Year Of The Swan
Once ‘ugly ducklings’ abandoned by birth parents, Chinese girls are enriching the lives of hundreds of Jewish families here. The struggle to balance two ancient cultures.
In a small city in southwestern China, Rabbi Mark Sameth eyed the precious bundle in his arms and began to sing. He had chanted the melody many times before from his Westchester pulpit, but now he hummed the notes softly and slowly, hoping the music would comfort the Chinese baby he had met just minutes before — the child who would thereafter be his daughter.
“It was like a dream, it was so unbelievably beautiful,” says Rabbi Sameth, 46, pausing to control his emotions as he recalled the spring day he and his wife, Tali Havazelet, 41, first held Liana Xiao Feng Sameth.
The magic of that Jewish melody hasn’t faded since the Sameths brought Liana home to their Upper West Side apartment. At 2, Liana still becomes heavy with sleep when her father begins the tune.
Now a toddler of many talents, Liana can sing her own songs, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” for example, in Mandarin Chinese. She can also recite some days of the week — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday — as well as “Habdalah,” the interval Jewish adults call Havdalah, marking the end of Shabbat.
Liana is one of hundreds of little girls in the metropolitan area who will be reared with a deep knowledge of two ancient heritages that share an affection for food, family and scholarship but can sharply differ in style. (Think of chopsticks and chopped liver.) She is part of a select group that marks three New Year’s, a member of an almost entirely female flock that will become, as one parent describes it, “a whole new tribe of Jews.”
It is not the first time that the Jewish and Chinese paths have intimately intersected. A Jewish community settled in Kaifeng as early as the 10th century and was swallowed up by intermarriage, not persecution. By World War II, some 20,000 Jews, mainly refugees of Nazi-occupied Europe, frequented a network of synagogues and schools in Shanghai. Today, small ex-pat Jewish communities have sprouted again in the business center as well as in Beijing.
But arguably, this is the first time these kinds of close bonds are being forged in such a deliberate manner, and in this hemisphere.
In liberal, highly educated enclaves such as Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Caucasian families pushing strollers of adopted Chinese daughters has become an increasingly familiar sight since the early ‘90s, when China relaxed its adoption policy. The United States issued 17,586 Chinese orphan immigrant visas between 1995 and 1999, according to the Web site of Holt International Children’s Services.
The vast majority of the visas go to little girls abandoned by birth parents in response to the country’s restrictive population policies. If selected by the Chinese government for adoption, the girls typically spend several months to a year in orphanage care before entering the eager embrace of adults from the other side of the world.
For the new parents, the moment often arrives after overcoming the dark news of infertility, completing forms for two governments, shelling out roughly $20,000 and passing an anxious year of waiting.
With China and Russia competing in recent years as the most popular country of origin for international adoption, and adoption figures approaching 3 percent of Jewish children in the U.S., according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, the Chinese wave of adoption is visibly rippling through the Jewish community.
“Literally if you looked around you would have thought for sure that Queen Esther was Chinese,” says Dina Rosenfeld, a Jewish community educator at the Jewish Childcare Association for the Ametz Adoption program, recalling a recent Purim party co-sponsored by the agency, the JCC of the Upper West Side and West End Synagogue.
Rosenfeld notes that adopting healthy, biologically Jewish babies from any country is “beyond difficult”; it’s a surefire way of not becoming parents, since there are so few available.
International adoption appeals to some families for its greater predictability in timing and cost compared to the domestic route. It also eliminates what can be a complicating factor: biological parents. In domestic adoption, according to Rosenfeld, the adoptive family usually develops a relationship with the birth mother while she is pregnant, and there are no guarantees she won’t back out at the last minute — or reappear on the scene years later.
Positive stereotyping of Asians, says Rosenfeld, drive some Jewish parents to China. Chinese children are also known to arrive in a healthier condition than their Russian counterparts, who sometimes suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. And for some Jews, there’s also the mysterious allure of the East. Jew-Bu’s, after all, have been searching for enlightenment since the ’60s.
Mostly still preschoolers, the Chinese-Jewish girls here are grappling with the Ma Nishtanah on Passover and learning the blessings over Shabbat candles. Many parents have dealt with conversion and naming ceremonies, and for hints of the future they turn to an older wave of Asian adoption, such as Korean girls adopted in the ‘70s and ‘80s now celebrating bat mitzvahs and weddings.
To some parents, dating seems a long way off, but as one father puts it, “I’m envious of the Jewish boys of their generation. They have a lot of cute Asian girls to chose from.”
Weaving two rich traditions into a limited time frame can be overwhelming. One parent laments, “We’re holidayed out.” But for others, the challenge presents an opportunity for creativity.
When Lori Phillipson, 46, traveled to Shanghai earlier this spring to meet her adoptive daughter, she purchased a swath of gold silk, which she plans to turn into a tallit for her daughter’s bat mitzvah. At the baby-naming ceremony for Liana (“I’ve been answered” in Hebrew) Xiao Feng (“small maple” in Chinese), Rabbi Sameth and Havazelet passed out booklets affixed with Chinese red paper cutouts of dragons and trees, and declared their intentions to raise Liana with “a love of Torah and of her Chinese heritage.”
For Chinese New Year, Susanne Rostock, 51, and her daughter Anjette, 41/2, made kreplach rather than dumplings, conjuring up memories of Rostock’s Danish Jewish grandmother as they pressed glasses into the dough. And Evan and Freda Eisenberg brought a Chinese gong to drown out Haman’s name during the Megillah reading.
Most, but not all parents, pour enormous energy into affirming their children’s Far Eastern roots, often signing up for Chinese language classes themselves.
