Made in China, Growing up in America
China was where the babies were. So five Cleveland-area couples, eager to add to their families, traveled across the globe to adopt abandoned babies who would grow up with a dual Chinese-Jewish heritage.
Part of a wave of over 50,000 Chinese babies adopted by Americans since 1993, these children, now entering adolescence, are finding their place in school, in synagogue, and in the larger community.
Recently, the CJN talked about being Chinese and Jewish with the families of four adopted daughters and one son, whose early months as babies and toddlers were chronicled in these pages. (“Made in China,” CJN, Jan. 5, 1996; “Long journey to parenthood produces bouncing baby boy,” CJN, Feb. 13, 1998.)
Rachel Slack of South Euclid celebrates her 13th birthday in January, one week before her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu El.
Naomi Hill, 12, of Shaker Heights, will become a bat mitzvah April 12 at The Temple-Tifereth Israel, followed by a family trip to China that summer.
Jennifer Ticktin of Beachwood, who turns 13 at Thanksgiving, is a student at the “Synagogue without Walls” and hopes to have a bat mitzvah next spring.
Samantha Becker-Weidman, nearly 13, moved with her parents from Shaker Heights to suburban Buffalo about a decade ago. She visited China two years ago and has no formal affiliation with the Jewish community.
Nathan Levin, 11, of Shaker Heights, is studying Hebrew and Jewish studies at Congregation Bethaynu in preparation for his bar mitzvah.
Rachel: Being Jewish is important
The only child of Linda and Bill Slack, Rachel is a serious and attentive seventh grader who “does not follow the pack,” her mother says. “She finds her own way.” Being Jewish is far more important to Rachel than being Chinese, the poised 12-year-old says. As a little girl, she did attend Chinese cultural and language classes, but after a few years, she chose to stop. Still, Rachel recognizes her roots make her special.
“People are really surprised to learn I’m Jewish because I’m Chinese,” says Rachel, who explains to inquisitive new acquaintances that she’s adopted and her mother is Jewish. “I’m proud I’m Jewish and Chinese because it makes me different. I think that’s pretty cool.”
For her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu El, she’s studying her Exodus portion with Cantor Laurel Barr. She already knew how to read Hebrew, but it’s a lot harder in the Torah, which does not have vowels, she admits. Between practicing the prayers she already knows and listening to a CD to learn new material, Rachel is taking this challenge in stride.
“It is important to have a bat mitzvah if you’re Jewish,” she says, demure in a black skirt and print top as she stands at the bima in the Temple Emanu El sanctuary. She’s just finished a tutoring session and nervously holds a Torah as the photographer snaps her picture. “It’s like accepting responsibility for your own actions,” Rachel says of her impending bat mitzvah. “I think that’s important.”
When Rachel entered kindergarten, the Slacks joined Temple Emanu El, says Linda, who has found the Jewish community very welcoming of her Asian daughter. To further their daughter’s Jewish identity, this past summer the Slacks sent Rachel to the Goldman Union Camp Institute, the Reform movement’s overnight camp in Indiana.
While Rachel is looking forward to the party to celebrate her bat mitzvah, she insists it’s the ceremony and helping others that’s the most important part of the occasion. She’s selected dance tote bags to be centerpieces at her party, which she will donate after the event.
Dance, especially ballet, is her “passion,” says Rachel, who has been taking jazz, tap and ballet, her favorite, since she was 3. For the last three years, she has participated in dance competitions, passing tests to reach new skill levels. She also plays piano and belongs to a neighborhood softball league.
Since she was quite young, Rachel has modeled for corporate advertising campaigns, although of late the jobs conflict with her schedule. Rachel attends Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, where she’s on the honor roll. She enjoys Power of the Pen, a program of competitive creative writing, and Asian studies, both extracurricular activities. In class, she chose to study French over Mandarin.
While English is her best subject, Rachel likes science the most. “I want to be a forensic scientist when I grow up,” she says. One day, Rachel would like to go back to China. But for now, she’s focused on celebrating the Jewish part of her identity at her bat mitzvah.
