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Pizza, Noodles and Latkes

What am I? Small eyes… dark hair…. I look like my father. When I went to China to adopt each of our daughters, many of the grandpas I saw looked so much like my Dad. It’s our Hungarian ancestry that makes us look a bit Asian.

My husband is ever so Italian and a Roman Catholic, but we’re both born and raised in New York City. Our geographic heritage (and my New Yawk accent) often sets us apart from other Americans.

While my husband has several generations in his family who were Americans, my parents were Holocaust survivors and I was born in the U.S. after World War II.

Our two daughters: One born in the north of China and the other in the south, are beautiful (of course, I’m their mom and totally objective) and look quite different from each other.

This is our multicultural/multi-religious family. Oh, how to stir this diversity-filled pot?

For years and years we participated in interfaith discussion groups and along the way learned from a social worker, who has great sensitivity about interfaith families, that if you and your spouse are comfortable with your choices, your children will receive a positive message about your family’s religious and cultural observances.

I am a Jew. Honoring my ancestors, all of whom suffered or died in the Holocaust, was one reason we decided to have a Jewish family. I have found a religious home in Reform Judaism and am drawn to being a practicing Jew in a temple that encourages discussing and questioning tenets of our religion.

Friday evenings our usual Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner is pizza, one plain and one with eggplant. This tradition is from my husband’s Italian-American family. We all love pizza—who doesn’t—and look forward to the relaxed Shabbat meal which doesn’t require preparation. Sometimes we add challah (egg bread) to the table and a kiddush (wine) cup and light Shabbat candles, too.

I have attended many Shabbat services with my 11-year old daughter, Rachel. This is a special time for us to pray together and to sing the melodies of the Jewish people. My younger daughter attends a Jewish preschool, sings Shabbat songs and celebrates religious holidays at school. I try to attend the monthly Tot Shabbat at our temple, too.

And, I have made a Jewish home for our daughters. The images (candles burning bright), the sounds (songs, shofar [ram’s horn]), the tastes (latkes [potato pancakes], apples and honey, charoset [Passover mixture of apples, dates and nuts], and challah) of Judaism are deeply planted in our daughters’ lives and children absorb so fully through their senses.

When my husband and I chose, after years of grappling with the decision, to join a temple, we selected a Reform synagogue with a diverse membership. Our interfaith/multiracial family is warmly welcomed by the congregation and the rabbi actively seeks to highlight multiculturalism as a positive aspect of our synagogue.

Does our religious choice make our daughters less Chinese? Absolutely not! We even learn about different cultures at temple. “Mitzvah Day,” a spring ritual at our temple, focused this year on Ethiopian Jews. We cooked ethnic foods, learned a dance, tried on native clothing and heard stories from Ethiopians who live in Israel. The message about diversity in Jewish culture was strong, plus we had fun!

Beshert (preordained)—I’ve often thought about the fact that my daughter Rachel was born in the vicinity of Kaifeng in China, which is a well-known ancient settlement of Jewish people who have been absorbed into the Chinese populace. It’s occurred to me that she has a biological link to the ancient Jewish people and perhaps one day, with DNA testing, this mother’s intuition will be confirmed. The legacy of the Jewish community in Kaifeng helped awaken the strength of my conviction that we should raise our daughter, who was adopted in 1995, Jewishly.

We traveled to China again in 2003 to adopt our younger daughter and shortly afterwards the girls and I submerged ourselves in the mikvah (ritual bath) for a Jewish conversion ceremony. I never felt the need to have Rachel converted but, interestingly, it was she who raised the issue, by telling me that she didn’t feel “really” Jewish. Although I didn’t probe, it may be that she had talked with other adopted Chinese girls who had conversion ceremonies. The ritual was joyous and powerful, and now we have conversion documents for our daughters.

I am an American Jew and can’t be a Chinese mother to our daughters, although my little one, Renata, who was adopted at 2 years old, has a game where I pretend to be a Chinese mommy. We talk in make-believe Chinese and the “conversations” are playful and happy. I don’t understand the significance to her 5-year-old mind, but she certainly enjoys the imaginary role I play.

In the real world, my husband and I always look for ways to bring Chinese and Chinese-American culture into our lives. Rachel, now 11, studied Chinese dance and language before kindergarten. Since then, intermittently, she learned snippets of Mandarin in small groups with other adopted Chinese girls or with a tutor. In our small New Jersey town, we are fortunate that Mandarin is offered in middle school. Rachel now studies Chinese language and culture in public school and it’s our hope and expectation that she will continue with Mandarin through twelfth grade.

Renata adores her Chinese dance classes, held at the local Chinese weekend school that rents space in our town’s high school. And, in our mostly Caucasian community we have found several Chinese-American high school girls to baby-sit for us. Our daughters have a great time with the high school girls and we think the babysitters are comforting role models who provide ethnic similarity that we can’t give our children.

A trip to Chinatown in New York City lands us in a big restaurant filled with multigenerational Chinese families enjoying huge dinners. We jump right in and have a grand time with the food and ambience. Our daughters coo about the adorable babies we see–making lots of eye contact with the little ones. The food, particularly the noodles and specially prepared rice, is delicious comfort food.

Although with two Caucasian parents we are different from the Chinese families at the restaurant, I feel we blend in with the crowd. After all, this is New York City, but many cities across the nation have similar demographics.

At Christmastime our traditions are both Christian and Jewish. Along with our beautiful hanukkiahs (menorahs) we also have a tree which the girls decorate with their Catholic father. He loves sharing the ritual of buying a fresh tree and decorating it on Christmas Eve. We celebrate Christmas Day with my husband’s family: exchanging lots of presents and sitting down to a huge meal of Italian holiday dishes.

Israel is a place I’ve yet to visit, but Rachel and I talk of making the trip around the time of her Bat Mitzvah, in about two years. More immediate is our plan to bring our daughters to China for a homeland visit with the hope that it will help them feel grounded in their birth culture. A visit to Kaifeng, the ancient Jewish settlement, is part of our touring plan.

Are we grafting Judaism onto our Chinese daughters? I suppose you could say so, but what are the alternatives? To raise them Catholic? With no religion? Seek out Buddhism or Taoism? After many years and endless discussion we decided to raise our first daughter as a Jew. As my husband once said, “You don’t shop for a religion.”

Will our daughters be practicing Jews when they reach adulthood? My crystal ball is murky, but I’d say we have as much chance as any Jewish family.

I didn’t marry under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) but one day, maybe, I will have the knachas (joy) of being the mother of a Jewish bride.

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