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A Jewish Rainbow: Transcultural and Transracial Adoption

Jessica, who was adopted from Korea at age two, has three small flags on a stand in her bedroom, one Korean, one American, and one Israeli. By age six, she would look at them and announce: “This is me.” She has learned to straddle her multiple identities and knows exactly who she is.

Asian, Hispanic . . . and Jewish. Native American, African American . . . and Jewish. As increasing numbers of Jewish people adopt children from the four corners of the earth, the American Jewish community is becoming a multicultural and multiracial rainbow. We are learning what Jews around the world have always known: that the Jewish people have many faces, many colors, many body types, many names. Transracial or Transcultural adoption–the adoption of a child of one race or heritage by a family of another–forever changes that family: It becomes a multicultural or interracial family. These adoptees and their families become part of a rich and varied Jewish tapestry stitched together by choice and love.

A Jewish adoptee from another country and culture is a member of a minority within a minority within a minority. What are the special challenges on this particular path? Adoption itself presents difficult challenges with which adoptees and their families must grapple throughout their lives; transcultural adoption introduces yet another layer of complexity. The adoptee’s questions now encompass not only a birth family, but an entire culture. Adoptive parents must become willing and informed transmitters of that birth culture. In order for children to develop a healthy sense of pride in their racial and cultural identity, they need to know where they come from. The message to children who don’t receive this information is that there is a part of them that doesn’t matter or isn’t worth knowing about.

Adoption into a Jewish family adds another wrinkle: Transculturally adopted children need information about their Jewish heritage, and encouragement and assistance in integrating it into their identities. Some Jewish adoptive parents feel guilty that their children, who would have been a member of a dominant culture, have become a triple minority. Yet if parents don’t actively teach Judaism to their multiculturally adopted children, the children may question their connection to Judaism and may assume that, because of their different cultural heritage, they are not welcome in the Jewish community. On the other hand, if they are given the opportunity to live that heritage, they become comfortable and proud of it.

Jewish parents who adopt transculturally, as well as their children, face a lifetime of decisions, some major and some minor, about how to successfully intertwine their child’s birth and adoptive cultures. The first time a family encounters such a decision is when the family selects the child’s name. Names signal origin; they claim a person as a member of a group. A child may have his birth name, honoring the birth culture; an American name, indicating entry into one new culture; and a Hebrew name, symbolizing inclusion in a second new culture. One way to combine the child’s multiple heritages is to choose a Hebrew name that means the same thing as the child’s birth name.

A naming ceremony is the first opportunity to publicly acknowledge these multiple heritages. Many adoptive parents incorporate symbols, foods, stories, and poems from their child’s native culture into the Jewish ritual. This speaks eloquently of the importance to the family of intertwining the child’s birth and adoptive cultures.

Some adoptive parents are selective about which components of their child’s birth heritage they introduce. They may feel it appropriate to teach about the language, history, food, holidays, customs, and culture, without teaching children about their birth religion. Others do recommend educating children about their birth religion as a part of their culture of origin, while clearly explaining that this is for cultural exploration, not religious purposes. They believe that children are naturally curious and that what they are forbidden to explore may acquire a special attractiveness.

Some Jewish adoptive parents incorporate customs from their child’s heritage into their practice of Judaism. They research how Jews in their child’s birth country celebrate their Judaism and include specific customs into their own celebrations. Visiting Israel can be a particularly valuable experience for Jewish children of color as they will see Jews of many ethnicities living and working together there.

Finally, another way to accentuate the Jewish side of a child’s identity is by enrolling the child in a Jewish day school. Although some parents prefer a public school with a widely diversified population, others choose a Jewish school to help facilitate their child’s integration into their religious community. Both choices have their merits; what matters most is to honor the child’s culture of origin while developing his or her Jewish identity.

Shelley Kapneck Rosenberg

Shelley Kapneck Rosenberg is the author of Adoption and the Jewish Family: Contemporary Perspectives published by Jewish Publication Society, Phila., Penn., 1998.