Patricia Yu Chava Esther Lin Bat Avraham
My Chinese and Jewish identities are not in conflict. They are complementary and inextricably intertwined.
Chinese and Jews. For most Jews, the pairing of these words conjures up the love affair Jews have with Chinese food. And so it is that the first question most Jews ask me when they learn I’m a Chinese American Jew is: “What do you do about pork?” It saddens and frustrates me to see my Chinese and Jewish identities reduced to a culinary joke–a joke, moreover, which implies that the ethnic and religious parts of myself are inherently incompatible, when just the opposite is true.
When I think of being Chinese, I think of a civilization that places great value on family and education. I think about my parents, who emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in 1963 to escape from the totalitarian government of the former leader of mainland China, General Chiang Kai-shek, which terrorized, traumatized, and excluded most of the island’s inhabitants because of their Taiwanese identity. I think of the Chinese dialect, Taiwanese, which I’ve spoken since infancy. I think of Boston Chinatown, where my parents once lived, where we shopped and, yes, where we regularly went to eat. And, as I have grown older, I have come to think of myself as belonging to an American minority that has faced racial discrimination, from the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the late nineteenth century, which illegalized Chinese immigration, to the more recent aggressive prosecution of Los Alamos scientist Dr. Wen Ho Lee on espionage charges. Only after Lee had spent several months in solitary confinement, his reputation ruined, did the government drop the charges.
When I think of being Jewish, I think of my relationship with God, of being part of a community that not only wrestles with Torah but engages in tikkun olam, the struggle to make the world a better place for all people. Being Jewish also means being part of a community that shares my Chinese family’s devotion to family and education. And it means being part of a minority community that knows the sting of rejection, persecution, and near annihilation, but has not lost the will to resist its enemies.
For me, then, my Chinese and Jewish identities are not in conflict. They are complementary and inextricably intertwined.
At the time my parents emigrated from Taiwan, they no longer practiced any religious tradition, so none was passed on to my younger sister or me. However, their choices in America would, very early in my own life, set me on the road to Judaism. My mother and father purchased a house in the Boston suburb of Wayland, a predominantly Christian town with few non-Whites and a substantial Jewish minority attracted by its excellent school system. I quickly made Jewish friends and gained a familiarity with their holidays and foods. The town’s schools, for example, were always closed on the High Holidays, so I learned about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jewish friends invited me to celebrate Chanukah with them. I first tasted matzah (with butter) in third grade, when a friend shared part of her lunch with me during Pesach. When another close friend turned thirteen, I attended her bat mitzvah at the town’s Reform temple. And I baby-sat for a family that helped found the local Conservative synagogue.
I also learned about Jewish culture in my own home, albeit unintentionally. When I was in second grade my father told me about the Chinese Jews who have lived in Kaifeng from the eleventh century c.e. to modern times. He’d learned about them from a book lent him by a Jewish colleague after my father lost a friendly bet about whether or not a Jewish community had ever existed in China. My parents also introduced me to what I would later come to know as Kiddush wine; so fond were they of the sweet taste of Manischewitz that once a year we drove to New Hampshire, where liquor is not taxed, to replenish the wine cabinet. Also, because my entrepreneurial parents put a premium on business acumen, hard work, and a love of learning–and believed these same values were held by many Jews in the Greater Boston area–they felt closer to Jews than to the more populous Christians. I also felt closer to Jews than to other Chinese Americans in the Boston area, most of whom were not Taiwanese but had come from mainland China.
At school I seemed to connect with my Jewish teachers. I’d always loved learning and received high marks, but I hid behind a shield of shyness. A few of my Jewish teachers challenged me to go beyond my comfort zone–to be more assertive. They also supported me emotionally in ways my parents, because of their culture and upbringing, could not. At Princeton University, Jewish professors, in particular, encouraged me when I was facing stiff parental opposition as I sought to change my undergraduate major from electrical engineering to history, a decidedly non-stereotypical major for an Asian American student. For me, researching the past had profound personal meaning. For my parents, my decision seemed incomprehensible and financially irresponsible.
Later, in graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, I felt a profound sense of loneliness and struggled with regular bouts of depression. I yearned for a life of meaning beyond my chosen career and, for the first time, found myself in need of worship. But I did not know where to go. My experiences with Christianity, limited to a service I’d attended as a child with a friend and attempts by evangelicals to convert me in college, had left me with distinctly negative impressions. I wanted to be able to relate to God on my own terms, in ways that felt comfortable to me, not via an intercessor who I did not believe had died for my sins. I tried Buddhism, but that felt empty. My personality and beliefs were incompatible with the idea of disengagement from the larger society, and I could not relate to meditation as the primary form of worship. I wanted to make the world a better place by speaking out and taking action. I needed a community that shared my values, a community that I could pray with, a community in which I could both give and receive emotional support. Walking to work one day in the summer of 1994, I experienced an epiphany. Suddenly I knew that I had to convert to Judaism.
