As a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman I've tasted a smidgen of the confusion my Guatemalan-born daughter may encounter. One fall day, on the job as a nurse for a surgical practice, my boss casually mentioned that I would be working on Yom Kippur. I had to explain that I most certainly would not. "Oh," he said, "I thought you were a little Irish girl!"
My husband and I know Chloe, whom we adopted as an infant, will likely face similar misunderstandings. So as part of our campaign to reinforce our daughter's Jewish identity we take her to Jewish adoption support group events sponsored by Stars of David International--a non-profit information/support network for Jewish and interfaith Jewish adoptive families encompassing all branches of Judaism, with chapters throughout the United States and Canada.
However, even though Chloe is being raised Jewish, we cannot deny that she is of Guatemalan descent. So we labor to bring that piece into the picture as well. Fitting her Guatemalan heritage into a complex identity puzzle means jumping at chances for Chloe to mix with other adopted children of Latin American descent. It means belonging to an area Latin American adoptive support group as well.
Recently eight-year-old Chloe voiced her connection to Judaism by telling us "I don't want to go to Brittany's church to hunt for Easter eggs, Mom. I would feel like I was breaking The Law." She also expressed her need to be among others like herself (Latin American) when she was asked how she liked the Latin American culture camp we attended last summer. Her response was, "I can't believe how many people there are that look like me!"
As Jewish parents, my husband and I, along with the Jewish community, can be the providers of Chloe's Jewish cultural and religious background. However, it is important for us to understand that we can never be the sole providers of her Latin American culture or heritage. Our children need role models and teachers from the Latin American community. We need to seek out these individuals and provide our children with the opportunity to interact with and learn from them.
The importance of this is demonstrated by this simple exercise. Think about one positive and negative trait or comment you've heard about your own culture or heritage and try to recall from whom or where it was learned. The positive thing I learned from my family about the Jewish people is that there are many successful Jewish scholars who have contributed greatly to the field of medicine and the arts. The negative thing I learned was from society, in general, and that is that "Jews are cheap".
Almost invariably, the positive trait is learned from family while the negative trait, almost always, comes from outside the family; someone in school, newspapers, media, etc. What then happens to kids who are adopted from another culture or heritage? If we do not give our children something positive about their biological heritage and culture all they will hear is the negative from the outside. We need to incorporate their culture and heritage into our, and their, lives, to give them something of which to be proud. This will also help them evaluate the positive and negative input they will learn from other people.
It is easy to incorporate aspects of their culture and heritage into our daily lives. However, it is important to incorporate those that reflect your family's style and interests, such as ethnic foods; artwork, linens, tablecloths and other decorative items from your child's native country; books about her culture. Multicultural resources surround us: all we need to do is to learn how to use them. They include: the Sunday paper; travel agencies and magazines; book stores; universities; art museums; newspapers and magazines from around the world; teacher supply stores and catalogs; National Geographic magazine; restaurants; ethnic food markets; adoption agencies, support groups and newsletters; multicultural festivals; flea markets and culture camps. Also, any hobby or interest can be expanded to include your child's culture.
While a great deal of information is yours for the asking, it will not benefit your child unless it is brought into the home where she can see that it is important to you. While your child may seem oblivious to your efforts, as she grows she will recall bits and pieces of what she's learned. In my family, a by-product of my efforts is the enthusiasm my eight year old has for her Guatemalan culture. I knew I was on the right track when I heard her tell her friends that she is most proud of her American girl doll in Guatemalan-made and designed clothing "that looks just like me."