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Originally published May 2004. Republished January 26, 2012.
My family tends to stand out in a crowd. Although my wife and I are both white, our fifteen-month-old adopted daughter, Nava Abigail, is African-American. Stunningly beautiful, she would most likely attract adoring gazes wherever she went, but I tend to think that she — and we — get a little more attention because of our mix of races. We get long, puzzled stares from people in stores, in restaurants, and on the streets. Perfect strangers feel free to invade our privacy by asking us personal questions about the intimate details of our reproductive and family life.
And I have to admit that I worry about the kind of life that is in store for my daughter. It is hard enough being adopted, it will be even more challenging for her to have parents of a different race. As if this weren't enough, we are raising her as a religious Jew and speak Hebrew at home. To top it all off — she is a rabbi's daughter! Oy vey!
All of the public attention we garner and the secret worries I harbor might be a lot to handle were it not for the fact that such public scrutiny and continual soul-searching ensures that we cherish the incomparable gift of our daughter every day. It constantly reminds us of the challenges — and blessings — of being Jewish, being adoptive parents, and being a multicultural family.
There are many, many books available about adoption for children and parents, some dealing with adoption in the Jewish community and even some about transracial adoption in the Jewish community. This article will just touch on the major challenges that both children and parents face as a transracial Jewish adoptive family.
Many adopted children struggle early on and especially as teenagers with issues of their "true" identity. If it was a closed adoption, meaning the family has no contact with the birth family and often very little information about it, adopted children wrestle with their natural interest in their birth parents versus their love for and loyalty to their adoptive parents. In open adoption, meaning there is a wide range of information and contact between birth and adoptive families, current evidence indicates that adopted children have more information and personal experience with which to resolve their questions of identity and family identification. In either case, adoption presents children with a whole range of identity issues to confront, process, and, we hope, resolve.
Adoption is often a second-best choice for many couples struggling with the pain of infertility, and it by no means magically resolves the deep sense of loss these parents may feel. In Adoption After Infertility, Patricia Irwin Johnson writes about the multiple losses experienced by couples in this situation: loss of control, loss of genetic continuity, loss of a jointly conceived child, and loss of the experience of pregnancy and birth. Adoption is not a cure-all for these very real losses, nor does it erase the years of pain and frustration. Nevertheless, it can be the happily ever-after ending we all wish for — if we approach it with an honest awareness of the issues.
Children of color who are adopted by (most often) white parents have to contend with a far-more public awareness of their adoption. Their struggle for normalcy and an easy sense of family identification is complicated by the obvious lack of genetic connection with their adoptive parents. Children of color adopted into white families are also raised with a white sense of privilege yet must contend with the prejudices of a race-conscious society. If raised in isolation and ignorance of others from their own ethnic background, they may also have to struggle for acceptance by others of their same race or ethnicity. Simply ignoring racial differences is a recipe for future trauma. Acknowledging the differences and being receptive to including and melding the diverse cultural traditions of the birth race is crucial for developing a healthy and whole sense of adoptive and cultural identity.
Parents of adoptive children of color are perhaps among the most truly "color-blind" in society. The challenges that parents had to overcome in the adoption process and the tremendous desire for their children often utterly erases the external differences between them and their child. And this naturally leads to an increased sense of pain and anxiety for their children of color as parents realize that others in the outside do not share their color-blindness. The development of race consciousness among children of color and even among people in the white majority is well studied and defined by multiple stages of awareness and acceptance. Transracial adoptive children and parents often go through these processes together as a family.
Adopted children are a minority in white America. Children of color adopted by white parents are an even smaller subset of this minority. And Jews who adopt children of color and raise their children as Jews constitute an even smaller subset of the subset of adopted children. This does not have to be an obstacle, because at least in this regard, Jews themselves are a minority in the world and in the United States. While white, Ashkenazic American Jews have not lived as people of color experiencing constant and pervasive racism on a daily basis, identifying and practicing Jews are already familiar with living as a minority within a different, Christian majority culture. Learning to negotiate life as a minority in any race-conscious, religiously aware country is not easy, but Jewish parents and their transracially adopted children will always share this part of their common identity. The life lessons learned cannot but help further bind children and parents into a healthy family unit.
While many in the Jewish community proclaim allegiance to liberal and progressive values, by and large Jews are subject to the same prejudices, misconceptions, ignorance and stereotypes as the rest of the general population. And adoption, when combined with racial differences, presents special challenges to the Jewish community. The Jewish community, due to a lengthy history and close communal ties, is especially prone to geneticism, that is, the belief that genetically related families are more "authentic" than families formed through adoption. Adoption, like conversion, sometimes brings out the genetically racist elements in some Jews. And adoption, like conversion, when it involves people of color different than white Ashkenazic American Jews, can lead to racist, prejudicial comments disguised as concern: "I think your black daughter is beautiful and will be a wonderful Jew, but will she be accepted by others in the Jewish community?" Like all prejudices, the hardest work begins at home.
The Jewish community has always been multi-ethnic. It just took the establishment of Israel to enable very different looking Jews from European and Middle Eastern backgrounds to live together in one land. The influx of Ethiopian Jews into Israel over the last twenty years has helped expand this awareness of the varied ethnic backgrounds of Jews, and the discovery of Asian and other African tribes of Jewish descent is ensuring a permanently pluralistic self-awareness of what a Jew looks like. The American Jewish community is also changing — through conversion, intermarriage, and adoption. People of every ethnic and racial background are entering the Jewish community. As a case in point, the adoption of Chinese girls by Jewish families is creating a significant and growing sub-sub-subset of transracial adoptive children in America.
The stereotypical white Ashkenazic American Jewish community is giving way to a new, more colorful, ethnically and racially diverse reality. But it is happening slowly. And in the meantime, American Jews must take steps to ensure that all Jews of color will feel comfortable in the Jewish community — in synagogues, federations, community centers, day schools, and homes.
In addition, Jews of color must reach out to one another to create communities-within-communities. The seeds of such organizations have already been sown with the establishment of the Jewish Multiracial Network in Boston and the multiracial Jewish community project, Be'chol Lashon, "In Every Language," sponsored by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. Jewish families of color need to find and support each other; transracially adoptive Jewish children also need to see that they are not the only children of color wearing a kippa, or head covering, keeping Shabbat, the Sabbath, or observing kashrut, Jewish dietary laws.
Hopefully, the day will come when there will not be any need for such separate organizations, but until that time, we have a lot of work to do.