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.

Saying Farewell

Today I walked into my neighborhood Catholic Church to attend the funeral mass of a family with multiple points of connection with my own.  The only other time I’d attended a mass was during college with my Irish girlfriend, but this was a vastly different affair from that low-key service in a non-denominational chapel.  This was a service with an organ, both male and female soloists, and incense, which caused some non-Catholics to cough but I was fine because I had been responsible for lighting the incense for the family altar as a girl.  All this was in a devotional space with stained glass windows, a vaulted ceiling, and numerous statuaries.  The combination of organ music, superb vocals, and fine acoustics is spine-thrillingly exquisite.

An unusual aspect of this funeral was the decision of the deceased to be cremated, so a simple wooden box with her ashes was on display, but which I was not cognizant until the recessional in which the son carried out her box of ashes.  After a few weeks at home, her ashes will be buried in Valley Forge to join other members of her family, which dates from the American Revolution.

This was a funeral in which the only personal reference to the deceased was that she was the only girl in a family with six sons and that she sang.  There were no eulogies, with her husband reading two selections from the New Testament.  There was a partaking of the Communion wafer in which the grieving husband and son and ready members of the Catholic community participated  (some accepted this by mouth from the Monsignor’s hand, others accepted it in cupped hands).  Afterwards, the family lead a procession to their nearby home, where refreshments were offered to the visitors.

This was so different from the Jewish funeral and shivah rituals as well as the Buddhist funeral I’d attended for my grandmother.  Jews love to talk, so their eulogies can be lengthy and emotional, but everyone gets to hear details from the deceased’s life.  I guess Catholics focus on the afterlife, not the life on Earth.  Buddhist funerals are also relatively quiet, with silent rituals expected from the male children and grandchildren.

The grieving process is very detailed and prescribed for observant Jews.  For a period of a week, they neither work nor serve themselves, letting members of the community tend to them and show loving compassion.  I’m told that the shivah period is crucial for coming to grips with the death; a friend reported  that her non-observant siblings did not cope as well as she did, attributing her resilience to her observance of shivah.  Then for the next 11 months, a mourner recites Kaddish, the tefillah (prayer) of words of praise for God, and not a reminder of the human loss.  I’ve read that this focuses the mourner to the life here, one that may be bereft of a loved one but that we’re still here by the grace of God.

After my grandmother’s funeral, I asked my Rabbi if I may recite Kaddish for my parents when they die (as I’m a convert to Judaism).  He said yes, but he asked if there was another way to honor my parents, who would be bewildered by a ritual foreign to them.  This reminded me that funerals and mourning rituals are as much for the mourners as for the deceased.  Since then I’ve told my husband that upon my death, he and our girls may mourn me as they wish and dispose of my treasures as they see fit.  Our diverse religious customs help us manage our grief and steer us to life anew.

Charity on Demand

The headline, “Buffet and Gates Prod India’s Wealthy to be More Philanthropic,” in this past Friday’s New York Times got me thinking about societal differences in compassion and charity.  The reason for my interest is personal (as always).  Back in the fall, I was honored by HIAS for my volunteer work with refugees and I was introduced by the Executive Director as a convert to Orthodox Judaism.  Then last week, I spoke at a HIAS meeting and it came up again.  I bristled somewhat and thought that my religion does not define me or my work.  So, why am I the way I am?

The Chinese Buddhist world view is one of acceptance.  Social status and quality of life is pre-determined.  People do give alms, as the monks are totally reliant on daily offerings.  However, there isn’t a tradition of social services—  the reason the Chinese have historically favored boys is that sons serve as social security in one’s old age—or of philanthropy.  From the NYTimes article, it seems India does not either.

What about the American values?  Carol Adelman of the Hudson Institute has lead research on the generosity of the American people which is far more impressive than that of their government.  According to the latest estimates, Americans privately give at least $34 billion overseas, more than twice the U.S. official foreign aid of $15 billion []

The economist Arthur Brooks has identified four predictors of charity: religion, skepticism about the government in economic life, work, and strong families.  [You could read the full arguments in his 2006 book, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why it Matters.]  He found a strong causal link between faith and charitable giving.  Note: religious liberals give as much as do religious conservatives, but they are fewer than one-third in number as compared to religious conservatives in the United States.