Naomi: Aspirations for theater
Naomi, clad in a pink terrycloth robe, dashes upstairs to change for an interview, returning minutes later in pink T-shirt, denim skirt and pale blue cardigan. She and her mother had uncharacteristically overslept that morning, missing tae kwon do. In addition to her martial arts class, Naomi’s list of favorite and frequent activities is astoundingly long: Rock climbing. Theater. Clarinet. Piano. Vocal lessons. Dance. Math team. Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. Creative writing. “I like them all,” pronounces Naomi. Of the performing arts, “I like clarinet best, although I’m not best at it. It’s fun to play with a band, to be part of a group. You are contributing to it while you are listening to it.”
This past summer, she went to Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, her third summer there. Then, she attended the Fairmount Performing Arts Camp in Chagrin Falls, a program for youngsters “with serious aspirations for theater,” says her mother Freda Levenson. Naomi is “an honorary 20-something,” Freda admits sheepishly. Being the youngest of four siblings (24-year-old twins Chloe and Zeke and 21-year-old Arlo) has had far more impact on Naomi than the fact that she is Chinese, Freda asserts.
Last June, Naomi performed with the 14-member children’s chorus in the Strauss opera, “Die Rosenkavalier,” with Cleveland Opera. Next month, she will reprise her role as Helen, a girl in Ralph’s class, in the Cleveland Play House production of “A Christmas Story.” As for her heritage, Naomi says, “I tell people I was adopted from China at 6 months old and that I came from Nanchang. People don’t usually believe me at first if I tell them I’m Jewish.”
Attending Sunday and Hebrew school is “important to my mom and dad (James Hill),” she notes. After her April bat mitzvah, the entire family will travel to China. Naomi plans to donate any gift money to her former orphanage. The Hill family also visited China two summers ago, but didn’t make it to the orphanage in Nanchang, a big, gritty industrial city. “We wanted (Naomi) to see the beauty and cultural aspects of China,” Freda says.
Freda sees strong connections between Asian and Jewish culture: “A love of learning, the importance of family; the values are very similar.” Naomi hasn’t given her identity nearly as much thought. She tried learning Mandarin, she says, and would like to learn more, so “I’d know a little more about myself and can communicate with other people.”
As for concerns about how her youngest daughter will fit in socially as a teenager, Freda, an attorney and president of the Shaker Heights Board of Education, says, “People are intensely curious when they first meet her and then it disappears, like hair color and physical attributes.”
Jennifer: Energy to play, to study
Jennifer Ticktin bounces into the room and announces the Beachwood Middle School football team’s victory. She dashes to the refrigerator to grab a small carton of juice. Sipping through a straw and munching on a granola bar, she hoists five petite feet of energy onto the counter to answer questions about her life.
Like her father Dan, she’s an athlete, the pitcher on the Beachwood Recreation League fast-pitch softball team and champion at the “cone game” at Beachwood sports camp. She also dances-ballet and hip-hop-and has taken up acoustic guitar after playing piano for several years.
Attending the Jewish Community Center’s Camp Wise this past summer was “the best experience of my life,” Jennifer asserts. Although she loved attending Saturday morning Shabbat services in her pajamas, meeting new people and joining in the competitive Maccabiah games were the best part of camp, she says.
Jennifer dropped out of Temple Emanu El’s religious school three years ago. But now that her friends are preparing for their b’nai mitzvah, she decided she wanted one, too. She now studies with Rabbi Eddie Sukol of Synagogue without Walls and hopes her bat mitzvah will be in May.
She needs nine months to a year of preparation, and the date depends on how quickly she learns and how hard she studies. “Can we have it at Camp Wise?” she asks her mother. “If she’s willing to put in the hard work,” we want her to have that (bat mitzvah),” says Debbie. “She’s older now; she’s a better worker.”
Asked to describe herself, Jennifer doesn’t mention her Chinese or Jewish sides. She likes math, but gym, lunch and study hall are the best parts of the school day. When she grows up, she’d like to be a plastic surgeon because she has “always liked the doctor stuff” and is not squeamish around blood. A seventh grader at Beachwood Middle School, Jennifer says she never thinks about her identity, except to note her dislike of Li, the middle name her parents chose to honor her Chinese heritage.
