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Jewish Journal

East meets West over Shabbat sushi

by Deborah Vankin

May 3, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Akira Mizutani with his wife Liza and their daughter Hannah

Akira Mizutani with his wife Liza and their daughter Hannah

Akira Mizutani, a tall, willowy Japanese man who's been living in Los Angeles for 12 years now, has long, flowing, jet black hair that hangs loose to his waist -- and on this night, his mane is topped with a yarmulke.

Because tonight, like all Friday nights at the Glendale home he shares with his wife Liza Shtromberg, it is sushi-Shabbat dinner.

"Kosher sushi Shabbat" Shtromberg clarifies. "No eel or shellfish."

Shtromberg, a successful Los Feliz-based jewelry designer and proprietor of the shop LS, was born in Moscow, moved to Israel with her family at age 9, then settled in Los Angeles at 16, where she finished high school at Hollywood High. She met Mizutani, now a landscaper, about a decade ago when he was a chef at the Japanese cafe Mako. Now they have a 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, who speaks three of the family's four shared languages -- English, Japanese and Hebrew (Russian is the one she's not yet fluent in).

"We chose the name 'Hannah' because it's both a Japanese, Hebrew and an American name," Shtromberg says.

Then Hannah, a spirited child with bright, purposeful eyes and a raspy voice, chimes in, explaining how to pronounce her name in all three languages: "Hah-na in English, Chanah in Hebrew and Han-ah in Japanese," she chirps.

Mizutani, the chef tonight -- "all nights," Shtromberg laughs -- brings food to the table, which is cluttered with all the typical Shabbat accoutrements: sterling silver Kiddush cups, Israeli candlesticks that serve as a canvas for the Jerusalem cityscape, sweet kosher red wine. The women wear tallit draped over their heads and around their shoulders; Akira adjusts his yarmulke. There is no actual sushi being served tonight, as Mizutani didn't make it to the fish market; but the meal is nonetheless authentically Japanese, one to satiate any sumo wrestler. There are bowls of steaming, sticky white rice; Chinese miso soup; Japanese Cabbage slaw with miso-sesame dressing, plates of Karagi and chicken Tonkatsu (rather than pork), as well as dried seaweed and Yaki Soba sauce.

"Akira was neutral in the religion department, so we never had a conflict over how to raise Hannah," Shtromberg says.

"Not neutral," Mizutani says. "Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah -- I like it for the tradition, not the religion."

"So Hanna's being raised a Reform Jew. She's Japanese and Jewish -- she's American," Shtromberg says.

After Hannah was born, the Mizutani-Shtromberg household made it a point to gather for Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

"I wanted Hannah to have some taste of Jewish tradition; and now, even if I'm out of town, she'll say on Friday, 'Oh, it's Shabbat!' It's become part of her consciousness," Shtromberg says. "And it's a way of bringing the family together. I wanted my brother to come and see Hannah regularly. But he'd really come for Akira's food!"

"Mama, can we do the prayers now?" pleads Hannah, who's presiding at the head of the table with a tiny juice-filled Kiddush cup in hand.

We light the candles, cover our eyes and say "amen." Then Shtromberg leads the blessings over the bread and the wine. Before digging into the food with our chopsticks and/or silverwear however, there is one last blessing. We put our hands together, and we chant in unison:

"Itedakemas".

"That's 'let's eat' in Japanese," Mizutani explains.

"It's 'betavon' in Hebrew," Shtromberg says.

"What's 'betavon' mean, mama?" Hannah asks.

"Itedakemas!" Shtromberg says.

Laughter all around.

After dinner, Mizutani clears the table and settles in to watch the Lakers; Shtromberg curls up on the couch to enjoy the herbal tea she brought back from her travels in Barcelona. This is a Shabbat ritual, she explains.

"It's my official time out, the only time throughout the week that, no matter what's going on, I have time to relax," she says.

As for Hannah, whether she likes it or not, it's time for her ufuro, her bath.

For more information on LS, visit lizashtromberg.com

Deborah Vankin is an L.A.-based journalist specializing in arts/culture and lifestyle pieces and the editor of LA Metromix.

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