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Friday, May 11, 2007

Chinese Jews

Here's a joke from the excellent 1988 movie The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick: A Rabbi travels to Beijing, and finds himself wandering the streets on Friday night, thinking about his faith. Suddenly he hears chanting in the distance. He can't believe it--he's hearing the shema, a core prayer of Judaism. He follows the sound for blocks and comes to some steps leading down into a basement, where a few dozen Chinese men and women are crammed together, dressed in talit and kippot and singing prayers. He opens the door and introduces himself, mentioning that he's a rabbi; and one man says to him, "You're a rabbi? Funny--you don't look Jewish!"

This joke notwithstanding, Max Glick predated a surprising trend among American Jews: families, often middle-aged single women, adopting baby girls from China.

From the NY Times earlier this year:
Fu Qian, renamed Cecelia Nealon-Shapiro at 3 months, was one of the first Chinese children — most of them girls — taken in by American families after China opened its doors to international adoption in the early 1990s. Now, at 13, she is one of the first to complete the rite of passage into Jewish womanhood known as bat mitzvah.
“I knew that when I came to this age I was going to have to do it, so it was sort of natural,” she said a few days before the ceremony at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a Reform synagogue on West 83rd Street where she has been a familiar face since her days in the Little Twos program. Besides, she said with a shrug, “Most of my Chinese friends are Jewish.”
Cece was born on Jan. 29, 1994, in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China. She was abandoned to an orphanage because of China’s one-child rule, and adopted by a lesbian couple, Mary Nealon and Vivian Shapiro. (The couple later adopted another Chinese girl, Gabie, now 5.) Cece has been drawing double-takes for a while, like when she used to ride on Ms. Shapiro’s lap on a packed crosstown bus and would burst into the Passover standard “Dayenu.”
Cece laid her scroll on the bimah and read in Hebrew, in a loud, clear voice, from Chapter 21 of Exodus, a compendium of commandments on the treatment of servants and slaves.

Then she moved to her English speech.

“This long journey to becoming a bat mitzvah today has provided me with so many ways of learning,” she said. “The part that will always stay closest to me is the importance of caring for strangers. Just like Jews were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we have all been, or will be strangers at some point in our lives.”
Alan Dershowitz and others have publicly worried that with the decline of anti-Semitism in America, and the draw of emigration to Israel, Jews here no longer have a reason not to assimilate. Maybe we'll find that Judaism does continue, but in ways we didn't predict.

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