On Being An Alien

By Hannah Lee 

            Animal species adapted to protect itself from the unknown: it’s always Us or the Other.  So, animals explore with their world warily with long-range vision, acute hearing, and a fine sense of taste (e.g., toxic substances taste bitter).  Human beings have devised more sophisticated ways to assess the foreign, the unfamiliar.  The rare pioneers are the ones who journey to a new land, try a new food, or welcome strangers.  I get that.

           In a recent issue of the New York Times [10/11/2016] on the front page, an editor wrote about a disagreeable incident when a woman yelled at his family, from the safety of her car, to “go back to China.”  Yes, Michael Luo is Chinese-born; he graduated from Harvard and probably speaks and writes English better than the provocateur. He leads a team of reporters focused on investigations and long-form narratives. In 2016, his reporters were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in three categories: investigative reporting, local reporting and feature writing. Luo posted an open letter on the Times’s website and it sparked a tremendous outpouring of responses, mostly from Asian-Americans with their own stories of racial prejudice, both overt and subtle.  As a Chinese-American immigrant from Hong Kong, I, too, have my stories. 

           People fear that this country is changing, but the ship has already left the port: among today’s young people, nearly one-half are members of racial minorities [New Republic, 11/2014].  The world is a large place and we cannot keep our borders closed— not from people, not from technology or ideas, not from viruses or pathogens.  All but the Native Americans are immigrants to this new land.

            I approach the world with curiosity and wonder.  Whenever I travel by taxi, I look at the name tags, and I ask if the driver was born abroad.  If so, I ask what they like about America, their favorite foods, and if there’s a restaurant that serves their cuisine.  It’s fun and I broaden my knowledge of other cultures, other peoples.   At my work, I routinely ask people with unusual names, what is their ethnicity? Sometimes, I’m rebuffed, but often times, it leads to a small conversation about themselves.

            Each year, Jews are reminded to remember that they were once strangers in a strange land, in the Hagadah reading on Passover [Exodus 23:9].   (Actually, to be a Jew is to be a stranger, writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.)  It seems that Americans, all of foreign ancestry, need to keep in focus the poem of Emma Lazarus (inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty) to develop the empathy for the foreigner:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Until we are all free, we are none of us free.






A Balanced Life, Redux

By Hannah Lee 

Now that we’ve passed another Day of Judgment, we can ask ourselves what are we going to do with the life that we’ve been granted?  Do we live up to our values, our ideals?  Since my teens, I’ve been passionate about worldly causes, but the challenge has always been a delicate balance.

The PJVoice publisher alerted me to an offer by national HIAS of a new poster for Sukkot, one that acknowledges that today, 65 million refugees and displaced people still wander the earth in search of a safe place to call home.  The poster features photos and narratives of five refugees, including the four-year-old Syrian boy, Rawan.   I ‘ve been torn about adding secular issues to the Jewish holidays.  I recall that AJWS offered their version of the Four Children to the Pesach seder: the Activist Child; the Skeptical Child, the Indifferent Child; and the Uninformed Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask.   I never did use them.

Liberal Jews would say that our highest goal is tikkun olam (repair the world).   The goal of Torah-observant Jews, my Rabbi reminds me, is to become closer to God, HaShem.  So, what is a socially-conscious Jew to do? After all, we’re taught that the Prophet Isaiah blasted the Israelites for empty piety, which is the Haftorah selection for Yom Kippur morning.

I’ve encountered this kind of dilemma before: a friend who frets over using too many candles for Chanukah– her family minhag (custom) is to light a separate chanukiyah for every member of the household– or keeping lights on for Shabbat or  the Chagim (holy days).  I’ve long chafed at the masculine tone of our tefillot (prayers) and the absence of women in the Orthodox liturgy.  How to juggle our different values?

My Rabbi taught me that we don’t mix the holy with the secular, as important as social justice is.  This is because passionate people can become zealots, touting their value over all other ones.  Haven’t we met feminists who bash all men?  Animal rights activists who destroy private property to proclaim their superior stance?

With age, I’ve learned to temper my social justice/feminist/environmentalist zeal.  No longer do I tell my dinner companions that their food is of animal carcasses (as I did once in college, but it was an actual carcass on their coffee table).  I daven in an Orthodox shul, but I visit my in-laws for Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, so I can participate with women reading from and dancing with the Torah in a shul that lists itself as “open Orthodox”.  I keep lights on for Shabbat and the Chagim (the ones not on a timer), but I am comforted by carbon footprint trade-off of not driving or using electronics.  Finally, I will not use a poster for Sukkot that publicizes the plight of refugees, although I will continue to work for the re-settlement of refugees.  (Our family sukkah reflects my dual heritages, featuring Chinese lanterns.)

May the Jewish year 5777 be one of good tidings and good deeds, in a delicate balance of the sacred (timelessness) and the contemporary.

