Joseph, my grandson, is still pink. But his skin will deepen gradually to the amber of his mother, whose ancestors farmed in the open air on the island of Hokkaido. Joseph’s father’s skin is amber, too: the desert tan of his ancestors, who raised sheep. Parts of that ancestral Japanese island and parts of that ancestral Middle Eastern desert look much the same now as when Joseph’s forefathers labored under the sun. But Tokyo, where Joseph was born three months ago and where he currently makes his home, looks nothing like even its recent self. In the late 1940s it was rubble, half its pre-war population gone. My cousin was part of the Air Force that laid waste to the place. Tokyo is now rebuilt, gimcrack and impudent: it shelters some 12 million souls.
Joseph has borrowed physiognomic details from all of his relatives. He has his other grandmother’s large, angled eyes. He has his father’s expressive mouth, his mother’s enchanting chin, my own father’s noble schnozz. His genetic heritage is mixed, like that of every child in the world, even those less adorable; genetically, again like every human being, he has a lot in common with the flatworm.
His Hebrew name is also Joseph, pronounced Yosef. His Japanese name is Yo-o Hei, rhyming with the first two words of The Star Spangled Banner: the Yo-o has the double beat of the O-oh, and you can sing it if you like.
Yosef, in Hebrew, is written and read from right to left. It means “God will add,” and refers to the Almighty’s gracious plan to give Joseph a younger brother (the Biblical Joseph was the 11th of Jacob’s 12 sons, and, after a grim beginning in a pit, went on to a distinguished career in Egypt). Yo-o Hei, read from left to right, means Peaceful Ocean. The two languages don’t share much grammar or vocabulary or many phonemes (try to find in Japanese the guttural exuberance of l’chaim; try to find in Hebrew the decorous Nipponese n-n (it means yes) or n-n-n (it means no). But they do share a calligraphic bent; and both literatures favor poetry beset with rules — the acrostics of Medieval Hebrew poetry, the strict 17 syllables of haiku.
Joseph’s Japanese forebears worshipped a bellicose god and had a horror of marrying out. His Israelite ones worshipped a vengeful god and had a horror of marrying out. The Japanese did not stray from their islands. The Israelites wandered. Joseph’s great-great-grandfather wandered from Kiev to Boston, where he exchanged his prayer shawl for a peddler’s pack. During the sojourn in New England the family acquired thrift, reverence for Harvard, and an almost Yankee hauteur. Eight years ago Joseph’s father, also wearing a back-pack, found his way from Boston to Tokyo. And there West met East, American met Japanese, tabernacle met shrine . . . to reduce this tale to its elements, boy met girl.
Yo, Joe. Hey, Yo-o. Shalom and konnichiwa. I hope you will preserve your various inherited customs — respect for ancestors (grandmothers especially), faith in the Red Sox, courtesy, book-learning — without pridefully exalting them, for everybody’s got customs, even the flatworm. Citizen of two countries, more or less entitled to Return to a third, you will find no box to check in the race category on a census form — scrubbing that category does seem like a good idea. Beloved son of my son, bellowing in several tongues, your droll little crossbred person repudiates tribalism and nationalism; and, to the tired claim that any group has been Chosen, retorts: Enough, already.
Edith Pearlman was the recipient of the 2011 PEN/Malamud award for excellence in short fiction, honoring her four collections of stories: Vaquita; Love Among the Greats; How To Fall; and Binocular Vision. Binocular Vision received the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award in fiction, for the 2011 Story Prize, and for the Los Angeles Times 2011 Book Award in fiction. Her stories have been selected for Best American Short Stories four times, the O. Henry prize collection three times, and Pushcart Press twice.