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Funny, You Don't *Look* Jewish...

Last week’s New York Times article “Journey from a Chinese Orphanage to a Jewish Rite of Passage” got me thinking more about the complexities of reconciling an adoptive Jewish identity with a non-Jewish biological heritage. The article follows the story of a Chinese girl named Cece adopted by a lesbian couple in the early 1990s when China first opened its doors to international adoption. About three weeks ago, Cece became a Bat Mitvah, one of the first Chinese adoptees of her cohort to do so. With yin-and-yang yarmulkes, Kosher Chinese food, and a focus on the Jewish obligation to welcome strangers, the article paints a rather rosy picture of how Judaism can welcome a Chinese adoptee with open arms, and how a Chinese girl can comfortably embrace her Jewish identity in a seemingly unconflicted way.

While the article is refreshing by drawing attention to the fact that the American Jewish community is not made up of only white faces, it left me wondering whether the integration of adoptees into Jewish life is really all that easy. In thinking about an adopted member of my own family, I was reminded of the tremendous challenges she faces in fitting into our family dynamic, fitting into the mainstream Jewish community, and just feeling Jewish, particularly because she is not white and “doesn’t look like us.” Race aside, I imagine it must be extremely difficult to be ascribed a religious or cultural identity that doesn’t match your biological heritage and still feel like you can call it yours. Judaism presents an especially complicated experience because of the tradition’s emphasis on transmission through a bloodline. While the NY Times article cites rabbis and community members who are exceptionally open to and supportive of Cece as a Chinese adoptee, is this an accurate representation of the Jewish community’s inclusivity of adopted children?

Organizations like Ayecha and Tapestry do important work on diversity in the Jewish community and suggest that there is a lot more work that needs to be done to nurture individuals and families whose identities don’t neatly fit the American Jewish community’s “norm.” And yet, the work of these organizations alone may only scratch the surface.

What other stories need to be shared?

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Sorry, but you're wrong about my position. Of course I think it's OK for Cece to celebrate and acknowledge her Chinese heritage and identity, as long as she decides to do it and it isn't imposed on her as though she's some sort of spectacle which, needless to say, she isn't. And being Chinese doesn't automatically make one a ger. Follow the story in the original NYT article - she is a ger, and we are not permitted, according to halacha, to say she is. It is incumbent on us to accept her as a Jew with no strings attached, and if she wishes to indulge in Chinese culture, whether in or out of the context of Judaism, that's her prerogative. I have no difficulty accepting this young lady as a Jew or as Chinese, or if you wish, as a Chinese Jew (by the way, there are no categories of Jews, only labels for the various minhagim, like Ashkinazic and Sephardic). Cece's life is her own, and I hope that as she grows and develops she will increase in her commitment to Judaism, with or without the inclusion of her Chinese heritage, as SHE sees fit, without the possible gawking from others.

Yin yang yamulkas, lo mein for the kids, Chinese lanterns - these all spell bigrotry and rejection to me. Isn't there a halacha that forbids refering to a ger as a ger?

I disagree. As a mixed-heritage person, I find that the best thing for me is to affirm my Jewish affiliation but acknowledge that my "other" heritage adds depth to who I am. Why not celebrate Cece's heritage with some Chinese culture? It's all part of who she is. Plus, your comment suggests that being Chinese automatically makes you a ger. In fact, there have been Chinese Jews for centuries. I'm sure they ate some kosher version of Chinese cuisine, just as Eastern European Jews ate adaptations of Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian foods. Ever go into a Ukrainian restaurant? Surprise! What you think of as Jewish food is mostly plain ol' Eastern European, minus the pork and dairy-in-the-meat.

My problem with the blog is with the use of the word "bloodline." I think we need to stop using "blood" and "bloodline" when what we mean is "culture" and "heritage." There's no such thing as Jewish blood. Matrilineally-defined Jewishness doesn't refer to blood; it refers to the fact that Jewish women were frequently the victims of rape, and the community decided to accept the children of Jewish mothers regardless of who the father might have been. Pretty cool, IMHO. Also, the matrilineal rule acknowledges that for most of the last 2000 years, mothers have had the greatest influence on their children, especially during their first three years. The Jewish mother was expected to set the tone for the home, keeping it a Jewish one. The matrilineal rule honors the important influence of mothers, and we should recognize this as one of the areas where Jewish women have been given their due. So let's stop the racism and refrain from thinking of the matrilineal rule as being about blood. It isn't.

MJV, I like the quotation, and I think staying true to it is the only way to resolve the conflicts you write about. Intolerance and unacceptance cannot be eliminated in one generation, or sadly, within the lifetime of any one child.