So, I come to my third heritage: the Jewish faith.  Jews are commanded to observe the mitzvah (religious legal commandment) of tzedakah ( righteousness or justice but usually translated as charity) more carefully than for any other positive mitzvah.  According to the Jewish sage, Maimonides, there are eight levels of tzedakah, with the greatest being giving a person a gift, a loan, a partnership, or a job, so he can be self-sustaining (and give tzedakah of his own).

Traditional Jews practice ma’aser kesafim, tithing 10% of their income.  There are other forms of tzedakah required during specific times of the year (Purim and Pesach) and milestones in life (by the bridal couple at their wedding).  My favorites are the laws of tzedakah tied to the land, such as peah (the corners of the field are left for the poor, the needy, and the stranger), leket (dropped grain is left in the fields as gleanings for the poor) and shikchah (forgotten sheaves of grain are left for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger).  By the way, the commandment to not oppress the stranger in our midst is mentioned 36 times in the Chumash, Jewish Bible, a fact much beloved at HIAS.

This analysis has brought me to the conclusion that my faith is the guiding motivation for all that I do for HIAS.  While my Chinese heritage has instilled in me a strong work ethic— I proudly admit to being a Tiger Mom— it is the Jewish faith that compels me to my engrossing work with my refugees.


A Hyphenated Identity

Schoolchildren of the early 19thcentury were punished for speaking any language other than English. We’ve come a long way in our tolerance of differences. (My mother-in-law says that someone who speaks English with an accent knows at least one other language, a dig at the monolingual Americans.) We’ve changed our perspective in cultural assimilation and the iconic image is no longer of the melting pot, but the salad bowl, in which the ingredients are separate and distinct.

A running series in the New York Times on racial identity in America highlights the growing comfort that young Americans have in declaring a multiracial background. According to the Pew Research Center, one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities. The latest installment in the series looked at how different institutions tally these racial data. In contrast, I’ll ask the question from the other end: what does it mean to the person when she identifies herself as being of “Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee” descent (a college student in the 2/10/2011 article). How does she honor each of these heritages?

My Rabbi said in passing in class this week that the fancy new Jewish museum in Philadelphia is very good at depicting how successful Jews have become in America, but it fails at telling how Jews in America are Jewish. A critic from the New York Times asked at the time of its opening, if this country needed another monument touting the success of Jews (which is better, I say, than another monument about the death of Jews). So, my friend asked me, are there any U.S. museums that does what my Rabbi thinks the one in Philly should? Well, the Yeshiva University Museum puts on exhibits that highlight aspects of Jewish history, but it’s an institution that’s not well-known outside of the Orthodox Jewish community.

At least once a year, I love to visit the Museum of the Chinese in America (MoCA) in a tenement building re-designed by Maya Lin, the Chinese-American architect who established her reputation while still at Yale with her design of the Vietnam War Memorial. It has an extensive permanent display of notable Chinese-Americans, with more details and more personages than in any other setting or book. There are other informative displays from American history, which are unsettling because of the prejudice the Chinese have faced. There is also a replica of the historical Chinese store, which once served as a community center for its compatriots. The current traveling exhibit is on Chinese puzzles—tangrams, linked rings, sliding block puzzles, and Burr puzzles (see The museum succeeds in educating visitors regardless of their background. The books available for purchase in the gift shop are of particular value to me, as these titles are not promoted in the mainstream media.

The difference between MoCA and the National Museum of American Jewish History— or rather the difference between what the latter museum is and what it could be– may lie in the difference between ethnicity and religion. The donors and board of trustees of the Jewish Museum chose to depict Jewishness as a cultural trait. My Rabbi defines Jewishness as Yahadut, a religion. Ergo, it’s a difficult balance to reach out to a wider audience. My husband noted that the donor list of MoCA included corporate and government sponsors, who were comfortable with the idea of a cultural museum about the Chinese. Similarly, it seems the sponsors of the new Jewish museum wanted to tell the cultural story of the Jews in America.

Finally, what is the difference between a Jewish American and an American Jew? It lies in the value the person places on the relative labels. Someone who declares herself an American Jew says that being Jewish is more transcendent than being American. And such as person identifies as a religious Jew. So, the National Museum of American Jewish History needs to live up to its chosen name. It needs to also educate the public about the religious history of Jews in America.