Jewish parents of nonwhite children nurture multiple identities
These families face issues that are largely absent from more traditional Jewish families, like celebrating different cultures and finding peer groups with similar backgrounds.
In 1983, the Jim Henson Company produced a television special called “Big Bird in China.” Based on the television series “Sesame Street,” the show featured Big Bird and his friends traveling to China to find the Phoenix bird. The show was distributed on video in 1987.
In 1996, Nancy Maclachlan began working really hard to find a copy of that tape. She wanted her daughter, Sarah, who was just shy of 2 years old, to watch it.
When she finally found it and played it for Sarah, everything changed.
“I will never forget that moment,” said Maclachlan, who lives in Upper St. Clair and is a member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. “Sarah was watching the show, then turned to me and cupped her hands under my chin and stared into my eyes, and I knew that she knew she was different from me.”
Maclachlan and her husband, Rob, adopted Sarah from China when she was just 5 months old. About two years later, they returned to China to adopt their second child, Melody.
As a Jewish family raising nonwhite children from a different country, the Maclachlans, like many other families in Pittsburgh, juggle multiple identities. These families face issues that are largely absent among more traditional Jewish families, such as celebrating different cultures and finding peer groups for their children with similar backgrounds.
After moving from Phoenix to Pittsburgh when Sarah was a toddler, the Maclachlans began decorating their home with Chinese art and objects and enrolled Sarah at a Chinese school, where she learned Mandarin.
“She made Chinese friends, which was very important,” Maclachlan said. “She couldn’t just keep being the ‘other.’”
Sarah took Chinese dance. The family talked about the Chinese holidays “and celebrated them on some level,” Maclachlan said. “Some we couldn’t because we don’t believe in all the gods, but I told her about them.”
At the same time, the family celebrated its Judaism. The girls (now 22 and 24) attended Beth El’s religious school and celebrated their bat mitzvahs at the congregation. They have both a strong Chinese and a strong Jewish identity, Maclachlan said.
Still, that Sarah is different did not go unnoticed by her public school classmates.
“When she was in high school, kids would laugh sometimes and say, ‘You’re not just Chinese, you’re a Chinese Jew.’ They didn’t mean it in a bad way, and Sarah laughed too. She was just so different from the norm at Upper St. Clair High School. She didn’t care, but it was noted.”
Immersing adopted children in the culture of their countries of origin is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Frayda Cohen, an anthropologist and senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied foreign adoption.
“It used to be based on the assimilation model,” she said, noting the onslaught of Korean adoptions in the 1980s with that era’s emphasis on the “melting pot.”
“As Korean adoptees grew up, the pretending they were the same as white kids was not really sufficient,” Cohen said.
In contemporary adoptions, different people have different ways of addressing the child’s need to be connected to their country of origin. That need is there even among white adoptees from foreign countries who do not appear visibly different in racial appearance from their adopted family, according to Cohen.
About 16 years ago, Cohen, while living in China and doing research, adopted a daughter, who she is raising to appreciate her Chinese heritage as well as to be a proud Jew.
The mother and daughter speak some Chinese in the house and “make a big deal about Chinese New Year and the holidays,” Cohen said.
At the same time, Cohen and her daughter regularly attend services at Beth Shalom Congregation, to enforce their Jewish identity.
Cohen did not, however, opt to send her daughter to Jewish day school.
“One reason was that I knew she would be an outlier,” Cohen said. Instead, Cohen enrolled her at Colfax Elementary, “where there were a couple other kids adopted from Asia. There was also a diversity of family forms, people like us, different kinds of families (Cohen is a single parent).”
While her daughter receives an occasional comment about her dual identity at CAPA, where she now attends high school, “nothing has been too harsh,” Cohen said, adding that their family has been warmly embraced by the Beth Shalom community.
For Joy Katz and Rob Handel, the Vietnamese heritage of their son Chance belongs to them as well.
“We don’t see Chance’s biological ethnicity as only ‘his,’” said Katz. “Rob and I are a part of Vietnamese history now, a part of Vietnam, as Chance is part of American history, a part of the U.S. So, our efforts to offer him Vietnamese culture are also efforts to engage with it ourselves.”
That is not to say their “efforts, or the meaning of them, is the same,” Katz stressed. “Only that we are all in this family, these places, together.”
Katz and Handel adopted Chance when he was about 3 months old. At the time, they lived in New York City and knew many other families that had adopted children from Asia and Southeast Asia, so they knew they “wouldn’t be alone.”
Then they moved to Pittsburgh.
“It’s different in Pittsburgh,” Katz said. “There is racial diversity, but not as much so. We have had to be more intentional about the friends we make. We have to be super thoughtful about how we do race, and that’s OK too.”
Katz and Handel have always been open with their son about his adoption, looking at photos and talking about Vietnam. They have retained close ties with the other families who adopted children from Vietnam when they did, and each summer they attend a Vietnamese camp in Massachusetts.
But they are also planning for Chance to attend Camp Be’chol Lashon, a multicultural Jewish overnight camp in the San Francisco Bay Area for campers from all over the United States. The camp aims to teach about global Jewish diversity, while building community leaders and inspiring a love of Judaism, according to its website.
“I love that it’s a camp for Jewish kids of color,” Katz said. “It will be great for Chance to be around kids like himself, other kids of color and other Asian kids. We are very excited there are resources like this that do this work for our family.”
Chance’s family “deliberately seeks out welcoming communities,” Katz said, adding that they decided not to enroll Chance at a local Jewish day school once they heard the school had been marketing to other families about its diversity, using Chance as an example.
“They were bragging about us and we hadn’t even enrolled,” Katz said. “That turned us off. We didn’t want to be their example.”
Chance now goes to the Waldorf School, where there is a lot of socioeconomic diversity and a lot of adopted children, according to Katz. There are not, however, a lot of Jewish children there.
“I have high hopes for Camp Be’chol Lashon,” she said. “If he makes friends there, we will be able to stay in touch with them.”
For Ilana and Dan Schwarcz, reinforcing their son David’s Mexican ancestry also is a priority.
“It’s very important to us that David (who is 7 and a first-grader at Community Day School) understands and honors his ethnicity,” Ilana Schwarcz wrote in an email. “We keep a strong relationship with his birth family — writing emails, sending pictures, holiday and birthday presents, etc. We know that someday David will want to meet them, and we want this relationship to be as strong and respectful as possible.”
The Schwarczes have located Mexico on the map together, eat Mexican foods, look at Mexican art and discuss their son’s birth heritage in general.
“I think one of our jobs in life is to be a bridge,” Schwarcz said. “Davey has the opportunity to be a bridge between Hispanic and non-Hispanic people, Jews and non-Jews, between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jews. I hope that he uses this opportunity to increase understanding and peace between different people.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at