On Erev Yom Kippur, ten and a half years ago (Sept 2004), I stood filled with emotion in a government office in Chongqing, PRC as my daughter, Eliana, was placed in my arms for the first time. This was the start of our journey into the complex experience of life as a multiracial Jewish family. Staying at the same hotel in China was a family adopting their second daughter. While I have long forgotten their names, I am thankful to them for introducing me to the Jewish Multiracial Network. Three years later, Eliana and I travelled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to bring her new older sister, Tehilla, home. Six months after Tehilla joined our family I met my life partner, Janine, who was born in South Africa. Our family: four people, three continents and never a dull moment.
I spent my first 27 years in the USA, living in southern and northern CA and in Idaho. The next 12 years of my life were in Israel, living in Herzliya, Ra’anana and Jerusalem. It was during the time in Israel when my daughters became part of my life and I met my partner. The fall of DOMA in June of 2013 afforded my family the opportunity to move to the USA. We have found that each location we live in brings with it a unique set of challenges and opportunities as our family’s unique constellation calls on people to embrace difference and confront their preconceived notions of the intersection of race, sexual orientation and Judaism.
Certain aspects of being Jewish are much easier in Israel: there was never a need to explain our holidays or negotiate days off of work for ritual observance (no, Yom Kippur is not a lucky vacation day – sound familiar?) However, our girls were not always well-received on the street – their Chinese and African ethnicities resulting in some awkward encounters. In front of them we were asked inappropriate and ignorant questions, such as “why on earth didn’t you adopt children that look like you?” or “why didn’t you go to Russia?” There were also many shockingly racist comments such as (pointing to our Chinese daughter in front of our African daughter), “She is gorgeous.” “Yes, so is our other daughter.” “She is okay, but this daughter is special.” Seriously? You said these things in front of our children? What on earth were you thinking?!? Then came questions about how they could be Jewish, if they were properly converted, and how much we paid for them. Oy vey!
In addition to the inappropriate racial questions, the innate conservatism of the Israeli mainstream made being a two-mom family something of an issue. While Israel is quite progressive when it comes to acknowledging same sex marriages from other countries and allowing immigration sponsorship, the legislative acceptance does not always translate into community acceptance. Questions from peers about how two moms are possible, adult whispers and a few cancelled play dates were more blatant than expected. Nevertheless, we created a strong circle of friendships — so strong they became family. We shared old traditions, created new ones, and felt blessed to be embraced and loved so far away from our families in the USA and South Africa.
Moving to the USA brought different pleasures and challenges. We live in a smaller town with less diversity than a metropolitan area, but find racial acceptance, even within the Jewish community, has not been an issue, nor has the acceptance of our lesbian family. Educating our non-Jewish co-workers and neighbors about what it means to be Jewish, however, has been complicated. For example, each year we receive a host of Christmas-themed gifts from those who just do not understand Judaism. We look forward to using the milestone of our daughters’ upcoming b’not mitzvah to celebrate with our Jewish and non-Jewish friends; inviting them to walk alongside us and discover the diversity that makes our family and the greater Jewish community beautiful.
This year I hope to blog about honoring diversity in the context of ritual observance.