March 3, 2023, was a historic day for Israel and Japan. The first direct EL AL flight from Tel Aviv landed in Tokyo. I was privileged to be on that flight and return four days later on the first direct flight back. I had been on the waiting list for this flight for 40 years, ever since my first trip to Japan from my hometown, Sydney.
A life-changing trip in 1983
That one trip in 1983 changed the direction of my life for the next four decades. I was 24 years old and on my way to my homeland hoping to find a down-to-earth Israeli woman and start a life for myself in Israel. After joining the Betar youth movement at age 8 in Sydney, my direction in life was clear: I would live by the teachings of the father of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
But this stopover in Japan was not an ordinary stop. I had been mentally preparing and physically training for it for six years, ever since I passed my black belt in Karate and was selected to represent Australia at the World Karate Games.
My goal and itinerary were clear. I would spend three days at a karate competition and five days of sightseeing in Japan, travel to London and then board my first EL AL flight to Tel Aviv. But as the saying goes: Man plans and G-d laughs!
Apart from the 3-day karate competition, nothing went according to plan. What ensued instead was my lifelong love affair with Japan and an unexpected 10-year chapter of my life. I decided to stay in Japan and train in karate and aikido with Japanese masters whom I adopted alongside my mentor Jabotinsky, and to commit myself to rigorous daily physical and mental training to gain internal strength in order to achieve peace within myself and with others.
During those years, I was trying to promote tourism to Israel but this was not simple. There were waves of terrorism and no direct flights. In addition, most Japanese knew very little about Israel. They saw the country as a destination similar to Iran and Iraq: it starts with the letter I, is located in a desert, and the news shows images of war.
In my ever-determined attempt to change Israel’s image from terrorist location to tourism destination, I decided to appeal to the adventurous and rebellious young Japanese by promoting volunteering on kibbutzim. This educational working holiday would be in a safe environment where they would frolic among the orange groves, giving them the opportunity to meet Europeans and learn English while enabling them to see a new and different part of the world.
My Japan marketing plan was not so sophisticated. Armed with brochures of young Israeli pioneers picking fruit and folk dancing, I set up a booth in Harajuku Park, a popular gathering place for young Tokyo punk dancers. Amongst the lines of ghetto blasters playing high-voltage rock and roll, I innocently set up my speakers and played the song Ushavtem Mayim Besasson.
To my surprise, within minutes, I had a circle of Japanese of all ages spontaneously holding hands and dancing and singing to this classic Israeli folk song. This was especially incredible because it is not within Japanese cultural norms to touch or hold hands. Unlike Israelis, Japanese are also not known for being spontaneous, and yet, before my eyes were groups of young and old Japanese singing all the words to Mayim Mayim and dancing the grapevine steps around me – and they had no idea it was Hebrew or that was from Israel! Something had obviously gotten lost in translation.
The Mayim Mayim phenomenon in Japan
Originally created to celebrate a thriving post-war pioneer society working together to build the land, the Israeli folk dance Mayim Mayim was created in order to bring people together, to provide hope, to express togetherness and communal aspirations for plenty in the joint effort of the founding a new state. This joining of hands and singing together with hopefulness symbolized the new Zionist ideology of equality and solidarity. It required contact with each other and moving in unity and awareness of one another.
In the 1950s, the American Allied Forces in Japan introduced folk dance to the Japanese education system, and almost all Japanese danced folk dance as part of their gym class. In 1958 American dance pioneer Rick Holden introduced Ushavtem Mayim. which he learned in Israel, to Japanese elementary schools, and the dance was absorbed into the cultural consciousness of Japan. Since then, it has been featured in TV shows, anime, and movies. It is still taught in schools to this day.
Four decades and one direct flight later, as I made it to Tokyo to follow Israeli Olympic marathon runner, Beatie Deutch, I stood outside the Imperial Palace and burst into a “folk flash dance” of joy and to my delight not tens, but hundreds of Japanese burst into joyous dance with me.
Who would have thought that one of Israel’s most impactful exports to Japan was the essence of community spirit as symbolized by our folk dancing?
A nation disunited
Sadly, today’s Israel is showing the opposite culture and face to the world. Rather than a country banding together to move in step with one another and sing in unity, today we are faced with one of the greatest political clashes in our history. Where is the harmony, togetherness and spirit of the old days? Where is the open-mindedness of Jabotinsky, who spoke about how every Jew is a prince – and must be a tolerant and fair person? Where is the importance of Jewish unity as Menachem Begin valued, when he overcame his anger and avoided civil war after the Altalena? Where is the pioneering spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit, the religious spirit of tolerance taught in our shared Torah?
After 40 years of wandering between Israel and Japan and dreaming of this moment, I am heartened to see that the essence of our community spirit can still be felt in countries like Japan. These moments help keep my idealism alive. It’s the same idealism that moved me from my safe and democratic Australia to participate in the historic Zionist project of a Jewish and democratic country 25 years ago.
I can only hope and pray that today, as the leaders who are negotiating the future status of our country with President Herzog, that together they will consider the basic principles of the founding fathers and mothers of the state of Israel and remember the days when people of different beliefs were not afraid to hold hands and, move together in a circle and sing and dance mayim, mayim, bsason together.
As we celebrate the festivals of Passover, Ramadan, and Easter, may we be reminded of the importance of loving thy neighbor as thyself and the universal message of peace, freedom, and respect for others who are all made in the image of G-d.