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My Chinese and Jewish Family Celebrates Three New Years

My Chinese and Jewish Family Celebrates Three New Years

Red paper lanterns hanging over a street at twilight

This time of year, my father is fond of reminding my family of how lucky we are to be Chinese and Jewish. “Three New Year celebrations means three chances for a fresh start!”

He’s right, of course. My family has always felt fortunate to be a part of two rich, longstanding traditions. We are proud of our history. We feel a strong sense of belonging to multiple communities. And we are grateful for the American context that enabled two separate traditions to integrate and form our family’s unique experience.

I am often asked what that experience entails. Because we are a biracial family, people often make assumptions about what our lives must be. Does being Chinese change the nature of being Jewish? Do we do something different on Rosh HaShanah because we are Chinese? Is Chinese New Year affected by our Jewishness? I wonder if people imagine us eating fortune cookies instead of hamantaschen on Purim!

For our family, that is not exactly how it works.

Our holiday celebrations, for instance, are rather typical. If you were to join my family for Rosh HaShanah, you would find a scene that includes a round challah, apples and honey, and kids practicing the shofar. If you were to join us for Chinese New Year, you would find us eating jai (a vegetarian dish of cellophane noodles, fungi, lotus root and ginkgo nuts, to name a few ingredients), handing out red envelopes, and maybe even lighting firecrackers.

The Jewish holidays are Jewish, and the Chinese holidays are Chinese. What may make us different from other Chinese or Jewish families is that we have both as a family heritage. Both celebrations include old family recipes and traditions, and both conjure cherished memories of the past. My family’s commemoration of individual holidays is not distinct; rather, it is the totality of holiday celebrations that is special.

However, you would find our traditions juxtaposed, if you came to a lifecycle event.

My siblings and I all had lion dancers at our b’nai mitzvah celebrations. We include red eggs and ginger in the meals that followed a baby naming or a bris. We have had a full Chinese banquet following a wedding under the chuppah.

A holiday celebration is about the holiday, thus, it is not appropriate to bring in rituals from one tradition to celebrate another. Lifecycle celebrations, though, are about us and about significant moments in our lives. It is important to bring in the symbols and rituals from both Chinese and Jewish tradition because they both represent who we are and how we see ourselves in the greater context of our peoples.

Ultimately, what makes my family unique is the same thing that makes every family unique: It is a blending of families and heritage and how we experience our relationship and belonging to it all. At one time in history, a marriage between a German Jew and a Polish Jew would have created a unique blend of cultural traditions. Interfaith families also foster a mix of traditions that come together in a unique way. All of these variations are normative in the Jewish community.

What does that look like in your life? What distinct traditions have come together to make you who you are? What is unique about your family’s experience? Every Jewish family has a unique and distinct story to tell. When I reflect on my family’s traditions and what makes us unique, I am grateful. As my father reminds us, we are, indeed, lucky for the rich and beautiful traditions we have been given.

Luck is a prominent theme of Chinese New Year. Through many symbols and practices, we wish luck for others and we hope for luck within our own lives. In Chinese tradition, it is a recognition that much of what we have is through no merit, fault or choice of our own, rather, it is simply what the universe presents to us. In a Jewish context, we use the word blessing to mean the same thing.

As my family now celebrates our third New Year celebration this year, we want to wish all of you a Happy Year of the Dog. May you enjoy prosperity, may you have good health, and may you experience luck and blessing all the days of your life. 

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, in 2002. She served as the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, N.Y., then as the sssociate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland; she became the senior rabbi in 2014. She was honored to be appointed to the Union for Reform Judaism's board as representative of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2018. Rabbi Mates-Muchin is the first Chinese American Rabbi.

Throughout her career, she had graciously accepted requests to speak, offered programs and served on multiple panels, locally and nationally, to help bring greater awareness of the diversity within the Jewish Community. Topics have ranged from how to raise multi-racial Jewish children to how to inclusively greet others at an Oneg Shabbat. Rabbi Mates-Muchin, her husband JT, and their four children are featured in a traveling exhibit entitled “Bay Area Jews.”

Rabbi Mates-Muchin grew up in San Francisco where hers was one of only a handful of multiracial families in their synagogue. She is thrilled to see the growing diversity today, and appreciative of the national conversation on inclusion and recognition of the diversity within the Reform Jewish world.

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