“It’s typical for adopted children to be ambivalent about their heritage,” says Evan Eisenberg, whose sister and mother are enmeshed in the child-rearing world as co-authors of the “What To Expect” series. Himself the author of “The Ecology of Eden,” on Jews and environmentalism, Eisenberg says his daughter is “very eager to do Jewish things because she’s knows we’re Jewish and she wants to be like us.”
But lately Sara Xing Eisenberg, 4, has expressed discomfort with her Chinese identity, observing that she dislikes her eyes, according to her mother. “It’s going to be a lifelong process,” Freda sighs.
To foster positive ties, the Eisenbergs participate in cultural events of the New York chapter of Families of Children from China. Hoping to provide a role model, they have invited Qian Wi, a Chinese opera star, to live in their brownstone duplex. Sara Xing, says Eisenberg, “could have a richer Chinese experience here than she could in China.”
Crouching in ballet slippers, Mei-Yin Ng addresses her pupils, three Chinese girls under 5, who coincidentally are all Jewish. She points to the pastel decal that decorates her hand. “Yah-tzu,” she says. “Yah-tzu is a duck.” Sara Xing turns around to check on her father, resting on the couch in the West 106th Street apartment, where the weekly lessons take place.
“It was a bit of a problem whether to work on her Hebrew or Chinese,” says Eisenberg, while his daughter absorbs crucial Mandarin vocabulary words: cookie, ice cream and cake. When she’s older, the Eisenbergs plan to send Sara Xing to an afterschool Jewish program.
On the walk home, pedestrians glance curiously at the threesome making their way down Broadway: Caucasian dad, Asian child and Jewish Week reporter. Eisenberg seems oblivious to the attention; Sara Xing is more entranced by the storefronts than the passers-by.
But Rostock, another parent familiar with the fascinated stares, says she sometimes resents the insensitivity of strangers. “We’ll be waiting at a light and they’ll look at Anjette, look at me, back and forth, back and forth, and I know the question is about to come: ‘Is she your real child?’ “ says Rostock.
In Chinatown the attention can be even more intense. “People stop us, and shake a finger in her face, and say, ‘You lucky girl,’ “ Rostock says.
It is a phrase many have heard before. One parent recalls that during a New Year’s parade through Chinatown, crowds cheered “lucky children” as a contingent of families with adopted children passed. Ng reports that the local Chinese newspapers describe the girls, once abandoned orphans, as, “ugly ducklings who turned into beautiful swans.” In China, though, few are familiar with the phenomenon, according to Xiaoning Wang, who travels to her homeland to purchase books, toys and other articles for her e-business, ChinaSprout.com.
In many cases, the Jewish families with Chinese children are not conventionally structured, with many single women in their 40s drawn to China because it does not discriminate against single-parent adoptions, only requiring that the applicant be 30 or older, according to Roberta Ferdschneider of the China Seas adoption program. With gay couples, one member of the couple adopts as a single parent.
Ci Ci Shapiro Nealon, 6, for example, has two mommies. Ci Ci, a student of Rodeph Sholom’s Reform day school who helped the institution mark its first Chinese New Year this year, sometimes uses Hebrew to distinguish between Vivian Shapiro, 53, her Jewish mother, and Mary Nealon, 46, who plans to convert.
“Mommy, you need to pull it,” says Ci Ci to Shapiro, rolling a toy Torah scroll across the family’s Upper West Side living room.
“Ci Ci, what do you call me?” says Shapiro. “Ima,” replies Ci Ci, intent on her project.
Few and far between are the Orthodox parents. Then there’s Melissa Scheiner, a pediatric nurse who dialed an adoption agency on her 36th birthday. She had longed for a family, grown weary of being the only one her age without a head covering in synagogue, but still hadn’t met Mr. Right. A child would make her life more complete, and “I knew if I went to China no one would accuse her of being a mamzer,” says Scheiner, using the Hebrew term for a child conceived in the union between a Jewish woman and someone other than her husband. No one could wonder at an Asian child’s ancestry.
Rebekah Scheiner, 6, has been lighting Shabbat candles since she was 2, and so far hasn’t encountered any discrimination as a student at the Orthodox SAR Academy in Riverdale.
Sitting on her sunny, spacious Upper West Side terrace, Susanne Rostock speaks from her heart over the drone of nearby construction.
“Our faces don’t match,” she says. “To the outside world, we’re not mother and daughter.” Rostock wonders about the burden placed on Asian daughters, “how much more ostracized they will be, by being Jewish as well.”
A filmmaker whose discerning eye has turned up Asian dolls and blocks in unlikely places, Rostock has brought along her camera to record many milestones of Anjette’s life.
“It will be so interesting to see in 20 years who these young women are,” says Rostock, who is seeking funding for a documentary series that chronicles her life with Anjette, as well as the experiences of four Jewish friends and their adopted Chinese daughters. Her films will demonstrate how the girls embrace or reject Judaism.
For now, Rostock, who grew up in a “European-Jewish-Bohemian-Marxist” household in Brooklyn, seeks to make religion “appealing and fun and exciting and mysterious.”
At one point in the interview, Anjette, wearing a striped dress and dark sunglasses, prepares to leave for school. Buoyant and confident, the little girl has invited a reporter to play in her backyard; she is apparently unaware of the weighty matters on her mother’s mind.
Mornings, her mother reports, begin with a cheery alarm clock, the high-pitched voice of Anjette: “Mommy, wake up your eyes.”
Now Rostock tells her daughter, “I want to hear how great you are.” In the afternoon, she has an appointment to meet with Anjette’s teacher.
“Oy yoy yoy,” says Anjette, lowering her sunglasses.
Rostock looks at the reporter with a knowing smile.
“Is that Jewish or what?”