Religion and culture in an interfaith, transracial family

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Dawn Friedman

We are a transracial family. My husband, my son and myself are white. Our daughter is African-American and joined our family through an open, domestic adoption three years ago. Both my kids are being raised in my Jewish faith in that their formal religious education is happening at our synagogue. They are also being raised less formally with some understanding of Christianity because their father is a Christian. Because it’s easier for me to talk about my beliefs than it is for their dad to talk about his, when my 10-year old son asks big questions I answer from a Jewish perspective, as I understand it.

We’re not so great at the trappings of either of our religions. Judaism — even Reform — has a lot of trappings and this is one of several reasons that our kids are at temple instead of at church. It’s pretty easy to embrace Christianity — you just become Christian. But Judaism has a lot of formal rites that can be confusing and off-putting and to learn them now will make it easier for them to live Jewish later, if they choose to.

That’s our immediate family: non-denominational, liberal Christian and very Reform Jew. Our extended families are everything from Christian Scientist to Atheist to Catholic to Pagan. My kids have some exposure to all of that but their faith teachings spring from my Judaism and Brett’s Christianity.

Now to explain why I feel that it’s more important that our daughter Madison have exposure to Christianity than it is for our son:

1. Her birth family is French-Catholic. Her grandparents met in Catholic high school (Her birth mom, Jessica, has a French last name that’s very common in New Orleans). Madison’s history on both her maternal and her paternal grandparent’s side is Creole way, way back. She should have a cultural understanding of that because it’s a rich part of her birth heritage.

2. Also her birth family, even when they don’t practice Catholicism does practice Christianity. It’s a huge part of their lives and the emails and things we get from them reflect this. She needs to understand this so she has a shared language or at the very least understands their point of view. (Also as an aside, her adoption into a Jewish-identifying family was a concern for some of her first family and we’ve made a point of letting them know that they don’t need to censor their faith with us.)

3. Likewise, Christianity is a very important part of the African American community at large. “Church clothes,” gospel music, biblical teachings — they are important cultural touchstones. Madison is going to miss out on a lot of cultural touchstones by virtue of growing up in our white family and I can’t try to replicate them for her. What I can do is offer her an understanding of them by actively seeking out members of the community who are willing to educate her about them.

I don’t think that Madison has a “true” religion that I can ferret out by looking at the color of her skin or her family tree. I certainly don’t have the hubris to enter into the debate happening in the black community about the relevance of Christianity — what do I know? I’m a white Jew! I’m not talking about faith; I’m talking about the cultural experience of religion.

We’re all for formal and informal multicultural religious education and the informal part is, to me, about addressing the immediacy of a shared cultural experience. This is also why I haven’t gone out of my way to expose my children to Buddhists — we don’t know any. (We know some people who are casually interested in Buddhism but no one who is a practicing Buddhist.) Likewise, in my need-to-happen-more forays into local African American community, I’m seeing a default to Christianity. Several black people have also explicitly told me that I need to expose Madison to Christianity

A woman wrote me awhile back about being a Jewish woman with a child from Guatemala and she said that her son’s birth religion is Catholic but she can’t teach him Catholicism because she’s Jewish. I understand the dilemma — but I’m NOT talking about raising our children in their birth faith. I’m talking about giving our children an understanding of their birth culture.

Here’s something of an example — one reason I think people assume I’m Christian is that I understand some Christian language. I understand what “the world” means. I understand what it means when someone says, “I was convicted on that.” Recently a guy I met at a networking event assumed I was Christian after he used some of that language and I didn’t ask him what he meant. I realize that by knowing his language, he was able to more comfortably (and surely unconsciously) make an assumption about me. I was welcome in a discussion we went on to have that I might not have been otherwise. I want Madison to grok the language.

It goes back to an old post I wrote about American-Family and math camp. To be Chinese, her Chinese husband quite clearly says, means to go to math camp. So should all white parents of adopted Chinese children sign up for math camp? Well, maybe. If math camp has the opportunity to be a shared touchstone that will make it easier for said child to enter into his/her birth community, then math camp has way more importance than just, you know, math camp. It’s a cultural experience that can give a child options.

There are black kids at our synagogue (not many but they’re there). The difference between them and Madison is that they all have at least one black parent. Those children may have to struggle to define what their blackness means to them (or what other people’s assumptions about their blackness means to them) but it will be a different struggle than Madison’s and I think I need to be more proactive than those other parents need to be.

I don’t want to dictate Madison’s experience by telling her that there is one more legitimate way to be black than another (that it is more legitimate to be Christian or Muslim or to embrace the example of Ethiopian Jews). Her experience as a child of African American heritage is legitimate because she is legitimate. BUT I do want her to know what the world at large is talking about. Even if she never has a chummy time in someone’s kitchen getting her hair done, she needs to know that lots of other black women do and that sometimes people will look at her skin and think she shares an experience that she doesn’t. I don’t want her to be broadsided by this — I want her to be prepared, at the very least to be prepared to know that she doesn’t know things but also where to find out. I want her to feel comfortable finding out. Having some shared language will, I know, make her search easier.

The reason I know how painful it is to be ignorant of things that feel like they should have been a birth right is that I’m a second generation interfaith Jew who converted at 30-something. It’s hard sometimes to participate in temple activities and I can’t help but wish my parents had given me an idea of what was going on even if they didn’t want to teach me the faith of Judaism. (It’s a relief to be able to talk about grandmother’s hamantaschen even though I didn’t even know that’s what they were until I went to my first Purim celebration as an adult.) Sometimes I don’t mind being ignorant but lots of times I want to (irony alert) pass as a regular old Jew. Sometimes Madison will want to be able to blend in, too, and I will do my best to open doors so she can craft her own identity instead of being stuck with the one we’re foisting on her.

What Madison’s faith will be is entirely up to her — she may end up feeling strong ties to her French-Catholic ancestry, or her adoptive dad’s mom’s Christian Science history, or she may say to heck with all that and become a Scientologist. Being a second-generation interfaith family, I feel that religion has way more to do with following your heart than with following familial dictates. But I also know that sometimes we look for — and find — truth by following our roots. Madison has a lot of roots. She has those that came to her by adoption, she has those that come from her first family and she has those that are part of the shared history of African Americans.

It’s easy for me to share my faith and to share my family’s faith (including her dad’s family) but it will take special effort on my part to share the religious culture that she lost by being adopted. I want her to have access, should she choose to exercise it.

I’m not sure what that will look like but I imagine I will follow the lead of our local (i.e, Columbus) African American community and seeing where it leads us. Also it comes from studying black history, reading books with black protagonists, and yes, from reading Essence. (I don’t subscribe anymore but I did and I learned a lot — about hair and about religion to start.)

Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of OpenAdoptionSupport.com and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.

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