Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.
A Conversation with Julia Schulman, Mother of Two Daughters Adopted from China
Julia Schulman, a high school art teacher in San Francisco, spoke to Charlotte Honigman-Smith about her experiences raising two Jewish Chinese-American daughters.
CHS: This website is called InterfaithFamily.com, and the theme for the issue is raising Asian-Jewish children in an adoptive family who were born into a different faith background.
JS: I don't know what my daughters' faith background is. For all I know, they could be long-lost Jews! In China there are many different religions.
What I'm trying to do is combine their racial heritage, which is Chinese, with my cultural and religious heritage, which is Judaism. I don't see any contradiction in that. I think of it as an added bonus, because they get two instead of one. Jews aren't necessarily of one race. There are black Jews, Chinese Jews, Filipino Jews, Latino Jews. I am trying to support their birth heritage, their birth race, as well as make them a part of who I am.
CHS: So you have two daughters, Lila and Eden. Where were they born?
JS: Both of them were born in China. Lila was born in Southern China, and Eden was born in Central China.
CHS: How old are they, and when did they become part of your family?
JS: Lila is just five now, and she was adopted at nine months old, on September 3, 2000. Eden was adopted at thirteen months, on July 26, 2004, and she's seventeen months old now.
CHS: I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you're making a Jewish home, what sort of Jewish things there are in the home that you do.
JS: Lila came home from school the other day complaining that she was the only Jewish child in her class. She said, "They do Christmas, I do Hanukkah."
We light candles every Friday night. I sing songs with them, I send Lila to Hebrew school. We do Passover and Rosh Hashanah and all the holidays. They're raised as I would raise any biological child. We exist as a Jewish family.
CHS: Are there ways in which you're marking, or honoring their birth culture?
JS: Their Hebrew names reflect their Chinese names. Lila's Chinese name, given to her by the orphanage director is Qiu Lan. It means Autumn Orchid. Lila's Hebrew name is Lila Stav: Autumn Night, so I incorporated part of her Chinese name (autumn) into her Hebrew name.
Eden's Chinese name, also given to her by her orphanage, is Yuan Li. It means Wondrous Beauty. Her Hebrew name is Eden Yafit, Beautiful Eden. So I incorporated the Beauty part of her Chinese name into her Hebrew name as well.
Lila knows she's Chinese. We go to Chinatown for the New Year. Our home is filled with stuff from China. We have Chinese pictures all over our house. When she is dressed up, it's in Chinese dresses. One thing that was missing for Lila was books that have Chinese heroines and Chinese characters, or Asian characters, so when I went to China to adopt my second child I went and I bought about thirty books! So, the stories I read her every night are stories from China, with Chinese characters. We are a biracial family, we're a multiracial family, and that's infused for them.
CHS: Have you felt comfortable within the Jewish community as a multiracial family?
JS: Yes. I think there are a lot of multiracial Jewish families. I do get questions--not necessarily from Jews, but questions asked of people who are adoptive parents can be a little intrusive.
They'll say in front of the girls, "Are they sisters?" or, "Are they real sisters?" It's almost as though they don't understand that my kids are listening to everything they are saying. And yes, they are real sisters, because your adopted family is your real family. What they mean to say is, are they biological sisters? But I don't think that's their business. But these are the kind of questions I get everywhere, not just the Jewish community.
CHS: And I imagine it gets more extreme when it's evident that the kid must be adopted.
JS: Yes. Then you get the questions from the stranger. One question you should be asked as an interfaith family is how do you include her as an adopted child, how do you deal with that aspect in a natural and positive way? That's the biggest challenge. Not just sending her to Chinese camps, but sending her to heritage camps that are mostly attended by other adopted children. And having friends who are also parents of girls from China. Then when she says, "Am I the only adopted child," I can say "No, this girl is and this girls is, and that friend," and she says "Oh, I'm part of a community here. They're from the same type of family."
CHS: Anything else we ought to know? I think we've covered what I want to ask about, which was primarily how you go about raising them Chinese, raising them Jewish.
JS: Raising them to be them. My older daughter's Jewish identity is very strong. It was funny; when I converted Lila everybody was almost shocked. It seemed very odd to people that this was going to be a Chinese Jewish child. And yet it seemed much less odd that the other members of the group that traveled with me were baptizing their kids and making them members of their church communities. For some reason people really balked at that Jewish thing, like "How can you make a Chinese kid Jewish?" Well, you convert them! And then you raise them Jewish! That's what I am. My family is a Jewish family.
CHS: Do you think it has to do with the fact that Jewish is an ethnicity as well as a religion?
JS: I think the issue is that being a Christian is different from being a Jew. That being a Jew is also part of your ethnic and cultural identity, not just a religion. Lila's a member of two hugely strong ethnic groups, Chinese and Jewish. But it did seem very strange to people that I was going to raise herJewish.
I remember my friend's husband said, "Are you going to raise her Buddhist?" I'm not Buddhist, how am I going to do that? And her biological parents weren't necessarily Buddhists. That's assuming that all Chinese are one thing or another, when they are not. It doesn't work that way. I was a little taken aback by that.
CHS: How did the conversions go, other than that?
JS: They were lovely. The first one was pretty standard, I dunked Lila. For the second one, Eden's, I couldn't go into the mikvah (ritual bath) for female reasons. Of course, as part of the conversion the whole body has to have immersion in water. So there's a point where you've got to let the kid go underneath the water for at least a second, you know?
There was a woman being converted the same day, and I had called her up earlier and asked if she could dunk Eden. She said she'd do it, and I said, "This would be your first mitzvah (commanded good deed) as a new Jew! To make another one." She sounded really nice over the phone, and then they got there, and she was Asian. She was Vietnamese. And I thought, that's kind of a nice thing, two Asian Jews being made at once, within five minutes. She did the mikvah, and after everything was done, she, as a new Jew, brought my child into the mikvah.
Both times, I did the conversion almost immediately on returning from the trip to China. I felt as though to make them truly a part of my family, I had to make them Jewish. When I came back with Eden I took her to the doctor for blood tests and a checkup, but then, after the mikvah, I felt like, okay, I did her inside and out now. She's mine. She's whole and healthy and what she's supposed to be inside and out. A healthy Jew! They both wore their Chinese clothes for the conversion. I have pictures of it, with them both dressed very nicely in their Chinese outfits, for their conversions. And Eden wore the same outfit to her conversion that Lila wore to hers.
CHS: Have you run into any problems being a single parent of your daughters?
JS: I have had nothing but support from the community. During the conversion, when they ask for the Hebrew name, it is supposed to be the name of the child, plus "bat (or ben)" and the Hebrew name of the father. For single moms, they put on the document: Bat Avraham. So, my daughters' names are: Lila Stav Bat Avraham, and Eden Yafit Bat Avraham. (They can also just use my Hebrew name, Yael, for Lila Stav Bat Yael).
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher.