By Francesca Dabecco
holiday season, Kristin Eriko Posner has her San Francisco home prepared for a cocktail-style Hanukkah celebration: a seasonal winter crudité platter and spiced nuts sit on the table, local California sparkling wine waits to be popped open, and her mother-in-law’s heirloom menorah sits on a Japanese sakura colored tray.
“We eat fried foods to symbolize the oil that miraculously latest eight nights,” Posner explains, including her mochi latkes, served on a bar with assorted toppings like apple sauce, sour cream, matcha salt and smoked salmon, as well as sufganiyot jelly doughnuts with yuzu cream.
It may look a little different from a typical Hanukkah celebration, but for Posner, it feels just right. Through food and reinvented rituals, she has found a way to blend her two rich cultural backgrounds. She’s also created a business to help other multiethnic households create nourishing new rituals drawn from time-honored wisdom.
“I really believe that it’s important for us to update our traditions with what is around us and resonates, as well as take what is healing or helps us celebrate at a certain time in our lives,” Posner says. Like on Shabbat, Judaism’s day of rest, she will often host a Japanese tea ceremony to mark the moment blessings.
But for Posner, it wasn’t always this way. Growing up as a fourth generation Japanese American on her father’s side, by way of Hawaii, and second generation on her mother’s side, the 35-year-old says she never quite felt like she fit in.
“I think it’s true for many people across time. Even though my dad’s family wasn’t on the mainland during World War II, there was still a lot of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiment,” she says. “So many people try to assimilate as soon as possible.”
Her childhood was spent attending Japanese language school on Sundays and visiting her family in Japan during the summer, yet her heritage still felt oddly distant. And while Posner says she felt lucky to grow up in an area outside of L.A. with a large Japanese American community, there were still moments when she felt not “Japanese enough” or not “American enough.”
Posner remembers bringing beautiful bento lunches to school and being made fun of by her classmates. So, she started packing sandwiches. “I look at kids today, and I just think, how cool is it that sushi is cool now?”
In a quest to discover her Japanese heritage, she quit her entertainment public relations job in 2008 and moved to Japan to teach English for two years. She went there thinking that she would make friends and immediately feel like a part of the culture but says she was left with the same sentiment she felt in the United States.
“Just by looking at me, people could tell that I’m not from Japan, and so I had a lot of experiences of having to really explain myself to people, which is the last thing you want to do in a place where you are hoping you belong.”
Then, she started learning how to cook Japanese food from her aunt, and suddenly, Posner says, she felt like her cultural identity was there all along.
“She taught me the basics and very simple home cooking,” Posner says of her aunt. “Nothing that really had a recipe, just things that you can just throw together.”
It brought her back to her paternal grandmother’s cooking — warm, comforting dishes that you wouldn’t find in a restaurant or written in English on the internet. “It was empowering to be able to reclaim these recipes,” she says.
But it wasn’t until she met her now husband, Bryan, and converted to Judaism, that she discovered the power of blending rituals to fit a modern, mixed world.
Cooking seemed like the missing ingredient in her heritage exploration — the universal language that anyone can use to experience culture. So when Posner moved back to San Francisco after her stint in Japan, she decided to take a PR job in food and wine.
“I found such a passion for learning about my own cultural traditions and rituals, so I really wanted to learn about his,” Posner says. “I think, all my life, I have been looking for spiritual navigation. When we started taking classes, I really fell in love with Judaism, the message and traditions.”
Still, she felt pulled between two vibrant cultural worlds.
“I was really scared that I would lose my Japanese parts to take on these Jewish parts,” Posner says. “I had this conversation with our rabbi, and he asked me ‘Why can’t there be room for both?’ It wasn’t something that I had considered, but there is plenty of room for both. It really changed my perspective.”
And so Posner decided to experiment and hosted a dinner for friends.
“I made this dish called ‘Jew-ish,’ which was basically like a hot pot, but I put rice in it and used everything bagel seasoning,” she explains. It was a hit. Her friends were inspired to combine dishes and ingredients from their own cultural backgrounds. “When I started [my business], I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be, but that kind of made me realize that food was going to be a really important part of it.”
Now on her website and social media, she shares updated recipes from both her Jewish and Japanese cultural identities, but with a focus on fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients. Naturally, the holidays have created an opportunity for her to play with those flavors.
Like for Purim, a holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Hama, Posner made hamantaschen—triangular, jam-filled cookies that symbolize Haman’s ears or his three-cornered hat. To pay homage to her father’s upbringing in Hawaii, she created macadamia shortbread cookies filled with guava jam.
When Passover approached, she wanted to reinvent the classic matzah ball soup by featuring tsukune—a Japanese chicken meatball made with ginger and leeks.
And for Rosh Hashana in September, Posner made a brisket braised in a homemade Japanese barbecue sauce. For dessert she shared two different options: Japanese spongecake with whipped cream, spiced apples, and honey or roasted apple sundaes with miso honey. It’s her version of Rosh Hashana’s simplest dish, apples dipped in honey, an edible prayer for a sweet new year.
This upcoming holiday, Posner looks forward to serving her mochi latkes, where she swaps out potato flour for mochi flour and serves it with an Asian pear sauce, as well as the classic apple. And of course, no Jewish celebration is complete without challah, and she always uses leftovers as a strata or panzanella salad.
While experimenting with new recipes seems like a fun, light activity, Posner says that for her, it feels like reclaiming her heritage. “I think we all have the power to bring our rituals and traditions back into our lives,” she says.
While many hold generations-long family traditions to such specific standards, Posner encourages others to stay open to what a ritual or tradition may look like for where they are in their life’s journey.
“That was huge for me because I thought there wasn’t enough room for both [cultures], and yet, being introduced to all of these Jewish traditions actually made me more curious about my Japanese background, significantly even more than before,” she says.
When balancing on the brim of two cultures, Posner takes inspiration from a colleague, Jessica Hendricks Yee, who is in a Chinese-Jewish marriage.
“She said it in a really beautiful way: ‘There’s no right or wrong way to blend cultures, except for what feels right or wrong to you,’” Posner recalls. “It comes with its own challenges, like confronting and examining your differences. But you get to design a life based on what’s most meaningful to you and create something entirely new and special—your own nourishing rituals and traditions.”
Originally published by Yes! Magazine, 12.20.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.