I have observed that in the adoptive parent community it seems to be only jews who are concerned about how to "reconcile" their religious heritage with their family composition. Do you ever see a seminar about "The Protestant Adoption?" Of course not... most other religions welcome, encourage, conversion. So let's be frank, Judaism creates this problem itself. All the learned citation about acceptance of strangers on this thread aside, I think it is self-evident that the majority of jews retain an insular, tribal point of view. It may be domesticated, but it is still usually there. And, it has to be said--Eastern European jews seem particularly susceptible to this, as anyone who has grown up Jewish in the New York area would probably admit, at least privately. The reason there are precepts and commentaries about "accepting" and "welcoming" strangers is because, as a cultural or religious whole, jews aren't good at this.

From a jewish perspective, parents adopting children not born of jewish mothers are pioneeers plain and simple. A religion which reveres children, education, and creating a moral society ought not to have qualms about the simple act of loving and accepting a child, regardless of her origins. The existence of this debate is one factor among many that has caused me to seek to replace the tradition I was raised in.

I think there could have been a more thoughtful way of bringing up the de facto differences that are just "there" when we talk about adoption, conversion, multi-cultural, multi-racial and the infusion of these social configurations into contemporary Jewish reality.

What WE as parents, adults and activists do to create change, acceptance, compassion and kindness as renewed essential values in the Jewish community is the big question. I am tending to take my Mother's tack on certain things in the "kill them with kindness" vein which, in this case, means:

Be proud of the decisions and choices and families we have created; Be visible; Be part of the flow in community life and activities; Talk about my childÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s development as a Jew; and when there are problems, talk about them, too, with the goals of resolution and embrace. Link the ancient aspects of her Ethiopian culture to Jewish history and her Jewish present; Educate fellow Jews (among others) about Ethiopian Jewry, not only as poor, pre-industrial immigrants flown to Israel on magic carpets, Teach and illustrate your own learning about race, culture and social change all the while through word and deed.

As if we need another responsibility added to the list!

But those of us with interracial families have chosen and created something different. How to make us feel less different and "mainstream" is a gigantic challenge. I simply feel, as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado said: "Se hace camino al andar." "You make the road by walking.


You've really pissed me off. Your brass knuckled ethnocentric bigotry is way out of line! Did you read the article? Did you get the bit where Cece is quoted as inferring that she is a stranger (after the Rabbi's similar remarks). She is a convert to Judaism, and therefore no stranger to Klal Yisrael. Her bat mitzvah should stress the opposite of her 'strangeness' to the community of Jews. Get it? She is a Jew, without proviso, and so are you, so knock off the look-at-me-in-the-mirror routine. If you like your 'other' culture, fine, no one has told you to abandon it. -Schvach

Boy, do you have my comment wrong! My point is that her parents may have (probably) imposed this theme bat mitzvah on her. I imagine they are the ones gawking. Now then, mazel tov on becoming a ger tzedek. If biculturalism is for you - super, but when you have kids be certain to give them lots of choices. And knock off the stuff about Ashkinazim. Your bigoted slant (hmm) on my comment is way off target.

As the (nominally) jewish, white adoptive father of a Korean-born 2-year old daughter, I feel that it is easy to miss the point of the story about Cece. As I read the story in the Times, she is part of a loving family, and is, appropriately, making herself the main character of her own life story. Why should she be the subject of even mild hand-wringing by jews, chinese or anyone else? If she has the main criteria of an emotionally successful life--love and self-respect--she is already ahead of the game. Adults should do everything in their power to protect and sustain these vital assets in our society's children, not undermine them, as we do if we examine a heritage as if it is a troubling oddity of modern life. Those who are made uncomfortable by this or question how it can fit into a self-identity are saying more about themselves than about Cece. The evolution of our communities should be towards acceptance, love, respect and support for the individual, with all her complexities. None of these are the exclusive domain of religion; in fact, religion in my view is frequently the main obstacle.

Everyone grows up in a family and context that is unique to them, forms a large part of who they are, and has to be examined and re-examined throughout a hopefully long life. The meaning is not fixed, but fluid. Adopted children have histories that are arguably more unique than children who were not adopted, but in the end the journey of life is about coming to terms with ourselves and others. Judaism, adoption and racial identity are overlays on this mission, and though they can be highly influential, in the end should not be central. Indeed, I believe that the emerging culture in the US, in which intermarriage, interfaith, intercultural relationships are becoming common, is the natural trend for human society, and the greatest hope we have for not destroying one another in senseless wars of politics, resources, religion or anything else.

I write this as a Buddhist-inclining atheist married to a former Catholic atheist. I recognize that among jews in particular suggesting that judaism need not be the central organizing fact of life is an unpopular, possibly incomprehensible, stance. But it is precisely these experiences in my life that enable this perspective. Think about it--are the best relationships in your life really based on common religious belief, or are they on a deeper, purely human level?