Chai, a Lifetime of Refugee Work

By Hannah Lee

     While social media fixates on the latest outrage over an iconic photo of a child washed ashore, Judi Bernstein-Baker has put in 18 years at the helm of an organization that has been assisting refugees for 134 years.  She led a small staff, funded by Jewish Federation to resettle Jews from Eastern Europe, and grew it into a multilingual, groundbreaking institution.  “Before, we helped Jewish refugees.  Now, we help refugees because we’re Jewish,” Judi proudly declared at the farewell luncheon on Wednesday.  True to her passion for her work, she declined a gala event in favor of the annual luncheon honoring many others for their work. 

     During her tenure, HIAS PA (formerly Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) has served over 36,000 refugees from over 100 countries.  In 2002, it established the Asylee Outreach Project, which remains the only program of its kind in Pennsylvania.  It expanded its Immigrant Youth Advocacy Initiative in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America, some as young as two.  It is part of the Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience to assist survivors of torture and the Victims of Interpersonal Violence Initiative to promote healing and self-reliance for victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other violent crimes.

      Among the people honored at the event were Michael Matza for his courageous coverage of migration issues at the Inquirer and Helen Gym, Councilwoman at Large, for her passionate championship of the segments of the population who are marginalized from skilled care and public resources.  It concluded with remarks by Cathryn Miller-Wilson, the incoming Executive Director.

     How did Judi come by her passion?  According to long-time board member, Adele Lipton, it was in Judi’s genes.  Both of their mothers came as young girls, at age 14 and 15, from Poland, arriving on steerage.  They were both greeted by HIAS.  They were both told repeatedly by their mothers, that if it were not for HIAS, they would not be alive now.

     In 1939, quoted Judi from HIAS archives, two-thirds of Americans wanted no more refugees, including the 10,000 children awaiting visas from Eastern Europe.  Now, we have governors and presidential candidates who want to close our borders.  Last month, HIAS PA resettled 53 refugees.  It is a world that is worse off for many people, with 60 million people displaced from their homes. 


A Shavuot Story: My Chinese Jewish Journey

This article was written for publication in the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Bereishith Newsletter.

By Hannah Lee

The Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, narrates the beautiful story of Judaism’s most famous convert. For me, Shavuot seems a most opportune time to recall my own conversion.

It has taken almost 32 years for me to fully merge my Jewish and Chinese heritages, and the final key to doing so was tai qi (a Chinese martial art practiced for its defense training and its health benefits).  This year was the first Chinese Lunar New Year during which I did not fret over my identity, and this Rosh HaShana (5776) was the first time I used the skills learned from my tai qi teacher to pray with mindful meditation.  Using tai qi, I can daven (pray) with better kavanah (spiritual awareness) than ever before. My Rabbi was stunned by the connection.

Born in Hong Kong, I came to the United States with my family in March 1967, after President Johnson expanded the immigration law.  I entered school with a rudimentary knowledge of English. My mother, in the presence of a translator, asked for more challenging academic work when she spied my third-grade class playing checkers.  Her intervention resulted in my being transferred to a class where I had to write weekly reports on current events.  I graduated from P.S. 1 as one of two students admitted to Hunter High School, where my classmate was current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.  From Hunter, I proceeded to Brown University, where I met my future husband, and later studied Epidemiology at Columbia and N.Y.U.

My Jewish journey began in the Chinatown library, where my brother and I developed a fascination with Bible stories for children.  The Buddhist faith of our parents did not engage us, perhaps because there weren’t any religious texts for children. Our fascination led us on unexpected paths.  My brother has since become an evangelical Christian, I am an Orthodox Jew, while our sister remains agnostic.  Our parents were not perturbed by my brother’s choice, because Asians are tolerant of other faiths (not “my way or the highway”). The Torah’s fences, however, did cause more difficulty for them, but we work together to overcome those small hurdles.

Early on in my path toward Judaism, my Scottish-Irish college roommate asked how I could take such a monumental step as changing my religion.  I told her that it was like  mountain climbing: you don’t look down, you focus on the summit. With G-d’s help, I made it to that summit. And, while it has not always been easy over the years, on the whole, I am still tickled by how the frum (religious) community has accepted me.

What I did find challenging, however, was maintaining my Chinese heritage.  My daughters learned Hebrew in day school, but I was concerned how they could stay connected to the Chinese community?  Shopping frequently in Chinatown was my way to hear and speak Cantonese.  I cook Chinese food for Shabbat dinner, I fry falafel in my wok, and our sukkah sports Chinese lanterns.  But there was still a missing piece that I felt most intensely on the Chinese Lunar New Year.

The constant struggle to balance my Chinese heritage and the Jewish life I have taken upon myself suddenly became more achievable when I started studying tai qi last spring  It has taught me how to still my mind and focus on the qi gong movements. I now think of it as a moving meditation.

Learning tai qi has had a surprising and unexpected benefit. I finally was able to bring my two identities together. Last Rosh Hashana, when I found myself sitting more mindfully in shul, I realized then that I had finally merged my two selves.  I am a Chinese American Jew, energized by the wisdom of both of my heritages.

On Shavuot, I celebrate the fact that my Jewish Chinese neshama (soul) was on Sinai along with all Jewish souls, past, present and future.