I began the process a few months later, after moving to Britain to conduct research in European history for my doctoral dissertation. As most of my Jewish friends in the U.S. belonged to the Reform Movement, I decided to convert under the auspices of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues. I joined West Central Liberal Synagogue in central London, where I took great pleasure in davening and hearing the rabbi, an Australian Jew, beautifully chant the week’s Torah portion. I also traveled throughout Britain and neighboring countries to visit different synagogues and discover how Judaism was practiced throughout Europe. And I studied and worked on my five required conversion essays, the last of which required that I compare Judaism with my ancestral religions–Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I was stunned by the similarities between Judaism and Confucianism, which is today a philosophy rather than a religion. Like Judaism, Confucianism in its religious form emphasized ethical behavior in all spheres, called for social action and responsibility, stressed education and family, and advocated the worship of one God. In hindsight, considering my comfort with Judaism, perhaps the similarities should not have come as such a surprise.
On January 27, 1996 (6 Shevat 5756) I formally joined the Jewish people. Friends, including some of my Jewish professors from America, traveled to Britain to participate. During the service I received my first aliyah and my Hebrew name: Chava Esther bat Avraham v’Sarah. To honor my parents, my Chinese heritage, and my Jewish identity, I chose to hold the celebratory dinner at Kaifeng, a kosher Chinese restaurant in North London.
After an inspiring and eye-opening trip to Israel–where I found the people to be similar to present-day democratic Taiwanese in their strength and self-confidence in spite of living under constant threat–I returned to America in the fall of 1996. I soon discovered, to my delight, that my Hebrew name, rather than separating me from my Chinese family, actually reinforced an existing link. My father told me that while taking English classes in Taiwan before coming to the U.S., the students were asked by the instructor to select an American name. In admiration of Abraham Lincoln and in recognition of the similarity between the president’s last name and his own last name, Lin, my father chose Abraham. And so it was that the name Abraham appears alongside his Chinese name on the visa he used to enter this country. Thus my adopted Jewish name has a double meaning. I truly am Chava Esther bat Avraham.
Upon returning home, I settled in San Francisco to finish writing my dissertation. There I joined Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a diverse, open, innovative Reform synagogue with a tradition of strong lay leadership. I was one of only three Asian members; the other two were a woman (with an Ashkenazi mother and a Chinese father) and her child. At first I attended services and other community activities, then joined the ritual committee, and eventually, with some encouragement, began to co-lead services and deliver sermons. I also began to study Torah with a ,i>chevruta,/i> partner and tutor a bat mitzvah student. And I became a surrogate big sister to two adopted Asian American Jewish girls whose Ashkenazi parents are members of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts, near my hometown of Wayland. This relationship remains one of my life’s great joys.
Today I am focused on conducting research for an in-depth study of the rapidly growing Asian American Jewish population in America. I’ve been curious to know how Asian American Jews, most of whom are the products of mixed-race marriages, adoption, and, to a much lesser extent, conversion, balance their Asian and Jewish identities. From my initial interviews, I’ve learned that while many have experienced difficulties reconciling their dual-minority identities in their early years, as adults most have come to appreciate their uniqueness as Jews of Asian descent. At the same time, many tell me of their isolation, even in cosmopolitan Jewish areas. They do not like having to prove they are Jewish and wonder if Ashkenazi Jews may reject them as potential romantic partners because they are Asian. They rarely see their faces reflected in Jewish periodicals, haggadot, children’s books, or advertisements. Above all, they are eager to meet and learn about other Asian American Jews so that they do not feel so alone.
For me, too, it is not always easy to be an Asian American Jew. I still receive stares and slights when I enter an unfamiliar synagogue (to which I respond by loudly speaking, reading, or davening in Hebrew). And I am still asked, “What do you do about pork?” But despite these annoyances, I love being Jewish. Judaism has provided me with a sense of completeness and a meaning to my life that was missing for so long. I have a community. I have a means to relate to and wrestle with God, and through Judaism, I have reconnected with the family and the Asian American culture of my birth.
I have come home.
Patricia Y. C. E. Lin, Ph.D. is a scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religions at the Pacific School of Religion, GTU, Berkeley, California and a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. She asks Asian American Jews interested in participating in her study or in being in contact with other Asian American Jews to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.