Being a parent by adoption only reinforces this insight. The relationship that my daugher and my wife and I have formed as a family transcends genetics and culture. As a parent, I feel it is my responsibility to provide my daughter with any opportunities that my means and ability can achieve. I want her to know and understand Korean culture, and will send her to Korean cultural schools and programs so that she has the chance to connect authentically with her homeland if she chooses to do so throughout her life. In my view it is no different than providing her with an education, or teaching her to swim or play soccer or to cook or to sing. These are all things that have value in themselves, but none except education are required for an emotionally satisfying life. She has no obligation to enjoy or continue them. Why should a religious heritage be any different? Embrace it if it provides value to you, but do not be bound by it.

Schvach, I myself am a Ger Tzedek of Chinese heritage. I know it was probably assur of me to make that distinction (even of myself!), but nonetheless I am extremely proud of my origins, integrating them every day into my Jewish life. Of course, I had the advantage of being raised a Nice Chinese Boy, but the issue lies with these adoptees.

First, define "Jewish without pariso". Yes, she and I are both new people according to halakha, but that doesn't mean we don't retain certain characteristics: The chief of them being race and culture. For both of us, we're Jews, but going to mikveh doesn't automatically blanch your skin, curl your hair, or raise your nose bridge. In our respective Jewish communities, there's always going to be SOMEONE noticing that SOMEONE around here is quite different than anyone else. Askance glances and whispers will be made. Questions are going to be asked. I have learned to provide the proper answers and deal with it, and frankly, this girl must be able to do the same - which brings me to the next element: culture.

I alredy had a cultural background coming in to Am Yisrael, but this girl was adopted at the age of 3 months. How is the girl supposed to answer questions from both the Jewish and Chinese communities on how "Chinesely knowlegeable" she is. (I should also note that many Chinese Americans, not just adoptees and/or Jews, deal with the same problem!) I know of a couple who adopted a girl from China, (and I didn't even know they were Jewish until long after her BM!) and every Sunday they sent her to Chinese school, involving not only her but THEMSELVES in all sorts of aspects of Chinese language and culture! Is THAT to be condemned as exoticism? Is THAT "rejection"? Or are they, and numerous other families who have adopted foreign children, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to be commended for involving themselves in the physical heratige of their children? I happen to think Chinese-themed BMs are awesome, and (good, authentic) Kosher Chinese (that isn't cooked by myself) is very appreciated!

Which brings me to my NEXT kvetch: How the hell are these parents NOT "raising her Jewish"? Did she not accept Ol haMitzvot?* Or are you saying she has to be raised with a "Jewish culture"? You realize that no one Jewish Culture exists, right? I'll assume the best of you, and say that you meant that she should be raised specifically in the Ashkenazic culture of her mother, and (G-d forbid) didn't say that Ashkenazic culture was THE "Jewish culture" she should be raised in. It's the same with born Jews, as well. When an orphaned Teimani boy is picked up by kind and caring Ashkenazi parents, do you expect him to abandon all the minhagim (well, maybe - depends on halakha of adoption) and/or the cultural heratige of his birth parents? How about in the opposite situation?

And we're only talking from the perspective of the parents, here! What about how the girl thinks of her multicultural situation? Does she love it or hate it? I think it's lovely that she has options, but in the end, it would be her who has to decide how she wants to be identified. Not her parents, not her shul, and certainly not some commenter on a Jewish blog!

So the point is, adoptive parents can ONLY enrich their children AND themselves for exploring the original cultural background of their children. I have not known any adoptive family where this isn't the case. So what's wrong with a Chinese Bat Mitzvah? I mean, send her to Hebrew and Chinese school, and she'll be a polyglot. (But she'll probably get bored to death doing it!) So Mazal Tov and Gong-xi to the Bat Yisrael Bat Sin, and may she lead a life of Torah, Ma`asim Tovim, and good fortune to the chuppah and beyond!

As for me, I will continue doing Tanakh verses in Chinese calligraphy, cooking Ma-Ma's recipies in accordance with kashrut, singing Eastern European Zemirot at the Shabbes dinner table, reading Torah Syrian-style at Shacharit, and enjoying the best kosher Dafina that the Moroccans have to offer. How's THAT for a "Jewish identity"?!

*Insofar as intermarried Reform Jews do so - not that I'm criticizing their practices!

Sorry to disagree, but I don't understand the mentality of the youngster's adoptive parents. It appears they can't accept her as the genuine article. If she's had a kosher conversion, she's Jewish without proviso. Yin yang yamulkas, lo mein for the kids, Chinese lanterns - these all spell bigrotry and rejection to me. Isn't there a halacha that forbids refering to a ger as a ger?

Her parents should throw out their discomfort and accept her for what they want their child to be - a Jew! Just wait until she grows up, and wakes up.

On a related but digressive note, let's drop the term 'Chinese auction'. It appears to me that synagogues are fond of using this device as a fundraising effort. I think the term stinks from bigotry!

How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "Funny, You Don't *Look* Jewish...." 13 March 2007. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 31, 2020) <>.

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