Won Ton or Kreplach? How We Raise Children in Our Chinese-Jewish Family
I always knew my Oriental wife was Jewish; after all, she grew up eating Chinese food! I grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood of Montreal. My mother is Sephardic Italian and my father is a Holocaust survivor from Poland. I speak Italian with my mother and Yiddish with my father and siblings. My wife, Belinda Cheung, was born and raised in Hong Kong and came to Canada when she was 17. I married Belinda in 1999. Our marriage has been working wonderfully well. Despite our cultural differences, our worldviews and approaches to life are remarkably identical. We are busy raising our two young children, and our lives are meaningful and fulfilling.
Picture frames reflecting both Chinese and Jewish influences adorn our home. We are keen on learning about each other’s culture. We make a point to learn each other’s languages through tapes and books. Although we are both fully fluent in English, my wife chooses to speak Cantonese to our children, and I speak Yiddish. Between us, we converse in English. Our children identify with their Yiddish and Chinese names, in addition to their English names. Our elder son, Asher (age 3), seems to handle the different languages well. We make an effort to be consistent in our use of languages with our children. We expose them to both Chinese and Jewish games, as well as Chinese, Yiddish, Hebrew and English books, songs and videos.
With an Italian mother and a Chinese wife, I am likely one of the most well-fed guys on earth! On Sabbath, my wife often makes “Chinese cholent,” which I thoroughly enjoy. She shops for Chinese mushrooms, lotus seeds, ginseng and various kinds of Chinese fruits and vegetables in Chinatown. I take pleasure in preparing Italian dishes, and we both like Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. One time, my mother-in-law assisted with cooking, and we all had an authentic Chinese meal on Friday night. It was a delightful evening and a pleasant cultural shock to my parents. Using chopsticks is still a challenge for me, but it only makes life more interesting! I am fascinated with Chinese history, language and culture. Belinda’s roots are almost as important to me as my own. I am constantly looking for ways to infuse more Chinese culture into our lives. Even my favourite ties display ancient Chinese scripts and I often wear them on Sabbath. The Chinese and the Jews have a lot in common in their ethical teachings.
We keep a kosher diet and celebrate all Jewish holidays, including the holy Sabbath. We are grateful that my parents, my Chinese in-laws, as well as our secular relatives and friends, are respectful of our Jewish observances. My brother-in-law, who is Protestant, had joined us on several occasions and experienced Sabbath and Sukkot (Festival of Booths), and even had a taste of matzah on Passover. We give lai-si (red packets containing money, decorated with characters and drawings symbolizing luck and wealth) to our children on Chinese New Year.We may catch a dragon boat race during the Dragon Boat Festival, or play with Chinese lanterns around the August Moon Festival. When we are sick, we seek medical treatment and advice from both Chinese and Western doctors. Last year I had the opportunity to meet many of my wife’s relatives and childhood friends in Hong Kong, as well as to visit her schools and converse with her former teachers. Belinda also enjoyed meeting my aunts and cousins in Rome. These experiences are very special and memorable to us.
While we cherish both backgrounds, when we have to choose between them Jewish holidays and observances take precedence over Chinese holidays and customs. Belinda finds Judaism meaningful and she has learned to love it more than Chinese traditions. Judaism is central to us, and it helps imbue our lives with meaning and direction.
How did we get to this arrangement? From the moment we began dating, we enthusiastically explored each other’s cultures through visiting many ethnic establishments and participating in various cultural activities. Our goal was to broaden our horizons and to take the best of both worlds. However, as my parents were vehemently opposed to my dating Belinda because my religion prohibits intermarriage, we delved deeper into Judaism while also examining other religions. We read voraciously on different spiritualities. We attended Chinese churches, Buddhist and Taoist temples; took part in Jews for Jesus, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish synagogues and events; visited a Sikh Gurdwara, a Muslim mosque; and toured Israel for a month. It was a long but worthwhile journey. Through it all, we inspired each other in our spiritual growth, and helped shape each other’s outlook on life. Belinda eventually converted to Judaism after more than four years of exploring and learning. She genuinely loves Judaism. An important reason that my wife and I have adjusted to each other so well is that we had developed a common vision for ourselves before we got married.
We are now connected to a Torah-observant community where people are accepting of us and our Asian-looking Jewish children. We were forewarned by the rabbinical court which presided over my wife’s conversion that there would always be some Jews who, out of ignorance of Judaism, look down at converts and their children as being “not really” Jewish. Thank God, we have not experienced this kind of debasement. We hope that as our children grow up, they will question, investigate and renew their commitment to our Jewish heritage, and also respect and honor their Chinese roots. That they will carry their Jewishness into their own relationships and raise their children with healthy and life-affirming values and practices.
Jack Botwinik is the author of Chicken Soup with Chopsticks, an intriguing work that deals with the struggles of interdating from a first-hand perspective. Visit www.PaperSpider.net to read more. He works for the Correctional Service of Canada. Jack’s experiences dealing with destitute and under-privileged people, coupled with his re-examination of his religious heritage, have significantly altered his outlook on life.