From Bangkok To BJ And Back
In Israel, the young soldiers mocked Jessica Radin. They squinted into her dark, almond-shaped eyes and chattered in an invented “Eastern” tongue. At the Wailing Wall, where Jessica went to pray, curious gazes tracked her worship, mistaking her for an Asian tourist.
A few years later, in Thailand, residents took Jessica to be one of their own. And yet it was in this bustling, tropical country that Jessica suffered a pang of Jewish guilt. After a new friend demonstrated how to bow to the Buddha, Jessica followed suit. “The first thought that went through my head was I am a bad Jew,” she says. “I just bowed to an object.”
Jessica, 24, is a woman of dual heritages. One she knows quite well–– it is the privileged, Jewish identity of the Upper West Side, which she forged growing up on west 79th street. As a child, she marched alongside her mother at soviet Jewry and pro-choice rallies, trotted through horseback lessons at a Westchester stable, and attended Hebrew school at Temple Shaaray Tefila. A graduate of New York City’s top private schools, Jessica toured Israel with the competitive Bronfman Youth Fellowships and served as president of the city branch of NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth group.
But the other heritage, of which Jessica knows very little, is the one whose striking features she wears everywhere. It’s the identity that makes men claim –– though she grows weary of hearing it –You’re so exotic.
Born in Thailand, Jessica was adopted by Helen Radin when she was five days old. At the age of a couple of weeks she made the trip across the oceans to her new home with her mother and 8-year-old sister, Jennifer. Adopted in 1976, Jessica is a pioneer in the rugged landscape traversed by Jews of Color. Although current statistics aren’t available, some experts believe as much as 10 percent of American Jewry is non-white today.
Jessica, raised by Helen alone in an all female household, may also be someone to whom the expanding legions of single-by-choice mothers look for some hints of the future. Susanne Rostock, mother of a four and a half year old Chinese girl, recently heard Jessica and her mother speak at an event of Jewish Childcare Association. “It was such a flash forward for me,” says Rostock, who was struck by “the incredible bond these two women had. It’s thicker than blood.”
In an interview at an upper west side diner, Jessica stands out for her grace and beauty among the Thursday afternoon crowd. She is earnest intense during an interview, sometimes playing with her long black hair, or holding her head in her hands while searching for the best answer.
College, she says carried her through a transitional stretch. In her first two years at Yale, she left behind extracurricular Jewish activity and immersed herself in a community of black, Latino and Asian friends. She explored what it meant to be Asian She explained to white friends what it meant to be judged by a cab driver. She explained to black friends that not all Jews are from Crown Heights.
During a semester abroad in Chile, Jessica became close with an observant Jewish family and reconnected with Judaism. By the time she graduate from Yale in December 1998, she had regained her equilibrium, observing Shabbat in a manner that felt comfortable and socializing with a diverse group of friends.
But a year later, Jessica traveled back to the country where she spent her first days of life in a quest to “connect with a self I’ve never been connected with.” Searching for clues of her birth parents, Jessica and a close Jewish friend tackled the maze of Bangkok’s government offices, adoption agencies and hospitals. Observing the rural poverty, the urban slums and the young prostitutes flirting with western men, Jessica wondered what her fate might have been, and she thought of the life her birth mother led. She left the country drained and confused.
When she returned to the streets of New York, “everything looked different. The world turned upside down in a huge way.”
Although she says she doesn’t think she could raise children who aren’t Jewish,” after Thailand, part of me doesn’t want my child to be biracial. It feels like losing a part of me.
She’d love to be able to look down and see a small child who resembles her–– to see someone in the world who looks like her.
In the meantime, she struggles with the duality of her identity. While in Thailand, Jessica longed for the familiar melodies of Friday night services, the welcoming strains of Shabbat. Soon after coming back to the Upper West Side, She prayed at B’nai Jeshurun, where the uplifting music and spiritual rabbis draws hundreds of worshippers each week.
And at least for the evening, even among the sea of Caucasian faces, she felt at home. Then, a funny thing happened: Glancing down at the familiar yet foreign letters of the Hebrew prayer book, Jessica was reminded of her Thai heritage, and of the Thai script she’d seen so often in her travels. Suddenly her equilibrium was disrupted again. For that moment, she felt more Asian, more alone.