I live on the tiny island of Okinawa, Japan, but it often feels like much of my life is still taking place in the States. I have worked hard to create a life for myself in Okinawa, but — even after living there for almost 18 months — it’s still sometimes surprising to me how little I have in common with the majority of military spouses.
On top of that, my husband is a chaplain in the U.S. Navy who spends his days looking for balance between working with his Marines and catering to the Jewish community of Okinawa.
This kind of balancing act would be a lot for anyone to get used to, but it’s particularly difficult for me. Before I moved to Okinawa, my life barely involved any juggling at all. I grew up in the bubble created by the Jewish community of Forest Hills, Camp Ramah, Solomon Schechter and USY. I went to Barnard College and moved to the Upper West Side, where I eventually lived with my (then) rabbinical-student husband, Yoni. Our version of juggling was deciding which kosher supermarket to shop at, where to daven, with whom to share our Shabbat meals. Those questions didn’t seem trivial at the time, but it’s easy now to look back and think of that as a simpler life with less of the outside world butting in.
Of course, everything changed when my husband graduated, joined the Navy, and got stationed in Okinawa. Juggling became not just a necessity, but also a survival mechanism, a way of life.
Sometimes, keeping those proverbial tennis balls flying in line is not a problem. Okinawa is 13 hours ahead of New York, so I talk to my parents when they are waking up and I am about to go to bed; I Skype with my young niece and nephew when I am awake too early and they are eating dinner before they go to sleep. There is a way to find the balance between living halfway across the world and still being present in the everyday lives of the people you love. I make friends the usual way, but I keep friends by carefully not talking about politics or anything that could be construed as controversial. Yoni works with the Marines of the 9th Engineer Support Battalion by day and teaches classes for the Jewish community at night. On Shabbat he leads Friday night services and on Saturdays we (finally, occasionally) get some time to ourselves.
But the balance can also be precarious, like when two of the worlds we are juggling try (and fail) to come together. For example: many of our friends in Okinawa don’t know what to make of our Judaism. If they’ve met Jews before, they’ve certainly never had an opportunity to have an honest and open exchange with someone of our faith. (Sometimes, I feel as though I work in public relations for the Jewish people.)
As you might imagine, this leads to conversations that are often amusing and sometimes uncomfortable. Someone once asked me to agree with her statement that God struck down Ariel Sharon for trying to give away land that clearly, according to the Bible, belongs to the Jews. That might be an extreme example, but it’s a variation on the theme of conversations Yoni or I have at least twice a week. What does it mean to keep kosher? How come you don’t look like the Jewish people I see on the news? Why can’t you come out to eat with us after Friday-night services? Why don’t Jews believe in Jesus? What do you mean you can’t work on your holidays? Do you believe in gay marriage?
When I find myself in these situations, it helps me to remember that plenty of Jews live in isolated places and have to address those unfamiliar with Judaism as well as subconscious prejudice on a daily basis. Plenty of people join the military and struggle to figure out how they fit into the larger community. But being the only rabbi’s wife on our island imbues me with a sense of authority as well as a measure of responsibility, whether I like it or not. So when I look around and find that I’ve dropped a figurative tennis ball — when I’m not doing a good job juggling my Jewish life with my military life, my friends and family at home with my life abroad — I stop juggling, reassess, and start again from the beginning. One ball at a time.
Leora Skolnik lives in Okinawa, Japan, with her husband, Lt. Yonatan Warren. You can follow their adventures at www.libi-bamaarav.blogspot.com.