Question: My daughter went to Hillel for the holidays.Like so many Jewish parents I was thrilled and a bit surprised. She is a college freshman and on her own for the holidays for the first time. I adopted her from Vietnam and while in my congregation she has always been welcomed , she has often felt awkward in other Jewish spaces. Nothing bad, she just worries about having to deal with the surprise she is present in a Jewish space. This astonishment is followed, of course, by the usual questions: are you adopted or half and half? I understand people are curious, but I don’t think she should have to explain her background at every event she attends. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I made a big mistake in giving her a Jewish identity. I don’t want to her to feel she has to choose between her birth identity and her “nurture“ identity.
Answer: While you haven’t asked me a specific question you do describe a version of a story I have heard many times before. It is indeed sad to me that you have to wonder if teaching your child about Jewish customs, traditions and history is a bad thing. This is not good for you, for her or for our community. I am happy to report change is on the horizon. The young people are way ahead of us. My work-study student constantly reminds me when I say something that is Ashkenazy centric, that I should remember there are Jews from many parts of the world and many races. She has trained me to the point that at this Yom Kippur break-fast when my Christian neighbors asked if the blitzers and coogle I served were traditional post Yom Kippur foods I responded, “They are traditional for eastern European Jews but each ethnic group of Jews has their own specialties for this occasion.” This led to a wonderful discussion of the diversity in the Jewish community — a subject they knew nothing about.
I recently heard that at an Ivy league school there is a Jasian group that meets at the Jewish center for those with dual identities. I tell you this because I believe the next generation of Jewish activists, whether influenced by the Black Lives Matter Movement or by the current focus identities, has begun to create a more welcoming Jewish community. Who knows your daughter might be the one to start an Jewish Asian group on her college campus!
The Times of Israel just published a new major US study on Jews of color that highlights experiences of discrimination. This study is worth reading by all of us . Takeaways include that it might be wise to assume any one who attends services belongs there. There is a fine line between intrusion into someone’s life and curiosity. We navigate it daily in many settings.
Multiculturalism is part of the Jewish community. Adoption is just one of the many factors that leads to Jewish families of mixed race and mixed culture. More travel (before and hopefully after Covid), better transportation and more international trade are all factors which made this possible. Intermarriage, re-marriage, and access to Jewish adult education all have brought wonderful members to our community. Our families are now composed of people from many races and cultures.
In truth we have always been a people made of many people. At Sinai there were mixed multitudes. Intermarriage began with Abraham, Jacob blessed his grand children from a mixed heritage. If we read our people’s story we see that Ruth, the Moabite who followed her mother in-law and eventually became the great grandmother of David, was not an outlier. Our people have grown through mixing with others.
We Jews talk a great deal about worldwide Jewry. It behooves us to welcome anyone into our community who is interested in learning and who wants to be a part of us. Just as our biblical stories tell us how we were enriched by others, so should we embrace the richness and diversity of our current community.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com.