Documentarian explores adults with ‘double roots’

Madeleine Adkins has a fuzzy memory of making hamantaschen and spinning dreidels at a JCC camp when she was 3 or 4 years old.

“And I remember my uncle making latkes once or twice when I was a kid, but I thought it was for New Year’s.”

That was the extent of her Jewish upbringing — or lack thereof.

It was an upbringing marked by little spirituality and lots of religious confusion. Adkins partially blames this on being the child of a non-religious Jewish mother and Protestant/Catholic father.

“I totally believed in Santa Claus as a kid,” she said. “We had to put out the fire on Christmas Eve so he wouldn’t get burned coming down the chimney.”

In finding a path to Judaism as an adult, Adkins has developed a fascination with people who grew up in households similar to hers, with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent.

She calls the phenomenon “Double Roots,” which is also the name of a documentary the 38-year-old Oakland resident has been working on for more than two years.

Adkins recently received a $1,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. This will help her complete the project, which is her first endeavor into video or film.

Her project won this year’s Fromer Fund Grant, which honors Seymour Fromer’s years of service as executive director of the federation’s Agency for Jewish Education — now known as the Center for Jewish Living and Learning.

Fromer, a grant committee member, said the intent is to encourage and recognize work by younger artists and scholars in areas relevant and vital to the Jewish community.

Although happy to receive help in defraying production costs — “everything so far has been out of my pocket,” she said — Adkins was even happier to get the award for another reason.

“It felt very validating — that they were very supportive of me. I always thought this project would contribute something to the Jewish community, but to hear it from the federation made me feel great,” said Adkins, a member of Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in Berkeley.

Adkins said the most dramatic subject in her video is a woman named Stephanie who grew up in a completely non-religious household until she was 9. Her mother was an Israeli-born Jew, and her father Filipino.

“Then her mother got very involved with Judaism after an illness — and all of a sudden there was no more bacon in the house, no more Christmas,” Adkins said. “Then she was sent to Israel at age 14. She went from zero Judaism to living in an Orthodox community in Israel.

“She lived there for a few months, cried that she wanted to come home, and then did. But a few weeks later, they sent her to Crown Heights,” home to world headquarters of the Lubavitch movement, in Brooklyn, N.Y. “It broke up her family because a rabbi convinced her mom to divorce her husband because he wasn’t Jewish. All of this had a very dramatic influence on her life.”

Stephanie struggled to adapt every step of the way, Adkins said, not only because of the inherent confusion, but also because of her Asian features.

Today, Stephanie is very involved with Judaism. She is raising her daughter as a Jew — “in part to protect her from having to face what she went through,” Adkins said.

Another of Adkins’ subjects, Maggie, remembered observing mainly Christian holidays, but also recalled her non-Jewish mother preparing matzah brie for every Easter breakfast.

“She also made challah for Saturday morning, but called it egg bread,” Adkins said. “The [Jewish] father really liked that.”

Adkins began her project at the Jewish Renewal movement’s national conference in Colorado two summers ago. She videotaped two people there and has since strived for diversity — not necessarily people who ended up with Jewish leanings.

“There’s a great range of experiences that I’m looking at: If it’s a Jewish mother or father. If they were raised Jewish or not Jewish or nothing. If they’re black, white or Hispanic,” she said. “Whatever your background is leads to a different experience.”

Adkins wants to have her documentary completed by early next year so she can meet certain deadlines, including one for entering the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A technical writer for Sony Computer Entertainment America in Foster City, Adkins has taken classes and worked as a production assistant on a local independent film to learn the craft. She recently completed a course in film editing.

She has about 22 to 24 hours of material so far, having extensively interviewed 10 people on videotape. She is looking to interview “one more person affiliated strongly with Christian community” before shifting into a high-gear editing mode.

“Part of my goal is to cover the diversity of the experience,” she said. “I don’t have that one committed Christian yet.”

Even though there is a lot of focus these days on interfaith couples and Jewish continuity, she said, “I didn’t see a lot out there from the perspective of people with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, and that was one of my key motivations for doing this documentary.”

Rabbi Glenn Karonsky, director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning, said the documentary “moves right into the lives of people living with this dilemma…[and shows] their desire to explore more about themselves.”

Adkins was thrilled with the diversity of experiences she has found. But were there any consistencies among the “Double Roots” offspring?

“Quite a few people — though not everybody — ended up like me, putting their energy into fields that had to do with other cultures or diversity,” she said. “That makes sense when you think about it. People with a [double roots] background are very interested in bridging gaps and have a very useful perspective in that regard.”

Adkins said her own ardor for “bridging cultures” was a big motivating factor for her in undertaking the project. She worked for about 10 years in the field of intercultural communication, helping businesspeople adapt to another culture. After graduating from Georgetown University, she lived and worked in Japan for three years in the mid-1980s.

About 10 years ago, she met some Chinese Americans who reclaimed their roots as adults after having grown up as totally assimilated Americans in, ironically, a dominantly Jewish suburb. Adkins began thinking about her Judaism, as well.

“Seeing them reclaim their roots made me confident I could reclaim mine.”

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