going on, because there is a long list of very specific things to do, but I “get” the significance of the holiday and can even sort of sing along to my favourite Passover song Chad Gadya.

The best part is – I get to do it all over again for the second night of Passover!

Mo Mikvah Mo Problems

The biggest one being getting naked in front of the rabbi.

Not the mikvah that I’ll be going in but you get the idea. Photo: rose770, Flickr

Ok, so I’m not actually anticipating any major problems but there are some questions on my mind regarding the mikvah (ritual bath), which is the last step in my Jewish conversion.

How closely will I be looked over before my spiritual dip? (I’m not supposed to wear any makeup, nail polish, have contact lenses in and, oh yeah, I’m going to be buck naked.)

How will I feel being naked in front of the female rabbi? (I’m a bit of a prude.)

Will I be able to remember and recite the blessings?

And if not, will I be able to see them printed on the wall without my glasses?

While I think about these questions often – especially with my mikvah looming – I don’t let them cloud what I believe will be a beautiful, spiritual moment and an important life milestone. I’ve studied hard, embraced Judaism and am ready for this. My Jewish Information Class took a field trip to the mikvah the other day so now I know what to expect when it’s my turn.

The mikvah, locally shared by a number of Jewish congregations, is quite small so I only plan to have my fiance, his parents and my family there. Though I may be a little cold as I come out of the water, I know I’ll be radiating heat from a place deep within when it’s all over.

What was your mikvah experience like?

I Wrote a Torah, Kind Of

Actually, I just wrote a letter.

It’s considered a mitzvah (good deed) to write a Torah.

Recently, my fiance and I performed one of the 613 mitzvot – a commandment or “good deed” – that likely isn’t done by many Jews. That’s because it’s to write a Torah (the book of Jewish law otherwise known as the Old Testament). Now, we don’t have the time nor the knowledge to do such a thing (never mind not having access to the skin of a kosher animal to write on), so it was a symbolic gesture done by holding onto a quill (with a much more qualified person at the helm) while writing the Hebrew letter “hay.”

This Torah is being symbolically written by congregants at our synagogue to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

How it went down

We ascended the bimah at the front of the sanctuary, and joined the visiting rabbi/sofer (Torah writer) to write a letter as part of the last few lines of Genesis. The experience was intense, sitting under the chuppah with my fiance while the two synagogue rabbis looked on. The sofer gave us a pep talk of sorts to explain “our” passage – essentially to be kind and to remember that kindness starts at home. It’s only after you’ve looked after one another, that you can branch out and be kind to your extended family, friends, community and so on, is what he said. My fiance and I were so taken by the moment that on the car ride home we kept repeating the line we had helped write – “and they ascended” (which has multiple meanings).

I couldn’t help but get a little misty-eyed when our rabbi congratulated us and offered a blessing over the wine to commemorate this very special experience. With my conversion and Jewish wedding ceremony not too far off in the distance it was especially meaningful.

Let Me Tell You a Jewish Joke

It’s one I made up so don’t hold your breath.

My Google search of “laughing rabbis” turned up nothing.

My father once told me if you can name three types of trees and birds in another language, you are pretty much fluent. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re an ecologist or avid birder but I tried it out myself with Japanese, and the fact I could name at least one of each told me I probably have a good working knowledge of the language.

In a similar way, I think if you find certain cultural nuances funny and understand why they are funny, then you have a pretty good handle on that culture. Case in point: porn4jews.com. When a friend suggested I click, I was a little apprehensive about what I would find: naughty Orthodox women? Naked people rolling around on bagels and lox? Alas, it’s a blog that pokes fun at the random things only Jews might find really funny. And I now understand the things they’re making fun of! It’s a small, personal milestone for me. After two years with my partner, celebrating the holidays and now studying for my Jewish Information Class, I get it!

And with that, I present to you a little joke I made up in my head while we were studying blessings in class:

Did you hear the American president is a Jewish convert?
Oh yeah?
Yeah. His name is Baruch Obama.


(Baruch means “blessed.”)

Ok, so I’ve got a long way to go to catch up with other Jewish comedians, of which I have learned there are many, but I think this is a good sign I’m starting to get a handle on this whole Jewish thing.