Tag Archives: Japan

Jew of the Week: Beate Sirota Gordon

The Woman Who Wrote Japan’s Constitution

Beate Sirota Gordon helped draft the Japanese constitution, and transformed Japanese society, when she was just 22 years old.

Beate Sirota (1923-2012) was born in Vienna, the daughter of Russian-Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. When she was five years old, her father, a popular musician, accepted a position to teach music at what is now the Tokyo University of the Arts. The family moved to Japan, where Sirota studied in German and American schools. At 16, she went to college in California and got a degree in languages, speaking English, German, French, Russian, and Japanese fluently. When World War II broke out, Sirota was one of just a handful of (non-Japanese) people in America who could speak Japanese, and went to work for the Office of War Information. Her main job was to monitor Japanese radio signals and translate their broadcasts. During this time, she had no contact with her parents who were still living in Japan. As soon as the war ended she volunteered to go to Japan as a US Army translator, hoping to find her parents (she did). She would become the first civilian woman admitted to the country. In 1946, the Americans started working on a new constitution for Japan and Sirota (the only woman on the committee) was tasked with writing the section on civil rights. She made it a priority to ensure that Japanese society would finally allow equality for all, especially better conditions for women who still had no rights in the country. Sirota personally drafted Article 14 (“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin…”) and Article 24 (“Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife…”) Despite reservations from both the Japanese and American negotiators (who felt she was giving Japanese women more rights than even American woman had), Sirota eventually convinced her counterparts to include the clauses. She is therefore credited with being the central force for bringing social equality and women’s rights to Japan.

During her time working on the constitution, Sirota met her future husband, Lt. Joseph Gordon. They returned to the US and settled in New York. After briefly working for TIME magazine, Sirota pursed her passion for art, music, and dance. Meanwhile, she worked at the Japan Society helping Japanese students and immigrants (one of whom was Yoko Ono). Sirota played a large role in introducing Japanese (and Asian) music and art to the West. By 1970, she was Director of Performing Arts for the Asia Society, and began to travel all over Asia to remote communities in search of traditional art forms. She would then invite these artists on tours to the West. All in all, Sirota organized 39 tours in 16 countries. In the US alone, her shows were seen by 1.5 million people in 400 cities. She also made five films and multiple television programs about Asian art, and recorded 8 albums of music. For all of her tremendous work, Sirota received dozens of awards, including the prestigious Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government. In Japan, two films have been made about her life. In 1995, Sirota published a memoir in Japanese, followed by an English version in 1998, titled The Only Woman in the Room. Today, she is one of Japanese greatest feminist icons.

In Memory of Lori Kaye, 60, “Who Thought of Others Before Herself”

A Mystical Map of Your Soul

Words of the Week

Until now you have focused on what you need from God; it’s about time you asked, “What is needed of me?”
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813)

Jew of the Week: Mirra Alfassa

Alfassa and her symbol

Alfassa and her symbol

Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) was born in Paris to a Turkish-Jewish father and Egyptian-Jewish mother. Growing up in a wealthy Sephardic home, she was exposed to a great deal of spiritual teachings, art, and her father’s vast library – which she had read entirely by age 14. After studying art at the prestigious Académie Julian, she found success as a painter and artist, collaborating with such greats as Matisse, Rodin, and Zola. After ten years of this, Alfassa wished to pursue her spiritual inclinations and found her way to a Polish Jew in Algeria who led a Kabbalah-based mystical circle. In 1908, she established her own mystical circle in Paris, fusing together esoteric Jewish teachings with those of Buddhism and Hinduism. In 1914, she moved to Pondicherry, India – then a French colony – where her second husband was seeking election to the senate. There, Alfassa met a yogi named Sri Aurobindo and became his devoted follower. For the next six years (four of which were spent in Japan), she and her husband published a regular journal of Aurobindo’s teachings. Eventually, the couple divorced, and Alfassa moved to Aurobindo’s house. Aurobindo soon recognized Alfassa as his spiritual equal, and titled her “the Mother” – an incarnation of the cosmic “Divine Mother” of the universe. Alfassa and Aurobindo started teaching together and attracted many followers. The house soon transformed into an ashram. By 1937, their ashram had grown so much that Alfassa commissioned the construction of a new community. This community would draw many, including the daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson, who stayed there for the rest of her life. During World War II, while many in India supported Nazi Germany (in order to overthrow their British rulers), Aurobindo and Alfassa worked hard to support the Allied Forces, and donated much of their funds for the war effort. In 1943, Alfassa founded a new school, which later became the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. After Aurobindo’s death in 1950, Alfassa became the sole leader of the movement, and a prominent holy figure in India. In 1956, she established another ashram and school in Delhi, and did the same in Gujarat in 1967. Meanwhile, a popular 13-volume book of her life and teachings was published (now expanded to 17 volumes).

Matrimandir

Perhaps her greatest legacy is Auroville, a city-state she founded in 1968 near Pondicherry. Auroville was meant to be a model community for the whole world, where all people regardless of background could live in total harmony, spirituality, and peace. Delegates from 124 nations attended the inauguration ceremony. Today, Auroville has over 2500 permanent residents from some 50 countries. A self-sustaining community, it has its own institutions, including farms, schools, and restaurants (one of which is an Israeli cafe – closed on Shabbat, of course). The city’s centrepiece is the beautiful Matrimandir, the solar-powered “Mother Temple”, designed in the form of a famous golden vision once seen by Alfassa, who is still known affectionately as “the Mother”.

Words of the Week

The most important thing for an individual is to unify himself around his divine centre; in that way he becomes a true individual, master of himself and his destiny. Otherwise, he is a plaything of forces that toss him about like a piece of cork on a river…
– Mirra Alfassa, “the Mother”

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo