My Jewish Journey, One Step at a Time

By Yoko Cisinski
Volunteer Coordinator, PJ Library in Japan
Proud PJ Library Parent

If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be sharing Jewish storybooks with families in Tokyo, I don’t think I would have believed you. And yet, now I run the PJ Library program in Japan, fostering community around Jewish storybooks that impact more than 40 children and their families with the hope of bringing PJ Library to even more families in the future.

I was born and raised in the countryside of northern Japan. As a child, I went to a Christian kindergarten (though my family is not Christian, it was the closest public kindergarten from our home) where I was exposed to old stories from the Bible, learning prayers and even going to Sunday school. Looking back, I think it played a role in forming my spirituality and the idea that there is something bigger than humanity. If I hadn’t had those experiences as a child, I may not have even thought about becoming Jewish.

I started learning about Judaism after I got engaged to my now husband, a French expatriate who was working in Japan, and I officially converted just before our wedding so that we could have a Jewish ceremony. Upon my conversion, I didn't have a clear view of what Jewish family life would look like. All I knew was that my Jewish journey had started and that I wanted to continue studying with our children once they were born. Raising our children Jewish was important to both of us, and I wanted to ensure I could bring Jewish life into our home in a meaningful way, especially since I was new to Judaism and we weren’t surrounded by a large Jewish community. I took it one step at a time. One day, I baked challah for Shabbat just to try, and then over time it became a routine that now includes the prayers and family Shabbat dinner with our kids.

When our first daughter was 10 months old, we moved to Singapore and found a small-yet-thriving Jewish community. A little over a year later, our lives changed when PJ Library came to Singapore. Unlike in the US, the books didn’t arrive in our mailboxes; a wonderful mother-son duo organized the PJ Library program as part of the boy’s bar mitzvah project, and each month they would deliver the books to the local Hebrew school where we would pick them up.

Though PJ Library was always an important part of our family, it made the biggest impact in our home when my daughter started reading on her own at 5 years old. She would read to her 2-year-old sister and began asking questions about Jewish values and traditions. The books were so helpful for starting conversations and even supported my own Jewish education; I didn’t have any Jewish childhood experiences of my own to draw from, so the books helped fill in the gaps. I was learning along with my daughters!

When we returned to Tokyo a couple of years ago, I was disappointed to find out that there wasn’t funding for a PJ Library program at the time. My daughters relied on their PJ Library books for comfort and consistency since their environment had changed so much from what they knew in Singapore, but I was thankful for the PJ Library books we already had at home. Fortunately, a few months later, the Jewish community center received funding for a PJ Library program to support families in Tokyo, thanks to the Inspiration Fund, an Ohio-based foundation.

Before books could arrive, they needed a coordinator to manage logistics and bring the community together. I was so excited about the program that I said I would help, thinking I’d just be delivering books throughout the communities. Little did I realize that I’d actually be running it!

I’m so proud of the PJ Library program that we’ve created in Tokyo, and I’m excited to watch it grow. My family still benefits from PJ Library, and the books have helped my daughters develop their cultural identities as they grow up. PJ Library is a great program not just for kids, but parents too since we read together. My daughters beg their father to read Adam’s Animals to them every night, which has created a special Jewish moment for our family. I’ve learned a lot sharing Judaism and PJ Library books with my family and other families in my community, and I’m still learning.