Jews Without Borders: My Multicultural Jewish Family

October 30, 2014Cantor Jacqueline L. Marx

"Knock, knock."
"Who's there?"
"Russia who?"
"Russia Shana."

As my kids tell me this joke, I realize my mother's curse has come true: I have children "just like me."

With imported parents and imported children, I'm the native-born pastrami between two slices of naturalized rye. My parents were born Jewish in Germany; my Asian-born kids converted. Not that they had a choice, of course; their dad and I took them to the mikvahmikvahמִקְוֶהA ritual pool or gathering of waters used for ritual immersion to mark a significant life cycle moment, celebration, or transition, or as a component of the conversion ritual. In some Jewish communities, married women immerse each month at the conclusion of their menstrual cycle. Customarily, a bride immerses in a mikvah prior to her wedding and today, both brides and grooms might immerse prior to their wedding. Some people immerse to prepare for Shabbat or holidays. There are many creative rituals for using the mikvah at any significant lifecycle moment. Immersion in a mikvah is also a final step in the conversion process; a natural body of water also can serve as a mikvah. Plural: mikvaot.  well before they hit the age of reason. Our son's b'rit milahb'rit milahבְּרִית מִילָה"Covenant of circumcision," traditionally performed on the eighth day of a boy's life. One of the three covenants in the Hebrew Bible. This is the covenant of Abraham—see Genesis 17.  didn't occur on the eighth day of his life, but rather on the eighth day of his life with us. Our daughter's first Jewish holiday was Hanukkah, which we celebrated in China during the two weeks we spent there between meeting her and bringing her home.

I love the story of the angel Gabriel as teacher of all unborn souls: Gabriel teaches us everything we will ever need to know before we are born. But just before we get sent to earth, Gabriel taps us between our nose and our mouth, resulting in the acquisition of our philtrum (the furrow above the center of our lips), and the loss of everything we have ever learned. No matter who we are or how we come into the world, we have to learn everything all over again. However, Gabriel's work is never completely lost. Although we may not remember studying in a celestial classroom, our earthly lessons evoke an echo of what we learned before we were born; they bond with and reinforce our lessons in this life.

It's my responsibility, and my honor, to raise my two favorite people in the world as Jews, not only following up on Gabriel's class act, but also steering my children on their journey that began in Southeast Asia and continues today in the goldene medina (Yiddish for "golden land").

So what's it like to raise as Jewish two kids who didn't start out that way? In all honesty, because Harry and Xiao-Ling are the only people I've ever brought up, Jewish or not, I can hardly cite a paradigm experience. My guess, however, is that it's pretty much like bringing up other Jewish kids: It's fun, it's excruciating (it's no easier getting them up for religious school than any other kids), and it's exciting to know the traditions won't end with me.

When the past properly informs the present, history begins as memory. I never needed to pick a specific age or time to let my kids know that they had been adopted; they have always known this. Harry arrived from Seoul, South Korea, remarkably alert and wide-eyed at four-and-a-half months to a sea of pink faces waiting to meet him. Days later, he spotted his first Asian face, a family friend at synagogue. The shock, awe, joy, and recognition on the face of our small boy transcended time and place in an ephemeral, holy moment. Although many of us, including Harry, are unable to say we remember a day in our lives at that age, our early experiences do stay in the memory bank, collecting interest.

Miriam Xiao-Ling clearly remembers her adoption, as well as her mikvah and conversion, all of which took place around her fifth birthday; she still recalls the Beijing part of her life, where she lived just before we arrived to bring her home. We attended Kabbalat Shabbat in Beijing on our last night in China, and celebrated all of Hanukkah throughout our travels. By the time our visit to her home province ended, she was saying, "I love you." By the time she became an American citizen, just before we exited Newark airport upon our return home, she knew the bedtime Sh'ma. One month later, while napping together, she patted my head and entreated, "Keppe down," using the Yiddish word for "head."

One day when he was 2 years old, Harry touched my eyes, touched his eyes, and looked at me with a deep questing countenance. Reading his thoughts, I mused, "They're not the same, are they?"

He replied, "I wish I was white."

Puzzled, and yet not, I asked, "Why do you want to be white?"

"Because you and Dad are white."

Knowing he was fond of pink (the color of many of his favorite sweets) I said, "Well, we're really not white; we're pink."

Excitedly Harry said, "You're pink? Wow! I wanna be pink!"

I told him, "Harry, we may not all be pink in this family. We may not all be gold. We may not have the same eyes... but we have the same heart." His face lit up like liquid sunshine; I wish I had taken a photo of that smile.

Like other families, ours continually creates unique family customs and lore. Because both Jewish and Asian holidays follow the lunar calendar, Sukkot aligns with the Moon Festival, and so we eat moon cakes in the sukkah. Indeed, it was the moon that helped my kids figure out how God can be everywhere at once. Our story goes like this: Every night the moon shines all over half the world at once. Everyone who sees it shares it, and it follows us wherever we go. So it is with God.

Indeed, my children are proud, practicing Jews. But not because they're multi-cultural and certainly not because they traveled from far-Eastern, not-typically-Jewish settings to where they are today. My kids are Jews because of the sheen of their souls, because of their relationship with our Creator, and because of my family's love for the greater family we call Israel. Of course, their relationship with Judaism isn't always perfect nor is it without question or dialogue (and I wouldn't want it to be), but I am blessed – so blessed – with the task to lead them into the future.

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