Journey From a Chinese Orphanage to a Jewish Rite of Passage
Of the 613 laws in the Torah, the one that appears most often is the directive to welcome strangers. The girl once known as Fu Qian has been thinking about that a lot lately. Three weeks ago, she stood at the altar of her synagogue on the Upper West Side and gave a speech about it.
Fu Qian, renamed Cecelia Nealon-Shapiro at 3 months, was one of the first Chinese children – most of them girls – taken in by American families after China opened its doors to international adoption in the early 1990s. Now, at 13, she is one of the first to complete the rite of passage into Jewish womanhood known as bat mitzvah.
She will not be the last. Across the country, many Jewish girls like her will be studying their Torah portions, struggling to master the plaintive singsong of Hebrew liturgy and trying to decide whether to wear Ann Taylor or a traditional Chinese outfit to the after-party.
There are plenty of American Jews, of course, who do not “look Jewish.” And grappling with identity is something all adopted children do, not just Chinese Jews. But seldom is the juxtaposition of homeland and new home, of faith and background, so stark. And nothing brings out the contrasts like a bat mitzvah, as formal a declaration of identity as any 13-year-old can be called upon to make. The contradictions show up in ways both playful – yin-and-yang yarmulkes, kiddush cups disguised as papier-máchê dragons, kosher lo mein and veal ribs at the buffet – and profound.
Yet for Cece, as everyone calls Cecelia, and for many of the girls like her, the odd thing about the whole experience is that it’s not much odder than it is for any 13-year-old. “I knew that when I came to this age I was going to have to do it, so it was sort of natural,” she said a few days before the ceremony at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a Reform synagogue on West 83rd Street where she has been a familiar face since her days in the Little Twos program. Besides, she said with a shrug, “Most of my Chinese friends are Jewish.”
As Zoe Kress, an adoptee in Mt. Laurel, N.J., said about her approaching bat mitzvah: “Being Chinese and Jewish is normal for me. Thinking about being Chinese and Jewish is a little strange.”
Olivia Rauss, a girl in Massachusetts who celebrated her bat mitzvah last fall on a day when the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot coincided with the Chinese autumn moon festival, said she saw no tension between the two facets of her identity either.”Judaism is a religion, Chinese is my heritage and somewhat my culture, and I’m looking at them in a different way,” she said. “I don’t feel like they conflict with each other at all.”
While no statistics are kept on the number of Chinese children adopted by Jewish families, over all, there were about 1,300 Chinese children adopted into American families from 1991 to 1994, another 17,000 in the second half of the ’90s, and 44,000 since then, according to the State Department.
Cece was born on Jan. 29, 1994, in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China. She was abandoned to an orphanage because of China’s one-child rule, and adopted by a lesbian couple, Mary Nealon and Vivian Shapiro. (The couple later adopted another Chinese girl, Gabie, now 5.) Cece has been drawing double-takes for a while, like when she used to ride on Ms. Shapiro’s lap on a packed crosstown bus and would burst into the Passover standard “Dayenu.”
Ms. Shapiro, an advertising buyer, was brought up by atheistic Jews; Ms. Nealon, a school nurse, was raised a Roman Catholic. But after they met, they were drawn to Judaism and decided to give Cece a relatively traditional upbringing. “That was my hope when I started her in day school,” Ms. Nealon said, “that when she got up on the bimah” – the lectern where the bat mitzvah girl reads from the Torah – “she would feel like she had the right to be there.”
The countdown to the big day was the typical blur of lessons and studying, sit-downs with cantors and tutors, caterers and party planners. There was a thick dossier of Jewish history to master – history that Cece confessed did not feel like hers. “I just really try to learn it,” she said. “I don’t try to think of whose history it is.”
And, of course, there was shopping to be done. “In my fantasy,” Ms. Nealon said, “we’d take her to Chinatown and have this incredibly beautiful Westernized Chinese dress made.” But Ms. Shapiro said: “She wanted no part of it. For her, this has nothing to do with being Chinese.”
Cece set her cantor’s reading of her Torah portion to “repeat” on her iPod. She met with the head rabbi at Rodeph Sholom, Robert N. Levine, an affable, animated man with an office full of books and baseball memorabilia. “So, Cece,” Rabbi Levine said, “what do you connect to most about your Judaism?” Cece had transformed into the archetypal opaque teenager. “I think I like the holidays, and, um, yeah,” she said, looking down.
The rabbi asked her to recite for him. She did. “I love it,” Rabbi Levine said. “You have a beautiful voice. Your Hebrew is perfect. The only thing I need you to do, Cece, is project. Just give me a ‘Baruch’ like you’re singing in the shower.”
“Baruch,” Cece said, a bit louder.
On Feb. 17, nearly 200 of Cece’s friends and relatives filed into the vast Romanesque sanctuary of Rodeph Sholom. A box of commemorative yarmulkes with the yin-and-yang pattern sat by the door. Six alumnae of Cece’s orphanage – they call themselves the Fu sisters – had flown in from all over the country.
To the side of the altar, on a red throne, sat Cece, resplendent in a long black patterned dress with a scoop neck. Ms. Shapiro laid a prayer shawl over Cece’s shoulders, a symbolic transfer of power. Cece and the other bat mitzvah girl that day, Sadie Friedman, lifted their voices and let loose a Hebrew welcome song that Cece had sung with the synagogue choir from the time she was 7.
Rabbi Levine preached from the day’s reading: ” ‘Let the stranger in your midst be to you as the native, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ ” Cece and Sadie approached the ark, the enclosure, flanked with marble columns and topped by carved lions, where the Torah scrolls are kept. The cantor, Rebecca Garfein, handed them the oversize scrolls, dressed in maroon and gold fabric. The girls held them like bagpipes.
Cece laid her scroll on the bimah and read in Hebrew, in a loud, clear voice, from Chapter 21 of Exodus, a compendium of commandments on the treatment of servants and slaves. Then she moved to her English speech. “This long journey to becoming a bat mitzvah today has provided me with so many ways of learning,” she said. “The part that will always stay closest to me is the importance of caring for strangers. Just like Jews were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we have all been, or will be strangers at some point in our lives.” Cece finished, touched the fringe of her shawl to the Torah and kissed it. She returned to her throne and sat down, cheeks red, looking exhausted and relieved.
That night – the eve of the Chinese year of the pig, as fate would have it – Cece and her guests reconvened at the Faculty House at Columbia University. The outer room was set up like a casino, with Cece-backed playing cards and Cece-faced play money. Inside, the music throbbed, the D.J. yelled, the fog machine billowed. Cece and her friends traded their shoes for white socks and pogoed across the floor.
After dinner – kosher Chinese for the kids, steak for the adults – the D.J. cranked up “Hava Nagila.” Cece, in a chair in the middle of the dance floor, was lifted up, up, up until she bumped her head on the Chinese umbrellas hanging off the chandelier. Then she was back on the floor, dancing with her mothers and little sister and singing along with the recording: “Hava neranena, venis’mecha,” or: Let us sing and be glad.