The Jewish Japanese Factor

May 9, 2009

9 min read


A former Rockette gives new definition to the word J.A.P.

Rachel Factor's life was looking great: She'd achieved success as a singer, dancer and actor on Broadway, in television commercials, and with the world-famous Rockettes. And as a native of Hawaii struggling to discover her identity, she had made peace with her Japanese-American roots.

Until she met a Jewish guy and everything turned upside down. Now five years later, at age 36 and an observant Jew, Rachel is about to embark on a 54-show tour of North America to perform "J.A.P.," her one-woman autobiographical show filled with song, dance, humor and sheer emotion. ( spoke with Rachel at her home in Jerusalem. How did you first get involved in the performing arts?

Rachel Factor: It's not very 'Japanese' to be expressive, so I found that theater and dance was a good outlet for my self-expression. After high school I ended up in Los Angeles doing music videos and TV commercials. On one hand, it paid my bills, but it was not very satisfying because the artistic expression was lost. How did being a Japanese-American affect your career and personal life?

Rachel Factor: Honestly, I didn't know where I fit in. On one hand, I was fully into pop culture, like any other fourth-generation American. Yet I looked 100 percent Japanese. I felt displaced, and when I traveled to Japan, I didn't feel at home there either. I couldn't speak Japanese and wasn't used to Japanese food. Back home, I felt uncomfortable with my Asian face, because it didn't fit into the picture of the all-American girl. It seems I had internalized racism against myself.

During World War II my Japanese relatives were interned in camps in Arkansas.

I wanted to confront my Asian identity. So I moved to New York and started doing theater roles that were Asian-themed. First was the musical Shogun and then Miss Saigon. Through the process of the shows, and being with the other actors, the resistance started to dissipate and I was able to embrace my heritage. My great-grandparents had immigrated from Japan, and during World War II many of my relatives were interned in camps in Arkansas. My parents don't like talking about it, but my generation is very interested in exploring and remembering it.

I also became heavily involved in Asian-American theater companies. Finally I felt great about my identity, and my goal was to become "the ultimate Asian-American." I dreamed of marrying an Asian man and having Asian children. But that's not quite how things worked out.

Rachel Factor: Right, because that's when I met Tovia, my future husband. He was not religious, but he was a proud Jew and insisted that his children be Jewish. I assumed that meant I'd have to be supportive of sending the kids to Hebrew School or whatever. But I didn't realize until months later, after we saw a future together, that he wanted me to convert.

I had just come into my own as a Japanese-American, and wasn't even interested in giving up my last name, let alone change my core identity. I respected that Tovia wanted this for his family, but it wasn't for me. It seemed completely foreign. I didn't need him to be Japanese, so why did he need me to be Jewish?! So how did you resolve the issue?

Rachel Factor: I wanted to stop dating him, but I felt I needed concrete reasons to say "no" to becoming Jewish. So I started reading some basic books on Judaism. And everything I read, I loved.

So my next move was to call my mother and have her convince me to break up. And of all things, she said, "I was just thinking this morning that a Jewish guy would be good for you." She had hardly ever met a Jew, but the stereotype she had from TV was that Jews prioritize education, have strong family values, and enjoy good food. A perfect match for her daughter!

I still needed a reason to say "no," so I took an introduction to Judaism class. The teacher was a woman who I really connected with. She was able to dispel a lot of misconceptions I had about Judaism and the role of women. And she gave me the sense that I could begin the search and the struggle to embrace Judaism, even if all my questions were not immediately answered. What was Tovia's reaction to all this?

Rachel Factor: After each class I'd be all excited and call to tell him what I'd learned. And I'd hear silence on the other end of the line. Apparently he had always cut Hebrew School and I quickly passed him in Jewish knowledge.

He enjoyed the travel, the parties, working with superstars and making lots of money -- but there had to be something more to life.

