The gray fireproof box stood on the top shelf of my parents' closet. For most of my childhood my parents warned me never to touch the gray box. It was important because it held "the important papers," the ones for my parents' eyes only.
Finally, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven I was going to be able to look in the box. I was getting married and needed my baptismal certificate for the Catholic ceremony. I slowly leafed through the files: old insurance policies, school records, birth certificates, final adoption decree--all the makings of bureaucracy and milestones in our lives. Little did I know that the gray box would answer more mysteries, such as why I adored cheese blintzes, loved the sight of yarmulkes, felt oddly humbled by hearing the Sh'ma, a Jewish prayer, sung, and secretly dreamed of converting to Judaism.
I opened the file and examined the adoption paperwork out of lawyerly professional curiosity. I was fascinated by the onion-skin paper, knowing that someone had to re-type the entire page for any mistake. The language was formal, serious and confusing. I had trouble understanding some parts. But there was no mistaking this phrase--"This child is Jewish but shall be placed with a black Catholic family. The birthmother requests that the child be raised as a Jew." The mystery was solved. I was a black Jew.
I had found out I was adopted when I was twelve when a nosy nurse asked my horrified mother if her other child was adopted, too. My younger sister was my parents' birth child, and I had thought I was, too, until that day. The news was a relief because I really wasn't like anyone else in the family. Not only did I look different, but I often felt out of place. Knowing that I was adopted put some framework on the feelings and thoughts I couldn't reconcile with my parents' life.
As I learned more details about my birth, my adoptive parents were slow to acknowledge the new information. My mom said, "You're still my girl," as if to imply one small piece of paper couldn't undermine the years of the Catholic ritual and dogma that branded me her own. My dad simply felt angry that someone who chose to give away a child would presume to dictate the details of her upbringing. Neither parent wanted to discuss the facts surrounding my birth or encourage me to pursue Judaism. For me to explore my Jewish background seemed like a repudiation of all that they were and all that they had given to me.
Adoption is a wonderful thing; it joins a child to a family. It satisfies a basic need to love and be loved. However, it also creates such ambiguity. The simplest questions--like who am I--can't be easily answered. Although I loved my adoptive parents, I craved a sense of belonging and definiteness then, and to a lesser extent, now. Knowing that my birthmother had wanted me to be raised Jewish felt like proof that I did belong to something, to someone.
Eventually, I learned that I had been adopted through the Louise Wise Agency, which had been and perhaps still is the largest Jewish adoption agency in New York City. My dad's boss, a Conservative Jew, had steered my parents to the agency. I wheedled the basic facts from my adoptive mom: my birthmother, a white Jewish woman, came from a prominent family in New York and had been involved with a Nigerian man. (Hence, my exotic looks.) My adoptive mom had been offered a profile of my birth parents at the beginning of the adoption, but she had declined more information, fearing violent circumstances were connected to my birth.
A five-year intermittent search for my birth parents brought me to the very counselor who had placed my adoption on her last day at work before retirement. As we chatted on the phone she sounded interested as I recounted my life and all its blessings: good childhood, loving parents, successful career as an attorney, married with two gorgeous, healthy babies. When I asked about the facts surrounding my birth, I was told that New York law doesn't permit adoptees to have any data beyond basic non-identifying information. I told her I wanted to find my birthmother and to reconnect to my Jewishness. "Why?" she asked. "Why stir up all this trouble when you could easily forget and be happy?" Then I was told that I was a foundling without any identifiable family. That didn't ring true for me, and maybe one day I will investigate further.
I decided to embrace my Jewish heritage and learn about it. The emphasis on family, free will and partnership with HaShem, or God, pleases my mind and my heart. Study unites me emotionally and culturally with my birthmother, as I imagine she studied the same words I now ponder. With my dark brown skin and long black dreadlocks, I certainly don't look Jewish. However, I am a Jew. I am completely a Jew. I have always been attracted to and comforted by Jewish life and I believe that Judaism can give me a context for living a life that is satisfying intellectually and spiritually.
Things have a way of working themselves out. I did marry in a Catholic ceremony to please my Irish Catholic husband and to honor his cousin, a priest who performed the ceremony. During our marriage my husband supported my choice to observe Judaism. Although we have since divorced, he remains supportive and active. He takes the kids to Jewish Sunday School and is learning how to participate in a Jewish household.
There has been much joy in my journey to become a learned Jew, particularly because I became B'nai Mitzvah (accepted the privileges and obligations of an adult Jew) last year. I topped off years of self-study with two vigorous years of Hebrew, prayers and cantillation instruction so I could stand on the bimah, or pulpit, chant the Torah and become a woman---like my mother. My children, too, embrace their Jewishness by participating in Shabbat services and Hebrew school. My adoptive mom now kvells, or swells with pride, over her Jewish daughter. I now mentor those who are "newly Jewish."
There was also sadness along the way. I lost my beloved dad. Many rabbis were suspicious of my journey. Many Jews I met doubted that I was really a Jew, including my own rabbi who insisted I undergo conversion. Conversion was hurtful to me not because it would make me less of a Jew, but rather because it seemed to deny my connection to my birthmother.
Adoptees, like Jews, understand the importance of connection. And, nothing can change that sense of peace and belonging I feel as my voice blends with my fellow congregants' voices to sing "Shema Israel Adonai eloheinu. Adonai e chad Baruch shem kevod malchuto le olam vaed." We are one.