“No one cares that I’m Jewish,” she adds. “I explain I’m adopted. My friends say, ‘Cool.’ I say I’m from China. They say, ‘That’s even cooler.’” She claims minimal interest in finding out more about China and would rather learn about the beach, which she loves. “Sorry, parents,” she trills. “I want to learn about Puerto Rico.” One whole wall in her room is a mural of the beach; surfboards hang from the wall, and southern California is her favorite state.
Dan, Jennifer’s father, says he rarely thinks about his only child’s Chinese heritage. “We just get on with the routine of being a family.” When Jennifer was young, Debbie acknowledges, people would comment on the toddler’s appearance, but no longer. “We look different from Jen,” she notes. “It’s right there in the open.”
“We’re not blood-related, but we’re a family,” Jen joins in. “Me and Dad have the sporty, active side. Me and Mom have the shopping side. When I was little, I worried because I didn’t look like my parents,” she continues. Now, “When I look in the mirror, I forget I’m Asian.” A second later, she contradicts herself. “When I look in the mirror I see the Chinese part of me and wonder what it would be like to live in China.”
Samantha: Just like the other kids
Adopting Samantha in China has transformed their lives, say Susan and Arthur Becker-Weidman. Already the parents of Emily and David, their two biological children, Susan and Art simply wanted another child. Since leaving Shaker Heights and resettling in the Buffalo area, they have focused their professional careers on adopted children and their families.
Art, a clinical social worker and therapist who formerly was director of Cleveland’s Jewish Family Services Association, focuses his private practice on attachment issues in adopted children, particular those from foreign countries. Some of these children suffered early in life in a variety of abusive foster homes. Others were adopted as older children; some never bonded with a caregiver as an infant and now have attachment issues.
They have had no such problems with Samantha, whom Susan describes as “the easiest to raise of our three kids.”
Two summers ago, the Becker-Weidmans all went to China with a group of families who had adopted Chinese babies. They visited Samantha’s orphanage in Maoming in Guandong province.The workers remembered Samantha and told the Becker-Weidmans a bit more about her history, such as the exact time of her birth. “That was meaningful for her,” says Susan.
At the orphanage, the staff showed the Becker-Weidmans, who have made contributions for an indoor gym, the equipment purchased with the money. “It let Samantha know we have continued the connection,” Susan says. While in Maoming, the Becker- Weidmans shopped for clothes, diapers and supplies for the babies. “We stayed two days in the same hotel where we stayed when Samantha was a baby, visited the same sites, spent time with the orphanage workers, played with the babies,” says Susan. “It was very moving. We felt lucky, but we feel lucky each day that she’s in our life.”
According to Samantha, going to the mall is her favorite activity, but she also enjoys a long list of sports, from gymnastics to volleyball to dance. Being adopted makes no difference in her life, she says. “I am just like one of the other kids.”
Visiting the orphanage in China, where she lived for the first six months of her life, made an impression. “Seeing that people were caring for these kids, that most of them already had a family that was going to take them home, made me feel happy,” Samantha says.
She is pleased to be Jewish, but does not attend religious school. The family has informally incorporated aspects of Chinese culture into their lives, including food, music and art on the walls. While Buffalo doesn’t have much of a Chinese community, the family goes to nearby Toronto, with the second largest Chinese community in North America, to buy Chinese goods and to attend holidays, such as the Dragon Boat Festival.
The Becker-Weidmans also belong to a group called Asian Connection, which includes about 200 to 300 families with children adopted from Asia, primarily China. Those families who include Asian culture as part of their lives, Art says, often have an easier time with their adopted children than those who don’t.