At the time he was very busy with his career, living a fast life, producing and directing TV commercials for the NFL, 7-11, Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut. He enjoyed the travel, the parties, working with superstars and making lots of money -- but no matter what he did, he was never happy. He felt there had to be something more to life. So he started coming to the class with me, and we became interested in Judaism together. Was there any one moment that stands out as a turning point?

Rachel Factor: We started observing things very slowly. With keeping kosher, first it was no pork or shellfish, then not mixing meat and dairy. Every few months we'd add some more -- only kosher meat, then we got new pots and pans to make our kitchen kosher. We did the same with Shabbat. We started going to services, and then to peoples' homes for Shabbat dinner.

Then one time we decided to try a Shabbat dinner on our own. I made a big effort -- I got candles, challah, made chicken, the whole thing. Sundown that Friday was at 4:30, and at 6 o'clock I was still waiting for him to arrive. He had gotten involved in something at work and forgot all about our plans. So I sat there alone, and it gave me the chance to ask if Judaism was something I wanted for myself, or if I was only doing this for him. So did he ever show up?

Rachel Factor: Yes, and we had the most amazing time ever. We turned off the TV and the phone, and opened the door for something deeper. The whole room filled and I felt totally present, alive and connected. It's deeper than words can describe, but if anything it felt like "truth."

And then I knew I was in for it. Because all my identity issues started coming back. My whole life I'd felt like an outsider who didn't fit in. And I was afraid that would be compounded in the Jewish community, where I'd be the craziest weirdo in the whole world. I imagined that I'd never feel accepted, not even in my own home. How did that get resolved?

Rachel Factor: One weekend Tovia was out of town and I went to synagogue by myself, to see if I would feel out of place. But instead I felt like I truly belonged. And that's when I knew that I could take on Judaism and call it my own.

My mother bought fortune cookies that said "Mazel Tov" inside.

So we got married in Hawaii, and 90 of our friends and family came in from the mainland for a week-long celebration. The wedding was kosher style -- no pork, and no mixing of meat and milk. My mother was so excited that she bought fortune cookies that said "Mazel Tov" inside. From there, how did your Judaism move along?

Rachel Factor: In Tovia's office building, some rabbis would come around every Friday and he would put on tefillin. So when his birthday came up, I figured: What do you get the man who has everything? So I got him a pair of tefillin, and he started doing that every morning, going to shul and putting on tefillin.

Then my son was born and we needed a mohel to do the circumcision. People referred us to Rabbi Paysach Krohn, a popular speaker and author who lived not far from us. And he did our baby's bris with the intention that it be a first step toward conversion.

Then it was Sukkot and we had some wonderful experiences at the homes of observant families. That's when Tovia turned to me and said, "I've never been happier in my entire life." From that point on, we observed Shabbat and things just grew from there. How did all this affect your career?

Rachel Factor: The Asian-American market was growing and I was making a great living doing TV commercials for banks, credit cards, pasta, you name it. In one case, I was hired to do a big commercial for an auto company, and I had the potential to make $40,000 for a few days' work. The filming was originally scheduled for September 11, 2001, so they rescheduled it… for Rosh Hashana.

For me this was a very big deal. As an entertainer, you are constantly scrambling for work and you have no control over your career. But I had made a commitment. And the power of commitment is to help make the right choice when it's difficult. So I turned down the job, and I realized that I had as much power as I would allow myself.

And in terms of my relationship with God, I understood that either the money wasn't meant for me to have, or it would come to me in a different way. What was your final motivation to do the conversion?

Rachel Factor: For Tovia, every bit of forward movement was a wonderful thing. But for me, with the conversion, it seemed like all-or-nothing. That was frightening. And left to my own devices I probably would have taken a few years to move through the process.

But here I was, already in my 30s and we wanted more children. I could have had more children and underwent the conversion together with the kids. But I figured that I as long as I'm heading down this road, I'd rather have my next child be born Jewish. So though it was hard, it was really for the best. I confronted issues that I otherwise would have avoided as long as possible. And did you eventually put your acting career on hold altogether?

