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My Chinese Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah

The contract is signed: We’ll have a luncheon after the service in an elegant room, all white and light, overlooking gardens. Rachel, whose Bat Mitzvah is in May, is thrilled. The catering hall looks like a castle to her and she is the princess.

The angst is all mine. If only the unfolding of the Bat Mitzvah ritual were as straightforward as picking a caterer, ordering invitations and hiring a band. For my family there are many other challenging layers.

Aside from my husband being a practicing Catholic, although he is very supportive of our choice to raise the children Jewishly, our daughter was adopted in China and I am the child of Holocaust survivors. Read between the lines: interfaith and multicultural issues, as well as a legacy of loss, pervade the Bat Mitzvah celebration for this Jewish mother.

Given the large number of children my daughter’s age at our Reform temple, we are paired for the service with a more traditional Jewish family. Adding to our differences, we are older parents. Our children have one grandparent remaining: my mother-in-law, who is also a practicing Catholic. It’s likely that Grandma will be asked to participate in the service, perhaps to help open the ark (cabinet) holding the Torah scroll. Although that’s comforting, it doesn’t negate the lack of Jewish family.

In my small extended family, there are no practicing Jews. My sister, married to someone who is not Jewish, has chosen Jesus for her savior; my uncle, a Holocaust survivor, left Judaism in Germany when he escaped as an adolescent; his son married someone who is not Jewish and leans toward Christianity. A cousin, the daughter of my mother’s brother, was raised a Catholic by her mother, with approval of her Holocaust survivor father. That’s our maternal family.

My father, who died in 2000, does have relatives in Israel, but we have yet to meet them. I’m hoping the Bat Mitzvah will bring us closer to taking a first trip to Israel.

Light one candle (that’s me) to light the path to Torah!

About five years ago I had an adult Bat Mitzvah. Raised culturally, but not religiously, Jewish, I worked for years to learn Hebrew, Jewish customs and history. On a frosty Saturday in February, I chanted my Torah portion and gave a dvar Torah on the passage to share with our congregation. Rachel was 8 years old, and it was my intention to show her the way, through my actions, toward her Bat Mitzvah.

Judaism is a family religion: we bless our children on Friday nights when we light candles at home; we pass the Torah from grandparent to parent to child.

With the joy of the B’nai Mitzvah service, and the focus Rachel will have on her participation in the ceremony, I am hoping she won’t “feel” the difference between us and the other family when we do the blessings at temple on Friday night and the Torah service on Saturday. Am I being naïve?

Rachel was about 7 when a college friend of mine had a Bar Mitzvah celebration for her older son. The mom, whom I’ve known for decades, is also second generation (Holocaust survivor), although our extended families are quite different. I was shocked and saddened when she chose not to invite our daughter to the reception. We will never have a cousin become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and I wanted so much to show Rachel the Jewish way of life.

After painful conversations with myself, I decided to write my friend a letter explaining how much Rachel’s exclusion from the simcha made me sad. The invitation was subsequently extended to Rachel too, but the shadow of sadness remained with me.

We recently attended a Bat Mitzvah of a Chinese adopted daughter who is being raised Orthodox and attends Jewish day school. My daughters, ages 12 and 6, were the only Chinese (or Asian) guests at the service and the party, aside from the Bat Mitzvah girl. We’ve known the family since Rachel was a baby but see them infrequently now. It was a joyful occasion and the Bat Mitzvah girl had many friends from her Jewish day school in attendance. My hope, however, is that our daughter will have an Asian presence–braiding her Chinese and Jewish roots–for her Bat Mitzvah.

This summer we took a trip to China so that our daughters could see their homeland. It was a spectacular journey to where their lives began and we hope the experience helps strengthen their pride in being Asian. During some of our time in China, we traveled with about 15 other adoptive families. Two girls in the group, besides our daughter, are preparing for their Bat Mitzvah.

Especially for adolescents, being with people who are “like you” is a boon to self-esteem. It was obvious to us (and confirmed in the many photos we took) that Rachel absolutely glowed during her time in China. She found not just Chinese Jewish girls like herself, but a country full of people who are Asian. The reversal of mom and dad being the minority race for a change was a positive experience for our preteen daughter.

We also traveled to Kaifeng, a city in Henan province, where Rachel was born. Kaifeng has an ancient history of Jewish settlers who intermarried with the local population. We toured Kaifeng with a young Chinese man, Shi Lei, with Jewish roots, who has lived and studied in Israel.

As part of her Bat Mitzvah preparation, I asked Rachel to write about her experience in Kaifeng–for now, the fresh onion rolls she bought from a food cart on the road to Shi Lei’s Jewish mini-museum seemed to impress her more than the ancient Jewish history and the artifacts we saw there.

If I had a magic wand, I’d use it to bring Shi Lei to New Jersey to be part of our Bat Mitzvah ritual… to bring Chinese Jewish history to us! In her story about Kaifeng experience Rachel wrote:

My family went to Kaifeng because my parents wanted me to see that there are other people like me. It is also because I am having my Bat Mitzvah on May 10, 2008. I think every kid should have an experience like I did.

When Rachel steps up to the bimah she will hold the memories of her Kaifeng visit. She will also carry forward, psychologically, the decimation of our Jewish family by the Holocaust. Appropriate and searing, her Torah reading (Lev. 24:10-23 “Does the Punishment Fit the Crime”) contains the passage: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he [she] inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him [her].”

Justice… what is justice… at 13 our daughter will wrestle with the meaning of this passage and I look forward to her teaching our temple congregation on the day of her Bat Mitzvah.

We won’t have Jewish grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins to regale our daughter with mazel tovs for her Torah chanting… but this Jewish mother, with the support of her Catholic husband, has chosen to follow the rituals and will pass the Torah to the next generation.

Hedi Molnar

Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a second generation Holocaust survivor. Her family belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.


Author: Hedi Molnar