Blessing Bella

August 2004

Last fall, while my husband and sons attended High Holiday services at our architecturally minimalist, Conservative shul in Manhattan, I knelt before the elaborately adorned altar of an ancient temple in Guangzhou, China, while a Buddhist monk drummed and chanted over our newly adopted daughter. There was no question in my mind that we’d be raising Bella as a Jew, that she’d follow her two brothers off to Hebrew school, and that she’d one day learn about the other immigrants in her family who left authoritarian states. I had certainly never dabbled in Buddhism, or any other faith, despite many years of / lapsed Judaic devotion and zealous hedonism. But on that muggy morning in China, in a city steeped in smog, in a courtyard thick with incense I felt compelled to participate in this hypnotic ritual with our 13-month-old girl, as if to seal in her native culture and make sure she left with its blessings.

I was finally in China after nearly two years of meetings, paperwork and waiting-fulfilling a life-long fantasy of having a family with both biolog-ical and adopted children and, I have to admit, a middle-aged yearning for a third kid. Kenny, my husband, had come with me to meet Bella and adopt her in her home province. But he went home early to be with our boys, while I waited for Bella’s visa. There were eight other couples in our travel group so I was hardly alone.

The shrine we found ourselves in, a 1,600-year-old landmark called the Six Banyans Temple, was a lot like China itself-crowded, chaotic, a dramatic blend of old and new, frenzy and serenity. It’s 184-foot-tall, red and gold pago-da towered above busy Lin Rong Road, where a bicycle crashed into a taxi just as we were leaving, prompting an argument in the middle of grid-locked traffic. I’d worn a silk skirt for the occasion and dressed Bella in a Chinese-red romper that had belonged to our younger son, Nathan. But the local faithful seemed perfunctory in their devotions. They came and went during the course of their work day, setting down briefcases just long enough to light some incense and prostrate them-selves, in Western business clothes, before one of several enormous statues of Buddha surrounded by gladiola-filled urns. By the time we gathered in a shady prayer hall for the babies’ blessing, sweat was running down Bella’s shaved head and I couldn’t help noticing how young and skinny the monk was beneath his saffron robe.

Our group’s guide, a meticulous facilitator raised in a proper Communist home, had marched off to find the monk. He came back miffed that the monk wouldn’t sound the gong until he ate his lunch. I didn’t mind. In fact, even in the stifling heat with a sticky Bella on my hip, I liked the idea that our American folly could wait while he finished his rice. The delay was just the reminder I needed (lest my Jewish soul get swept away by all those flowers and incense) of the universal tension between religious ideals and everyday life. A few months later, back in New York, I thought of that hungry monk again as I heard about juggling Hebrew school with Mandarin school, circumcisions for toddlers under general anesthesia, and gleaming new mikvehs for non-Orthodox conversions, among other innovations for raising foreign-born kids. Clearly, it isn’t just adoptive parents and siblings who are adjusting to these new family members, but Judaism itself.

There may be as many as 78,000 adopted children in Jewish homes-about a quarter of them foreign born-according to Professor Barry A. Kosmin, Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. Leading demographer, Kosmin was among the authors of the landmark National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, a Jewish census that estimated that 60,000 adopted children represent three percent of Jewish children. Today, adopted children probably comprise between five and six percent of the 1.3 million Jewish kids tallied in the American Jewish Identity Survey, another large study prepared by Kosmin and others in 2000.

Kosmin, who co-authored the book, The Next Generation: Jewish Children and Adolescents, sees several trends among adoptive families. For exam-ple, Jews are more likely to adopt than others because of our culture’s paradoxical emphasis on family as well as professional success. “We say Jewish couples have low fertility but high fecun-dity;” Kosmin says, “meaning they don’t have lots of children but there are fewer childless couples. So Jewish couples who get married tend to want children and if they can’t, they adopt.” (Those observations are borne out by the 2000 U.S. Cen-sus, which found that 2.5 percent of children in all American homes are adopted, compared to Kosmin’s estimate of five to six percent in Jewish homes.) Adoptive families also tend to be in the since many are part of interfaith homes. And infertility is no longer the only reason Jews adopt, Kosmin says, citing fly and lesbian parents, many of them single, and what he calls ideological adop-tions among couples with biological children -including some who advocate adoption as a way to bolster a shrinking Jewish community.

