From China to Chaim

Chinese-adopted Jews blend identities

Eliana Norton (right) and her sister Naomi were brought into a unique minority when they were adopted from China into a Jewish family.

Courtesy of Eliana Norton

Eliana Norton (right) and her sister Naomi were brought into a unique minority when they were adopted from China into a Jewish family.

The stifled room in the temple suddenly becomes quiet, and a deep yet puncturing voice bellows, “Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu,” calling the temple to prayer. A young girl in a simple blue dress and draped with a traditional shawl, or tallit, comes up to the bimah, the podium where she will read from the Torah and tell of her journey.

This scene is not uncommon. Across the country, thousands of Jewish boys and girls spend months agonizing over their bar and bat mitzvahs. The Jewish rite of passage, which celebrates the transition into adulthood at age 12, is practiced by almost all Jews.

Eighth grader Eliana Norton’s experience, though, was different.

Like everyone else, she spent weeks studying her Torah portions. She struggled to master the words of Hebrew songs and worked to develop a strong, booming voice that wouldn’t shake as much when it came time to perform in front of all her friends and family. She studied Jewish history and wrote her own creative piece that applied Jewish beliefs.

But Eliana had more to think about: would she wear a standard, modest dress, or would she pick out a traditional Chinese outfit? How would she incorporate her heritage into her celebration, if at all?

Born in Guangzhou, China in 2003, 9-month-old Eliana was adopted from an orphanage by Lynne and Neil Norton. The Nortons practice Reconstructionist Judaism. At her renaming ceremony, a tradition for adopted Jews, her named changed from Zihui P’an to Eliana, which means “my God has answered me.”

Eliana recognizes the uniqueness of her heritage.

“You could say my situation’s not the most normal,” Eliana said. “To be adopted into Judaism, especially from China, isn’t really common.”

While no statistics are kept on the number of Chinese children adopted by Jewish families, overall, there were about 1,300 Chinese children adopted into American families from 1991 to 1994, another 17,000 in the second half of the ’90s, and 54,000 since then, according to the State Department.

In fact, Eliana and her younger sister, 10-year-old Naomi, are the only Asians in their youth group. They don’t mind, though.

“We actually kind of like being different from everyone,” Eliana said. “It just makes my experience in class and in temple feel more meaningful because I know I came a long way to get where I am now. That’s something that sets me apart.”

Decatur alumna Anna Marianchuck, also adopted from China into a Jewish family, shares Eliana’s sentiment.

“When I was growing up, there were definitely times when I wasn’t sure who I was or which part of me was more authentic,” Marianchuck said. “As I progressed through high school and became more involved with my religion, that started to fade, but it’s always been there.”

For her, reassurance came the first time she sang along to a song at synagogue. The Rabbi began singing a traditional Zemirot, or Jewish hymn, called “Adon Olam.” Marianchuck joined in and instantly loved it.

“Right away, I knew I was in a great community,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be a part of it, and I wanted it to be a part of me.”

Chinese-adopted Jews InfographicInfographic by Ellie Ritter. All graphics courtesy of Creative Commons and labelled for noncommercial reuse.

 

The first time they took their daughter to a Shabbat, or Sabbath, service, Neil and Lynne were worried about how Eliana would be received. Although their temple, Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH), is a self-proclaimed progressive synagogue, Neil and Lynne weren’t sure how the process of introducing an adopted, Asian baby would play out.

“Our temple is super accepting and diverse, but we still didn’t know what people would think,” Neil said. “We’re lucky to have such an open, caring group of people – and they really do accept everyone – but we were a bit worried about how it would go and [what] Eliana herself would think.”

She loved it. That night, Neil said, Eliana asked him “billions of questions” about the history of Judaism.

“Even when she was young, she was very interested in her religion,” Neil said. “It made me proud and made me excited for her.”

When Eliana’s parents began planning her bat mitzvah, they asked her how she wanted to incorporate her heritage – if at all.

“I thought she would want for us to completely ignore it,” Neil said. “She usually doesn’t think about it – not in a way that ignores it, but she just doesn’t care. She told us she wanted her mother and I to do whatever we wanted with talking about it, which surprised me.”

And they did talk about it. At her bat mitzvah, both Lynne and Neil spoke about their relationship with Eliana and the journey she had toward adulthood. In their speeches, they both discussed her adoption and her road from China to the United States.

A teary-eyed Lynne recounted a traditional Chinese proverb about an invisible “red string of fate” that ties together two people who are destined to be together. For her and Eliana, she said, the red string would always serve as a connection. It would also always hold Eliana close to her home country.

Through preparing for her bat mitzvah, Eliana learned about herself and her culture – both the Chinese and Jewish parts.

“I always kind of wanted to find a harmony between Judaism and being Chinese,” Eliana said. “It’s a weird cultural mix, but it makes me who I am. I don’t want to forget either part of who I am.”

In order to prepare, she had to study and learn the in-depth history of certain portions of the Torah. While doing this, she found links between Jewish and Chinese cultures.

For her bat mitzvah, Eliana wrote a d’var, or an essay based on a Torah portion. She focused on the concept that “small changes can lead to greater outcomes.” In her essay, she discussed the Hebrew biblical story of Rebecca and “the camel test,” in which Rebecca offers water to thirsty camels as an act of kindness.

She also talked about finding a new chaim, or life, in America – a life she was “destined” to have.

“Her motivation to give generously reminded me of how I’ve been received in America,” Eliana said. “People have always shown kindness and acceptance toward me, so I wanted to reflect that in my d’var.”

Other people in her synagogue appreciate the way Eliana blends her cultures.

“I saw early on in her classes that Eliana was able to bring together the two different parts of her personality,” Rabbi Joshua Lesser, who led Eliana’s bat mitzvah classes and celebration, said.

In Lesser’s eyes, Eliana has always fit in with the community perfectly.

“She and her sister are a part of the CBH family,” he said. “They do stand out, but not because they’re Chinese or adopted. It’s because they’re both their own unique person. She is like us through her religion, and she blends in perfectly, but she sets herself apart as well.”

Of the 613 laws in the Torah, one of the most well-known is the direct welcome to strangers. Eliana came to the United States as an outsider. Now, she has been welcomed and found her home.