Rachel Factor: At the time I had three agents -- for commercials, for TV, and for print ads. I had to tell each of them that I was going to stop working because I was becoming an observant Jew. All three of my agents happened to be Jewish, non-observant women. So I knew it was going to be tough.

My conversion was scheduled for a Sunday, so essentially I had until Thursday to meet these people and break the news. I'm not a procrastinator, but this time I procrastinated until Thursday. The first agent had known that I was becoming more observant, and she had told me, "If you ever do that, I'm never going to talk to you again. It's just too weird…"

So I went to her office, expecting a big backlash. And surprisingly, she told me: "When I was in Hebrew School, I had one teacher who was observant, and she would invite me to her home for Shabbat. I always dreamed that when I grew up, I would have a home like that. But I know my fiance will never go for that. So I respect and admire what you're doing." And she gave me her blessing.

I imagined that I would be in tears, but instead I felt free.

I was so relieved, and I went to the other two agents who were also unbelievably supportive. I had imagined that by the end of the day I would be in tears from an incredible sense of loss. But instead, I felt free, as if I was unburdening myself. What burden were you casting off?

Rachel Factor: Society had taught me that if I didn't display my body, I wasn't a full, powerful woman. So as I became observant, I struggled and struggled with changing the way I dress, wearing skirts and longer sleeves. But when I finally did it, I felt a deep sense of dignity for the first time in my life. Dressing modestly is not "covering up" in a negative way, but rather is a realization that I am too special to just flaunt it everywhere.

It was like coming out of the matrix. All of a sudden I was able to look back, and say, "I thought I was a free thinker. But I was only doing whatever society and advertising was telling me to think." Now I feel the freedom to be myself in the deepest sense. Tell us how your show, "J.A.P.", came about.

Rachel Factor: I developed the show during the course of my transition to Judaism. It was all a very deep process of coming to terms with myself, and I did the show as personal art therapy. At the time I was with an Asian-American theater company, and we had a cabaret show where I could do my own thing. So I put together a routine of song, dance and monologue, where I told my story from the beginning of growing up in Hawaii, confronting my Asian identity, meeting my husband, and falling in love with Judaism. I first performed it for an Asian-American audience and they totally loved it. I then did it again at the Women of Color Arts Festival 2001 and it won an award. Now you perform "J.A.P." for all-women audiences. Your most recent show drew 600 women.

Rachel Factor: When I converted, it didn't seem like Judaism and my career could ever go together, and I assumed that I would stop performing. But ironically, I'm now doing more of the kind of performing that I've always wanted to do. When I was doing Radio City Music Hall, in most people's eyes that was the ultimate, the epitome of being a dancer. But my work always seemed to be more about preying on people's insecurities to convince them to buy more products and make more money. It was not artistically fulfilling, and it wasn't healing for me or the audience.

So now I get to combine my skills in writing, performing, music, dance and acting. And I get to communicate a very personal message. I'm singing songs that I wrote, straight from the heart. It's the culmination of years of practice and hard work, and totally fulfilling for me as an artist.

And at the end of the show, women flock to tell me how it's given them a better appreciation of their own Jewishness, and inspired them to do more Jewish things. I hope that in some small way, I can help people see that J.A.P. means something much more than "Jewish American Princess." After this tour, what's your next big project?

Rachel Factor: Over the course of these performances, I've been approached by many women, both young and more mature, who tell me their own stories of struggle. Many of them have a longing to express their artistic natures, without compromising their religious ideals. So my goal is to start a center for theater arts in Jerusalem. I envision it as a place where women and girls can take classes in dance, drama, and fitness -- to come together, express themselves, learn and grow. And it will be a center for women's performances as well. A place for nurturing the Jewish woman's soul.

Visit Rachel's site at

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