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Double Happiness: Parenting a Jewish Teen

Born in China, daughter to a second-generation Holocaust survivor and an Italian-American Catholic father: Who am I?

This is a question my teenage daughter may be asking herself for many years. A recent bat mitzvah, our daughter is an American Jew of Chinese ethnicity. Fortunately, at our diverse Reform synagogue her Jewishness is not questioned. And, at her first sleep-away camp time last summer, pursing her interests in music and the arts along with a bunk full of Jewish girls, she was apparently accepted as Jewish, too. Our experiences with Judaism have been overwhelmingly positive, but I worry that it will not always be this way for Rachel.

double happiness snowflake
A snowflake composed of the characters for double happiness. Photo: Flickr/beautifulcataya.

Our daughter, adopted in China in 1995, is a double minority. Maybe, looking on the bright side, this is like the "double happiness" Chinese characters often used at weddings and other special events. Melding our family's cultures and religions is the foundation of our home and so far, the train to the future is running smoothly.

Another mom of a child from an interfaith home told me that her daughter often says she is a "half-Jew." I haven't heard my daughter say this about herself. Her father, although Catholic, has always been clear about supporting Rachel's learning and growth on the track to becoming a Jewish adult. We both do a lot to support her combined identity.

I keep our family connected to the community of Jewish adoptive parents via e-mail groups, such as the Jewish Asian Adoption group which announced a new program that combines a Jewish summer camp experience, for a weekend in June, along with specialized programming for parents and children in adoptive families. This program, offered by Adoption Connection at Jewish Family Service in Greenwich, Conn., and NJY Camps, is apparently a groundbreaker.

Just turning 14, our daughter--I am sure--would be horrified at the prospect of attending a camp weekend for Jewish adoptive families. It just wouldn't be cool! However, my best hope would be that as an older teen she may become a mentor for younger multiracial adopted children.

An eighth-grader, our daughter has absorbed Judaism since she was a baby and continues to grow Jewishly as a student at our synagogue where we expect she will continue through high school. Although she didn't attend Reform Jewish camp like many of her peers at our temple, Rachel's attachment to Judaism and mitzvot is strong. Her studies, this post-bat mitzvah year, include a class in meditation with a Jewish focus which she always enjoys.

The so-called December dilemma has become less fraught with challenges as the years pass. When someone asked me this holiday season, as people often do, if our children do both holidays--with the inevitable glut of presents--my quick and heartfelt response was: We celebrate Hanukah religiously and we share Christmas with my husband and his Italian-American extended family. This year, because Rachel is older, we were able to do something more special for the holidays.

After we visited with my husband's Italian American family on Christmas, the next day Rachel and I cooked dinner for homeless families being hosted at a nearby Conservative synagogue. It was a busy and satisfying day fulfilling the mitzvah of helping others. Certainly many religions teach their children about community service, but our day of helping was one of the 613 mitzvot that we are commanded as Jews to do. The added challenge was cooking in a completely kosher kitchen, which we had never done before, under the watchful eye of the synagogue's "kitchen master."

So, Jewish and Italian--where's the Chinese? No, we don't have Chinese food on Christmas day. But we do bring Chinese culture to our home in various ways. Until she was 8 years old, Rachel was an only child, but we returned to China and adopted Renata in 2003. It was with joy and love that we decided to have a family that would be equally Chinese and Caucasian. Although we live in a suburban town with few Asians, we have the advantage of our daughters learning Mandarin and Chinese culture in public school.

We returned to China again in 2007 for our first homeland journey for our daughters. Along with powerfully meaningful visits to their orphanages, Renata's in southern China and Rachel's more to the north, we included a visit to Kaifeng, the historical settlement of Jewish people in China. Very coincidentally, Rachel comes from a town near Kaifeng and, especially when she was a baby, I would speculate on whether by birth she had Jewish ancestors.

For my then 12-year-old daughter, the significance of the history of Kaifeng to Judaism was a bit vague: a site where a mikvah, we were told, once stood and a small traditional home we visited with some Jewish artifacts. The onion rolls, freshly baked at a roadside stand, however, were deeply imprinted in the olfactory part of the brain. As intended, we planted memories for building a desire, we hope, to learn the history of Jewish people who resided in Kaifeng, an ancient city along the Silk Road, between the 12th and 19th centuries.

In a recent discussion (in the car of course--where all talks of importance occur) Rachel mentioned how great it would be if she could marry a Chinese Jewish man. I couldn't agree more. In fact, it's my first hope that she marry someone Chinese--and Jewish? That would mean finding a minority of a minority, like herself. If her (hypothetical) Asian husband, of our dreams, isn't Jewish, I hope he would be as supportive as her own Catholic father is for having a Jewish home and family. Then we would have nachas (pride and joy) and double happiness.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Hedi Molnar

Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a second generation Holocaust survivor. Her family belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.

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