Shalom, Japan!

A Japanese poster for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Zero Mostel (image from http://www.postermandan.com)

For this week’s post, I didn’t even have to come up with a pseudo-clever title.  My subject is just wacky enough to catch a reader’s attention all on its own.

The other day, I was telling some friends about Shalom Japan, a kosher Japanese restaurant in SoHo in the early 1980’s.  How I went there once or twice to eat tempura and see a nightclub act.  The funniest part of the story is that it didn’t occur to me back then that there was anything out of the ordinary about the restaurant.  The restaurant was Japanese, I am Japanese, the restaurant had a floorshow, I’m a big fan of song-and-dance acts.  What’s so strange about that?

Shalom Japan, a kosher restaurant at 22 Wooster Street, was owned and operated by Miriam Mizakura, a Japanese Jew who sang, danced, did impressions, and told Jewish jokes.  In her November 17, 1980 review of the restaurant in New York Magazine, Gael Greene writes:

Dinner at 8:30.  The floor show has begun.  Shalom Japan, the vanity night-club.  Miriam is a bundle of Debbie Reynolds, stripping from kimono to miniskirt, doing Zero Mostel in Yiddish and Japanese, coaxing a surprisingly game diner from his table to join her onstage…

In his book, Member of the Tribe (Toronto ; New York : Bantam Books, 1988), Zev Chafets writes:

Miriam Mizakura is a slim, attractive Japanese-born woman whose parents converted to Judaism for obscure reasons following World War II, shortly before she was born.  In Japan, she was an aspiring entertainer, and she came to the United States to break into show business.  She didn’t have much success, though, until the day she went to visit a friend in the hospital and met Rabbi Meyer Leifer, spiritual leader of the 23rd Street Synagogue.

Leifer was intrigued by the young Japanese woman with the Jewish star dangling from her neck, and the two struck up a conversation that blossomed into a kind of partnership.  Leifer encouraged her to open a kosher Japanese restaurant-supper club, and provided her with the rabbinical guidance to do it.  Mizakura reciprocated by allowing Leifer, a frustrated crooner, to sing in her nightclub.

Someone posted on Yelp that he remembered that “Miriam did a floor show and sang “Hava Nagila”…they served gefiltefish sushi.”  Another person posted on Chowhound that “Miriam also did stand up and told JAP jokes… …it was so campy…..we always had a blast.”

One woman’s journey led to the intersection of Japanese food, Judaism, and live entertainment.  Shalom Japan did not last long.  There are rumors it relocated, but I do not know to where. What else is there to say but arigato, Miriam, for enriching our neighborhood and showing us a good time, and mazel tov, for making your (and Rabbi Leifer’s) dreams come true!

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7 Responses to “Shalom, Japan!”

  1. Jo Gangemi Says:

    I have zero memory of this. I probably didn’t know about it.

  2. noahshap Says:

    This is where my brother and I had the reception for our Bar Mitzvah! For years after we would constantly quote one of her classic lines from the show, “Not funny, so sorry.” And she would also say “I’m as American as applepie.” It was such an interesting spot, but I had no idea of the history. Thanks for posting. That also reminds me of the record shop that used to be next door, on the corner of Wooster and Grand. What was it called?

    • Yukie Says:

      Excellent! You’re the first person outside of my family I’ve come across who even remembers this place. Can’t recall the name of the record store, but I can picture it…

  3. Seth Says:

    In 1982, I landed the job as the weekend maire d’ based on my (then) unique knowledge of both kosher food AND Japanese cuisine. Little did I know I was also expected to emcee the shows…”Shalom, shalom, you’ll find shalom, the nicest…” Eventually I found a better paying job but it was a surrealistic experience while it lasted.
    Poor Miriam passed away later in the 80’s I think and the restaurant closed.

  4. Hungry City: Shalom Japan in Williamsburg, Brooklyn | Cliff Jordan Films Says:

    […] newlyweds didn’t invent the name. It is borrowed from a glatt kosher supper club that briefly enlivened SoHo in the 1980s, serving cholent alongside sashimi and comic patter from […]

  5. Richard Says:

    My wife and I went there several times when we were newlyweds and living in lower Manhattan. That was 1980-81. To this day when someone in my family (even though my now adult children had never been there) tells a joke or makes a (supposedly) funny comment that bombs, the silence is broken by declaring “Not funny? So sorry.” That was Miriam’s line in her show. It never fails to get a laugh.

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