Nathan: Surprise son from China
His straight black hair flopping into his eyes, Nathan squirms on the living room sofa, uncomfortable and seemingly bored with answering questions from a stranger. A shy 11- year-old, he has trouble following the conversation. Nathan’s developmental delays were as big a surprise to Estee and Mark Levin of Shaker Heights as was the fact that he was a boy. Told by their adoption agency that they were getting a girl, the Levins were stunned to be handed a son when they arrived in China. Because of China’s one-child policy and the preference for males, very few boys have been among the thousands of abandoned Chinese babies adopted by Americans over the last 14 years.
When he was a toddler, the Levins discovered that Nathan had special needs due to a neurological disorder typically caused by trauma at birth. He attends special education classes in the Shaker schools, where Mark, a computer consultant who works from home, is chairman of the Parent Teacher Organization’s special-needs subdivision.
On Saturday mornings and Mondays after school, Nathan attends Hebrew class at Congregation Bethaynu, where Mark is active on the board of trustees and several committees. The family tries to take Nathan to Friday night services twice a month. He’s learning prayers with a tutor and Jewish music; the Levins hope he’ll be able to become a bar mitzvah at age 13, or whenever he is ready. “Like any Jewish father, I want to see my son have a bar mitzvah,” says Mark.
Nathan has made tremendous strides in public school and in Hebrew school, his parents say. While the adults talk, Nathan looks at a book and suddenly asks “where the glossary is.” He then announces he wants a “lamed” birthday cake, referring to the Hebrew letter. Then he changes his mind, and says maybe he’d like an “aleph” cake.
Estee, a marketing-information specialist, asks her son what sound does aleph make, and is very pleased when Nathan correctly answers none. The biggest issue for the Levins is that Nathan is a special-needs child, not that he’s Chinese, Estee explains.
As active members of Bethaynu, the Levins say congregants are not surprised to see a Chinese boy there. They had naming ceremonies at Bethaynu for Nathan and his sister, Sonia, 6, whom they adopted from China when she was 18 months old.
Early next year, they hope to go to Thailand to adopt another Asian girl, who is 10. The Levins wanted to bypass the diaper stage but discovered there are no 4-year-old children available for adoption. “It’s not about rescuing another child from life in an orphanage,” Mark says. “It’s about growing our family. That’s where the children are.”
The Levins make great efforts to honor their children’s Chinese heritage and celebrate Chinese cultural holidays. When Nathan was younger, he tried Chinese school, but found it very difficult. A group of families with adopted Chinese children organized their own school and club, and Nathan attended on Saturday mornings as a preschooler. Sometimes, the Jewish and Chinese holidays work together. Nathan refers to chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper, popular at Chinese New Year’s, as “Chinese gelt.” The Chinese Harvest moon festival coincides with Sukkot.
Many books about China and Jewish culture fill the Levins’ bookcases, and the children listen to Chinese music CDs. “Nathan sings those songs as well as ones from his other CDs,” Mark says. The Levins also subscribe to satellite TV, and the family watches Central China Television, with Chinese news and cultural shows in English.
They now belong to an Asian culture group, which has boys in it from countries such as Cambodia and Thailand. There are frequent talks with Nathan about his identity, Estee says. “During adolescence, this is when you start figuring out who you are.”
About two years ago, close to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Estee and Nathan were talking about slavery. Nathan kept asking his mother to read and reread the story of Harriet Tubman, who was running from the South to the North.Then one day, Nathan announces, “‘It’s the Passover story!” Estee recalls her son saying. “It’s the story of running from slavery to freedom.’”
Finding their soul
Traversing the prickly precipice between child and adult can be difficult for any adolescent, professionals in the field say. The passage for adopted Jewish children of Chinese heritage can be rockier. Not only do they not resemble their parents and grandparents, they don’t “look” Jewish. To provide that connection between their Jewish and Chinese sides and to head off any potential problems, families take trips to China and embark on family tree projects. Some youngsters attend Chinese cultural classes and Hebrew school and celebrate Jewish and Chinese holidays.
In the end, these experienced Cleveland parents say, raising a child with a dual heritage is fraught with the same issues as bringing up any child in America today. As Estee Levin notes, the home and the education they’ve provided will give their son Nathan “the mechanics he needs. But we want to make sure, as he becomes a young man, that he has soul, too.”’