“I think the most interesting thing today is that all these categories, including who is Jewish, are more complicated. Things are not as clear cut as they used to be.”

Kosmin’s estimate that 25 percent of adopted Jewish children are foreign-born sounded high to me but entirely plausible. In and around New York, the ever-growing number of Jewish families with Chinese daughters has given rise to an old joke with a new twist. It goes like this:

Two girls, one Caucasian and one Asian, are sitting together in Hebrew school. The white girl asks her classmate, “Are you really Jewish?” And the Asian girl replies, “Sure! Are you?” And the white girl says, “Of course I am!” And the Asian girl says, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”

In my sons’ public elementary school alone we’ve had a Chinese-born San, a Russian-born Sarah, a Paraguayan-born Hanna, and a Gabriel from Vietnam, all with Jewish parents.

The first time I took my Chinese daughter to a temple for a child’s service, I was somewhat nervous that she would feel that she might not fit in,” recalls Los Angeles screenwriter Shelley Schumacher. “Turned out there were 10 children there that evening-six Chinese girls and four Caucasian boys! When we left, I said to my daughter, it was nice to see so many Chinese girls at the temple. She said, “There weren’t any Chinese girls there.” She didn’t even notice! I noticed, of course. You should have seen two Chinese girls carrying around the little torah.”

“It all works out,” Schumacher adds. “And my daughter who’s almost nine now wants to be a doctor. What more could I ask?”

Traditionally, adoption was an unusual and dis-crete practice among Jews. Before legalized abortion and the availability of the pill, Jewish authorities and adoption agencies quietly found homes for the mamzers of wayward youth. Since Jews rarely had the option of adopting non-Jew-ish children, conversion wasn’t much of an issue. Today, Jewish women (like American women overall) are having fewer biological children. Jewish women, on average, bear only 1.86 children compared to the 1.93 children produced by American women overall, census figures show. “In gen-era!, the higher the level of education, the lower the number of children. That relationship dispro-portionately affects the Jewish population since Jewish women are so highly educated,” says Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, the National Jewish Population Survey’s director of research. With tens of thousands of Jewish parents adopting children overseas-most of unknown but presumed non-Jewish origin-modern Jews are suddenly con-fronting the intricacies and tribal snobberies of Talmudic law.

In fact, adoption can be fraught with halachic complications. According to strict Jewish law, for example, an adopted girl-even if properly convert-ed in a mikveh may not many a member of the elite Kohen class. An adopted boy; some authori-ties still insist, may not use his adoptive father’s sur-name but the generic “ben Avraham Avinu” (descendant of Abraham) used by adult converts. An adopted child never brought to a mikveh and converted under the supervision of a bet din or panel of three rabbis, will not be officially recognized as a Jew-meaning no bar mitzvah or inclusion in a minyan. And an Orthodox conversion isn’t guaranteed; a rigorous bet din may decide the child’s parents aren’t observant enough to warrant conversion. Until recently, secular Jewish families seeking conversions had no other choice than mikvehs controlled by Orthodox rabbis.

“The child is converted on the theory it is for his benefit,” explains Rabbi J. David Bleich, a Tal-mudic scholar at Yeshiva University; “The open question is whether it is a benefit for the child to be converted but not provided with a Jewish edu-cation and upbringing, with the result that the child is non-observant If the child is in fact going to be non-observant, then is the conversion a benefit, or exposing him to transgression?”

Well-known examples of adoption punctuate the Bible, such as Mordecai’s raising of his hero-ic cousin Esther and Abraham’s adoption of his servant Eliezer. But adoption as a legal proce-dure was unknown in ancient Jewish law because of its emphasis on bloodlines and lineage, says Rabbi Michael Gold, who leads Temple Beth Torah in Tamaraq Fit, and has written widely on adoption and Judaism.

