By: Minna Scherlinder Morse
On this period between Purim and Passover—between stories of passing and casting lots, and stories of miracles and redemption—I find myself thinking a lot about adoption, and about ways people think about adoption.
I am a white, Ashkenazi mom to two adopted children of color, both of African descent, both adopted as infants domestically, both in open adoptions with their birth families. As such, I cannot overstate what an awesome responsibility I feel my husband and I have taken on—to raise these incredible young people to become strong and confident in their racial identities (in a society that makes that hard in the best of circumstances), in their Jewish identities, and in themselves as individuals.
It is not an easy task, and we won’t know how we’ve done for years, but I am grateful to the Jewish Multiracial Network—and the growing numbers of adult Jews of Color involved over the last many years—for giving our children models of possibility for growing up as Jews of Color themselves.
A Different Kind of Chametz
Jews adopt at about twice the rate of the American general public, and are more inclined to adopt transracially. Yet when the subject of adoption is addressed in our community, the importance of our children’s backgrounds or race are topics that are often neglected, even dismissed. What’s important is that we’ve built a family and that we raise them Jewish. Right?
According to Drs. Jennifer Sartori and Jayne Guberman of the Adoption and Jewish Identity Project—who have spent the last five years interviewing Jewish adoptive parents and adult adoptees—it’s not so simple. What they’re finding is that by cutting off our children from the reality of their heritage—and for those who present as non-white, their racial identity—we may be doing Jewish continuity no favors. More than that, we’re doing our own children no favors, in terms of the integrity of their own sense of self and where they fit in the world. And that—apart from getting them safely to adulthood—is kind of job one.
So, in this season between Purim and Passover, I’d like to suggest that as we rid our homes of chametz, we rid our minds of the idea that adopted children owe it to us to just be “our kids,” or just be Jewish, and not worry about who they look like or where they came from. (If you’re on the JMN website, this isn’t probably a tough ask, but it seemed worth naming.)
Esther and Moses: Not Your Average Adoptees
This season also brings to mind Queen Esther and Moses, the Biblical figures most-often trotted out as icons of Jewish adoption.
Esther—the heroine of the Purim story—was raised by her Uncle Mordechai, according to tradition. Hers was a “kinship adoption,” a long-practiced, often-informal arrangement that historically made, and still does and can make, the modern model of adoption less necessary. So, it’s adoption—and an important model to hold up –but not a kind of adoption relevant to most Jewish adoptive families today.
Then there’s Moses, as great a hero as our tradition has to offer. But a tricky adoption story for Jews, no? A Jew raised by non-Jews? An adoptee who rejects his adoptive family and culture?
Moses—relinquished into the Nile by Yocheved—was drawn from the water by Batya, daughter of Pharaoh, the man directly responsible for the threat to Moses’ life and the oppression of his community. Growing up in the palace, unaware of this, Moses was probably a pretty happy kid. But as he grew to manhood, he discovered his society’s moral corruption—and the fact that his adoptive family was not “just” complicit or supportive, but the force behind that corruption. He became a hero (our hero) when he returned to the people of his birth and made their struggle his.
Standing Whole, and Together
As a Jewish adoptive mom, I certainly hope my children choose to play in the “palace” of the Jewish community all the days of their lives. But I also fully expect (and encourage) them to join in the struggles of the people of their birth, and in those of any people with whom they find common cause.
There’s a midrash that says that when Moses and the Israelites fled from the evils of Egypt, Moses’ adoptive mother, Batya, fled with them, casting her lot with theirs. I hope that neither our community, nor the tightness of our grasp, nor any unwillingness on anyone’s part to see them in their wholeness, forces our children to make a choice between one part of themselves and another. But whatever may come, I pray that, like Batya, I will stand with them.