Chinese Are Jews Too
A Chinese-American Jewish scholar puts the spotlight on Jewish diversity
Patricia Lin is aware that she does not have the typical Jewish last name. That’s because she did not grow up in a typical Jewish household with typical Jewish parents. Lin is 32 years old, Taiwanese, and an assistant professor of British history at the University of San Francisco. Five years ago, she converted to Judaism. Since then, she has developed an aversion to the word “typical.”
“Every time I go into a Jewish bookstore I wear a chai pendant or start speaking Hebrew loudly because the first perception most people have of me is that I can’t really be Jewish,” Lin says.
That’s a perception Lin wants to change. She has lectured on the topic of Asian Jews and served as a consultant to the Jewish Museum of New York’s forthcoming exhibition on diversity in the American Jewish community. She is currently working on a study on Jewish diversity at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. For the study, Lin and her colleagues are interviewing Jews of Asian, African-American, and Latino descent.
They are trying to document what it feels like to be a minority in a minority religion, a subject Lin feels has not been adequately studied in the past. “The Jewish community is not just made up of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe,” Lin says. “It’s much more varied than that. The Jewish community is more like a collage than a box.”
Growing up in Wayland, Massachussetts, Lin was no stranger to Jewish religion and culture. Most of her childhood friends were Jewish, she got the Jewish High Holy Days off from school, and she was well acquainted with matzoh. Although her parents had no connection to Judaism, they were big connoisseurs of Manischevitz kosher wines. “My parents would take special trips to New Hampshire where wine was tax free just so they could buy their bottles of Manischevitz,” Lin recalls, laughing.
Lin’s parents, immigrants from Taiwan, did not practice any religion at home. “We had a Christmas tree in the house mainly because we once saw a family on TV put it up and we thought it looked nice,” says Lin. As a child though, Lin yearned to find her own niche. For as much as she admired her friends’ immersion in the Jewish community, she felt little connection with the Asian community.
“My parents didn’t always have positive feelings about other Asians and that reflected on me,” Lin says. “In Taiwan, my father was part of the underground resistance movement during the reign of Chiang Kai-Shek. Many of his friends were killed by Chiang Kai-Shek’s supporters. There was a mistrust among the people, like my family, who had been in Taiwan since the 1800s and those who had just immigrated there after World War II. I think my family still feels this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality in regards to the Asian population in America.”
As Lin grew older, her discomfort and sense of isolation began to spread to the spiritual sphere. “I wanted to pray to God, but I had no idea how to do it,” she says.
It was while she was studying abroad in England that Lin first entertained the notion of converting to Judaism. By then she had already decided that she personally could not connect with God through Christianity or Buddhism. “The family I was staying with [in England] had a friend–an ordained rabbi actually–who had converted to Judaism. The woman told me that even as a convert, she had readily been accepted into the Jewish community,” says Lin. “I think that’s what really set the ball rolling in my mind.”
But it was not until 1994 that Lin made her final decision to convert. “I was walking home from the subway one day when all of a sudden this epiphany hit,” Lin recounts. “I thought, ‘I want to be Jewish and this is the time for me to convert.’ I have no real explanation for why it hit me then. It just felt right.”
Later that week, Lin consulted a rabbi who started her on the year-long process of conversion. As Lin delved into Jewish texts, liturgy, and history, she was immediately struck by the many similarities between the Jewish and Taiwanese cultures and heritages. “Both Israel and Taiwan have had to fight for their right to exist against other countries that want to take them over,” Lin says. “Both Taiwanese and Jewish cultures rely on the lunar calendar. Both cultures have a strong emphasis on family and food.”
On January 27, 1996, Lin was officially recognized as a Jew by an English bet din (rabbinical court). Five years later, Patricia has found a community that accepts her and a language with which she can express her connection to God. She leads services, keeps the Sabbath, and refrains from eating pork.
Lin’s parents also have been accepting of her new religious orientation, perhaps in part because of the similarities between Jewish and Taiwanese cultures. “My parents reacted much better about my decision to become a Jew than they did about my decision to become a historian,” Lin says. “They’re supportive of my religion, but they’re still upset that I didn’t pursue an engineering career.”