“Maybe we can someday envision Judaism beyond lineage but right now, it’s a big pan,” says Rabbi Gold, an adoptive father of three American-born children and the author of And Han-nah Wept: Infertility, Adoption and the Jewish Couple. My husband and I were just beginning to plan Bella’s conversion and naming ceremony when I interviewed Rabbi Gold and admitted I was having a hard time reconciling my modem sensibilities with such ancient exclusivity. How dare anyone challenge my daughter’s right to marry a Kohen! “Whenever I see anything in Jewish tradition I find troubling,” Rabbi Gold tells me, “I think of the things I can learn from it. Part of what I’ve learned from this is that genetics do make a difference in who we are -not a total difference because, obviously, we are a combination of nature and nurture. My kids’ identities, values and relationships all come from my wife and me. But their raw talent and looks don’t come from us.”

Rabbi Gold’s worth resonated with me. My husband and I have often marvel over how little control we really have over our sons’ innate abil-ities and interests. Still, I was having second thoughts about converting Bella, the remarkable toddler we were just beginning to know. Did our family really need to be vetted by a bet din? Had-n’t Bella immediately responded when my moth-er played the old Yiddish clapping game, potcbkee potchkee kihele with her, and wasn’t this evidence enough of her Jewishness?

I remembered the disconcerting experience of another parent, Isabel Berkowitz, when her three-year-old daughter Hanna, from landlocked Paraguay, freaked out in the mikveh. “Don’t make me do this!” Hanna had screamed, scandalizing the mikveh matron. (Three years later, after swimming lessons, Hanna didn’t want to get out) I thought of another Biblical adoption-of Moses transplanted into the Pharaoh’s court, a classic outsider pain* aware of how different he was-and wondered how best to protect Bella from ever feeling marginalized. Would she someday resent being converted with-out her consent? On would she suffer more if any-one ever challenged her Jewish status?

I was hardly alone in my doubts. Linda Kingston, the adoptive mother of two Guatemalan-born sisters, now five and six, decid-ed with her husband Keith to let theft daughters make up their own minds about conversion when they’re older. “I feel that religion is about what’s in your heart and your head, if you have Jewish beliefs then you are Jewish. Religion should have nothing to do with blood ties,” Kingston wrote from her home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Kingston nonetheless sent her daughters to a Jew-ish preschool and plans to hire a tutor for their religious instruction.

Tracy Schneider, a social worker and single parent from the Bronx, longed for the affirmation of a ritual conversion but had trouble finding a sponsor for her Chinese-born daughter, Emma, now five. A local Reform rabbi refused to do it unless she joined his temple. A Lubavitch rabbi offered, but only if Schneider would study with him, telling her she was too ignorant to raise a good Jew. “I said to him, ‘if this baby came out of my body, nobody would question my ability to raise her as a Jewish person or to be a Jewish mother. But because she’s not biological, you’re making that distinction. I was so angry about that.” Finally Schneider found a Conservative rabbi who “could not have been nicer. He said to me, ‘It’s a mitzvah for rue to do this.”

Rabbi Susan Silverman and her husband, journalist Yosef Abramowitz, have waited four years to complete the conversion of theft adopt-ed son, Adar, so it can take place in a new, pro-gressive mikveh near their home in Newton, Massachusetts-the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center. Born in Ethiopia and adopted at eight months, Adar, now 5, was circumcised under gen-eral anesthesia at age one to prepare him for con-version. Silverman, ordained as a Reform rabbi and raising Adar along with three biological daughters, originally wanted an Orthodox conversion so that no one could ever make Adar doubt his Judaism or exclude him from a minyan. But a local Orthodox rabbi “was so incredibly rude and demeaning” that she decided to hold off. She says his attitude was that they should not assume there would even be a mikveh ceremony. The bet din might not approve the conversion. “My husband said, ‘What we do is authentic; we don’t need to go to the Orthodox community for its seal of approval.’”

Many adoptive families today practice Judaism while fostering pride in their children’s native oilmm. Lisa Gibbs and her husband Philip Kasinitz, of Brooklyn, have made such an effort to honor both traditions that her older daughter, Basya, 8, has confused Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the Chinese Autumn Moon Festival. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re raising her biculturally,” says Gibbs. In Manhattan, Martin Fradis said he and his wife Kim are less inclined to promote Asian culture for their Vietnamese-horn eight-year-old son, Gabriel. “This is the family he’s in, this is the choice we made for him, and being Jewish is just part of the package.” Though they enjoy Vietnamese food, participate in Asian New Year’s festivals, and have talked to Gabe about the wars in Indochina, their main family customs are Jewish. So far, Gabe has agreeably followed his older sister Rebecca to Hebrew school.

