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.

Keeping One Foot in Each World

In the three-and-a-half years since I’ve started this blog, I’ve written about issues from the Chinese, American, and Jewish perspective, but I’ve never yet written about what it’s like to be Chinese in a Jewish community.  I didn’t feel ready, since identity is an ever-changing phenomenon, but an article in this past Friday’s New York Timeson a summer camp for Jews of color as well as its on-going series on race in America, made me stop to reflect on my experiences.

While I’ve heard of incidences of prejudice both overt—  a family not wanting their daughter marrying into a family with a giyoret (female convert) or a Kallah teacher abusing a young bride with non-Jewish parents— and subtle, I’ve been incredibly fortunate.  Maybe, it’s because I am of Chinese heritage–  one generally regarded positively by the Jewish community— or that I was already an educated adult who could choose my own community and establish a network of friends.  One cherished comment came from one of my oldest friends in the Jewish world, who told me that it would be alright with her even if I didn’t go through with the conversion process (as the Orthodox bet din is more strict than others).  (As I’ve written earlier, I have a personal mission to eradicate the term, “Chinese auction,” but its usage stems not from outright racism, but rather from the insularity of some Jewish communities.)

Another important fact is that to the Orthodox, the only badge of membership that matters is one’s observance of the mitzvot (commandments).  A secular Jew might have other means of identification, including having Jewish grandparents, or sillier ones like understanding the kind of blended Yiddish (Yinglish) spoken by most American Jews.  The journalist, Samuel Freedman, wrote: “As the largest group of Jewish immigrants to the United States, those from Eastern Europe have set the cultural tone since the early 1900’s.  Their folkways— bagels, Yiddish, New Deal politics, Borsht Belt jokes—became a virtual religion.  Which meant that nobody from outside could ever get completely inside.”  Fortunately for me, my religion is Yahadut (Judaism), not cultural folkways.  Besides, I love the subtle spiciness of Sephardic cuisine over Ashkenazic gefilte fish and brisket, which I don’t eat anyway because I’m a vegetarian.

The children attending Camp Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) felt marginalized in their home communities.  For a while, I’d worried about how my children fared, in cultivating both of their dual heritages.  Recently, I was startled to learn that my college-graduate daughter does not think of herself as “white,” being as she’s been raised by Chinese and Jewish parents.   On the college campus, she experienced more quizzical looks and inquiries into her ancestry:  Mexican?  Filipina?  Puerto Rican?  She was more than pleased by the country having its first mixed-race President.  My conviction is that the only heritages that matter are the ones that you honor by your values and the customs you maintain.

So, just as the first wave of Korean adoptive children benefitted from the Korean culture camps created by their white American parents— this tradition is continued today amongst the Chinese adoptees— maybe these Jews of color do need a camp of their very own.  Maybe one day, they too will feel comfortable negotiating the dualities of their life.  The Torah has 70 faces, teaches my Rabbi, so no one Jew has to feel or do exactly as the next.  As the world gets smaller with world travel and Internet communication, a Jew should feel comfortable within her own skin.  We too can feel as if we’d stood at the foot of Har Sinai where Moshe delivered the Ten Commandments.