It was the trip of a lifetime for a friendship of a lifetime when Bracha Strimber, 70, left Pikesville for Japan last month to visit Kazuyo Iwata, the pen pal she has corresponded with by mail – and mail only – for 56 years.
Kazuyo, 73, was not Bracha’s original correspondent. When the two women were teenagers, a letter from Kazuyo’s brother, Hiroo, accidentally reached the mailbox of Bracha’s English teacher at John Bartrum High School in Philadelphia. Bracha remembers her teacher holding the letter aloft and asking, “Does anybody want a pen pal from Japan?”
Bracha and Hiroo wrote to each other through college, but before they went their separate ways, Hiroo’s younger sister Kazuyo sent Bracha “a postcard and a pretty scarf” and asked if she could be Bracha’s pen pal as well.
The two have since shared their lives with each other, each writing three to four times a year. They complained about their husbands and shared stories of their children. They comforted each other when they each lost babies, and after Bracha’s husband passed away suddenly seven years ago.
Bracha and Kazuyo had vowed to communicate only through handwritten letters. But they broke that vow on July 21.
“We got to Japan and arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Tokyo. The person behind the counter said, ‘I’ve got a phone call for you,’” Bracha said. “I screamed in the phone and she screamed in the phone, which was very not right because you don’t raise your voice in public in Japan.”
When they met the next morning in the lobby, Bracha recognized Kazuyo immediately.
“She was four foot nothing and a size two,” Bracha laughed.
Kazuyo lives 30 minutes outside Tokyo with her husband Mitsuyasu and her mother, who calls Bracha “daughter.” Bracha was encouraged to make the trip by her own daughter, Shayna Cohen, who joined her mother for the journey.
“I said to my daughter at one point that there is only one thing on my bucket list: I want to be able to give Kazuyo a hug,” Bracha recalled. “I said, ‘Kazuyo’s mother is 97,’ and my daughter said, ‘We’ve got to go.’”
To pay for the trip, Bracha took equity out of house, because “this was the most important thing to me. It was a once in a lifetime thing,” she said.
Bracha, Kazuyo and Shayna went shopping and went sightseeing together. Bracha was impressed not only by Kazuyo’s consideration for her needs during her visit and her respect for things like keeping kosher, but also by the respect and politeness of people in Japan in general.
She noted that the Japanese are very concerned with “beauty in details – how beautifully can you lay out food, how beautifully can you wrap a gift.” With Kazuyo, she could see this trait in the beautiful stationery and stamps she always chose for her letters.
“I learned so much in the week that I was there,” Bracha said. “And I’m so grateful because I got a really well-rounded picture of why Kuzayo is the way she is.”
Bracha never got to meet Hiroo, the person who started this whole saga, in person as he passed away in 2016. His wife died from cancer “and he could not live without her,” said Bracha.
Bracha, Kazuyo and Mitsuyasu are each current or former English teachers. Before Mitsuyasu’s retirement, the three of them set up hundreds of Japanese pen pals with American students during Bracha’s decades of teaching in Philadelphia public schools.
Now entering her 50th year of teaching, Bracha works at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore. Bracha says would love to set up a pen pal program for the four classes of 13 to 14-year old boys – as many as 100 students per year – under her tutelage there.
“In the world today, when there is so much fear and suspicion and cynicism, having an intimate friendship where you share your goals and your fears … you learn that you don’t have to necessarily participate in [someone else’s] culture…[to] learn from them and respect them fosters harmony,” Bracha said. “I wish I had a way of telling people that we don’t need to be afraid of other people. We need to learn about each other. Relationships are best created person-to-person, not en mass. I think that kind of intimacy creates respect and understanding.”
Bracha says that she and Kazuyo will probably never get to meet in person again. They agreed to continue writing to each other, by mail.
On the last day of her visit, the two women were sitting on the sofa in the hotel lobby when Kazuyo turned to Bracha.
“She looked me in the eyes and asked me, ‘What do you think of me now after meeting me?’” Bracha paused and thought for a moment. “I knew you were funny because your letters were funny,” she responded. “But now I know you’re warm and compassionate and generous. I know the whole you.”
“I think we are the same,” Kazuyo said. “We are sisters.”