It isn’t always so easy One father in an afflu-ent, predominantly white suburb of New York is taking Chinese classes with his 10-year-old daughter as a peace offering because she has balked at going to Shabbat services and bluntly told her parents she doesn’t fit in there. During a tantrum over Hebrew school, the girl cried, in reference to her conversion, “And you never should have dunked me!” Another father of two Chinese-born girls, an academic who did not want his family identified, told of quitting their Reform synagogue in the Southwest because of the racist attitudes there. In one instance, he said, an older congregant asked why he and his wife had chosen to adopt “schwartzes” instead of white children.

“The only racist comments that we ever received since our adoption of these two children have been at our synagogue,” this father told me. “Never a comment in a store or a restaurant or a school or anywhere else. Only at the synagogue did we encounter racial comments about adopting these children from China.

As I discovered while preparing for Bella’s con-version, adoption, for all the hope and joy it offers, also inevitably leads to the explosive question of who is a Jew. It exposes some hard truths about our community-about the values and vanity that contributed to have diminished fertility, the grow-ing estrangement between the observant and the secular, and the racist strains in some of our tra-ditions. Adoption, says demographer Gary Tobin, “ties into a wider set of issues, which I call the Jewish obsession with bloodline.”

A Jewish policy analyst and president of the Insti-tute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco, Tobin believes that Judaism’s traditional emphasis on lineage, and its perpetuation of a caste system that favors Kohens over Levis and Ashke-nazim over Sephardim, are crippling a community sorely in need of fresh blood. “Most ancient peo-ples are hierarchical and Judaism has taken ancient hierarchy and ideas into modem times,” Tobin says. “There’s a huge dash of cultures going on in Judaism between those ancient hierarchies and ideas and the realities of contemporary Jewish life, If half of Jews are intermarrying and there are increasing numbers of Jews who are adopting and more and more people want to convert to become part of the Jewish people, our ancient ideas become barriers.”

Tobin had already been writing about the sub-ject when he and his wife adopted their son Jonah, an African-American boy who is now seven and attends Jewish day school. Now Tobin advocates adoption as a way to rejuvenate the Jewish com-munity. “We are obsessed with intermarriage and how everyone’s leaving rather than opening the gate and making it more vibrant by welcoming people in,” says Tobin, author of the book, Open-ing the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community.

“Everybody who is so concerned about the size and vitality of the Jewish community would be doing a great mitzvah for the Jewish people, and for themselves, by adopting children,” Tobin says.

Abramowitz, journalist and adoptive father to Ethiopian-born Adar, agrees. In this magazine’s April issue, for example, he proposed several strategies for “doubling the number of Jews in the world in the next generation … We can triple the number of intermarried families who raise their children as Jews, encourage adoption after families have had their biological children, welcome back the spiritual exiles, offer incentives for having more children, lower the assimilation rate of our young people and actively share the option of Judaism with the broadest possible audience. While some of these strategies raise serious halachic issues we can contend with them creatively and honestly.”

Silverman, his wife, insists this was not their primary motivation for adopting Mar or for plan-ning a second adoption. Like me, Silverman said she had always imagined a family of both biolog-ical and adopted children. Adoption for her is a deeply spiritual act, one that reflected the origin of the family of God.

As I listened to her speak, I couldn’t help sighing. I knew at that moment that I’d go ahead with Bellä conversion, if for no other reason than to seal her union with us and make sure she entered her opinionated new community with its blessings.

“When we say blessings, we bring ourselves from the immediacy of that moment into some-thing much larger,” Silverman explains. “I feel that what adoption does. When I look at my son, I can’t just think of that moment. I’m always con-scious and aware of the forces that brought him to me. I’m always conscious of God in our lives and of people we’ll never know who did good things to bring this child into our lives and make sure he’d have a good life. I’m also conscious of the incredible loss on the part of his birth moth-er that never leaves my heart. I’m really con-scious of the poverty, economic circumstances and other circumstances that prevented this woman from raising her own child. And that’s God, the creator of good and of evil, of the whole spectrum. It’s all mirrored on earth in this one adoption, in this one child.

“Adar is amazing,” Silverman says, “and he’s a symbol of what’s amazing.


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