Why the Jews of Japan Liked to Swim


The pool area at the JCC in Hiroo has been reincarnated as a wooden deck.


Excerpt from The Wagamama Bride, a memoir in progress…

From a sunny window at the Jewish Community Center, all is quiet around the pool, which is empty of swimmers because it’s the Sabbath. 

“Why can’t you swim on the Sabbath?” Aki asks in all seriousness.

“It’s not just swimming! It’s all manner of work, sport and electronic  entertainment.”

If all goes well, we can save swimming for a future date. Aki takes a seat next to me in the dining hall. We arrive in time for a fabulous kiddush lunch.

Summer time at the Jewish Community Center of Hiroo used to come alive around the built-in swimming pool at the back of the synagogue. You could  peep out the dining room windows and watch the swimmers one floor below,  but I can tell you from experience it was a lot more fun to change into a suit and dive into turquoise waters while a smattering of congregants sun-worshipped on the chaise lounges by the pool. Or they’d be enjoying lunch under the cafe parasols with an  order french fries and a piping hot falafel fresh from the fryer.

Those were the days. The newly rebuilt JCC, which was reopened by its Board in 2009, got rid of the pool–it also lost its allure for many of us in Tokyo who came there for socializing. Not that I didn’t like to pray or come for a Shabbat meal or celebrate Succot under the stars. But conversations around the JCC pool created lasting bonds and memories as I recall unwinding and connecting to the watery emotions of how we had ended up in Japan by way of destiny. So many fascinating life stories were told around that pool. In Tokyo it wasn’t only our scarcity that made us all the more interesting to each other. It was our reasons for being in Tokyo that could be so profound, like the young volcanologist who stopped by Tokyo on his way to studying an erupting volcano in Kyushu. Tragically he never came out alive from that trip. But I still remember our talk and the excitement he had for his life calling.

More traditional, or religious Jews follow Torah’s strict modesty rules that prohibit mixed bathing. But the Jewish Community Center describes itself as Conservative, a 20th century American-born movemen to reinterpret Torah in  ways that allow for more egalitarian participation–meaning women can become rabbis, easier conversions–allowing non-Jews to become rabbis, and other enticements to make conversions in Japan an option. If that spouse is agreeable. Which Aki was not in the year we decided to get married–1989.

Now that there are two Chabad House centers in Tokyo that JCC pool is needed more than ever before. It could have served a tremendous role in uniting all our Jewish women in a set time when swimming would be open just to women. It’s a Torah commandment that Jews know how to swim and so finding a pool for our small community of Orthodox members in Tokyo has been a problem that has yet to be resolved. For many, the only place to swim is a long overseas flight away in Israel or wherever else home may be.

One day, it’s my dream that the Jews of Japan who want to swim will once again find a welcome place to do so.

And here are just a few of the great public swimming pools in the Tokyo area where you can combine a walk in nature, a picnic, a great excuse to meet up with friends–and of course, a swim:

http://bestlivingjapan.com/setagaya-park-pool/ (Summertime only)


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