Becoming a Jewish mother – by way of adoption – in Japan

By Leza Lowitz, Kveller via JTA

I’m standing on a cliff 50 feet above the Pacific Ocean, balanced on a precipice between two worlds. I don’t know how life has brought me to this place, this beautiful rock on the Izu Peninsula in Japan, but I’m here with my Japanese husband and dog to celebrate my 44th birthday. It’s the dawn of a new year. 

Will this be the year I finally have a child? I want to believe in miracles, yet my faith is being tested.

My husband, Shogo, is what’s known in Japan as chonan—the oldest son and heir to the family name and fortunes. While we’d been living in California, his younger sister had taken care of their father back home. We couldn’t ask her to do so forever. It was Shogo’s turn—our turn.

I hadn’t wanted to move back to busy Tokyo where I met my husband, but I loved him and wanted to be with him. And I knew that a good marriage was based on compromise—even sacrifice. He’d been in California for a decade with me, so it seemed only fair. We packed up and flew over the ocean, back to Japan.

After we settled, we got serious about starting a family. I knew it was our last chance.

I’d gone about trying to have a child the way I’d gone about everything else in my life—one part perseverance, one part “trusting the process.” I had a full life and no regrets. But after eight years, I did something I’d never done before. I got down on my knees and prayed.

And then my beloved Aunt Peggy, the hippie social worker who had inspired my teenage years with Ms. Magazine, flea markets and pot-luck block parties, got cancer. She’d worked in child protective services and had always wanted to adopt. Her one regret was that she never did. She urged us forward with a force and conviction that only impending death could render. We contacted a Japanese government agency and looked over the application.

“Japan is a difficult country to adopt from,” everyone warned. Not only were there few children up for adoption, but bloodlines were all-important. One’s ancestors are one’s link to the past. The family registry, or koseki, goes back generations. It lists each birth and marriage, tying family to family. Shogo’s entire family has to agree to a potential adoption. Fortunately, they did. We sent in the application and began the wait.


In September, we got approved. I emailed Peggy, who was thrilled. I called my mother, who reminded me that there’s precedent in Jewish history for adoption, from Moses floating down the Nile to Mordechai fostering his orphaned cousin, Esther. My mother fits this adoption into our Jewish life narrative, making sense of it in a way she — and I — can live with.

Many interviews, home visits and lectures later, our hopes were high, but every time we get a call about a possible placement nothing actually happened. Finally, I made Shogo call the agency. I ask him to tell them to stop calling us every month to ask if we’re interested.

“Tell them to put a perpetual ‘yes’ on our file. Tell them that whatever child they have available, we are interested.”

“Whatever child?” he asked.

“Yes. Whatever child.”

So when the social workers called to say a little boy was in need of a family and asked if we were interested, we shouted, “Yes!” eager to meet the child who was destined to be ours.

When they came to our house to tell us about him, the information was sketchy at best. There wasn’t even a picture.

“Are you interested or not?” they asked. They were not messing around with this child.

“We’re interested,” we said together.

And for the second time in my life, I got down on my knees and prayed.

We visited Shinji in the orphanage for hours, days, weeks, months. Eventually, we were allowed to bring him home for an overnight. And then finally, on his second birthday, we are allowed to bring him home forever. We’ll have a lifetime to explore the world together.

But my aunt Peggy didn’t; her cancer spread. I wanted her to meet him before she died.


There are many customs for birth in Japan—the mother returning to her parents’ house, a celebration of the child’s first solid foods—but we missed them all. Instead, we made our own when we returned to California by hosting a Jewish baby naming ceremony.

Aunt Peggy, my mother and stepfather, my father and stepmother, my sisters and their sons were there. The whole splintered family had gathered to heal and rejoice.

Many people from my mother’s temple gathered to welcome him, though we were strangers to most of them. Shinji was given the name Benjamin after his maternal grandfather, who came from Lodz, Poland, and after Walter Benjamin, the Jewish writer/philosopher and member of the resistance in World War II. Since the ceremony was held between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we decided to throw all of our sins into the Napa River as part of the tashlich tradition. We gathered at a waterfront to “cast away” the sins of the past and resolved to have a better year in the year to come. Tossing bread into the water, everything was still. It was a beautiful moment, one we’d been waiting for for so many years.

After the ceremony, my mother’s friends came up to congratulate us. Some told me stories of how they, too, were adopted, or how they have adopted children, and what a wonderful mitzvah it is. It is Shinji’s mitzvah to us, I said. We are the blessed.

My mother had ordered a special cake for Shinji decorated with Pokemon, though Shinji was probably the only one there who did not know who Pokemon is.

But it didn’t matter. With a heartbreakingly beautiful smile, he devoured the cake, which said in frosting: “Mazel Tov, Shinji. Welcome to the Tribe.”

Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s memoir “Here Comes the Sun” about her quest for motherhood across two continents and two decades.