When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.
In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.
As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.
I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.
Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”
Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties
4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.
Beatrice W. Hudson, known to me as Be Be, was my great-grandmother. She was one of the strongest, and most caring people I have ever met. Born May 10, 1918 in Suffolk, Virginia, she was the oldest of 13, and played a major part in raising her many siblings. Being a Black woman in the racially divided South presented many obstacles. Everyday, the Black minority experienced segregation and daily oppression by the White majority, yet my great-grandmother never strayed from her religion. She attended church every Sunday, celebrated every holiday, and said a prayer before going to bed each night.
Growing up as a bi-racial Jew, I struggle(d) with my identity on a daily basis. I was raised in a predominantly white town, and attended a Jewish day school and synagogue with little diversity. “Are you Jewish,” and “what are you?” were questions I was asked far too often. People’s doubts and confusion about my religious identity made it hard to feel accepted in the Jewish community. Knowing that my great-grandmother was able to live through times where being Black resulted in beatings and deaths, yet still maintain such strong religious beliefs inspired me to be proud of my Jewish heritage. Though the puzzled glares and questions still persist, my doubts have been extinguished. Judaism is an important part of who I am, and my great-grandmother understood and respected that. She knew who I was: her great-grandson.
Though we were of different faiths, she attended almost every religious event I was part of. In fact, the picture we took on my Bar Mitzvah became one of her favorites. Every time I came to visit, there it was on the table, housed in a beautiful frame. She would often tell people amusedly, “look at my handsome husband,” and smile. At the time, I was outwardly abashed hearing this so often, but internally, I was happy to have gotten this title. I could truly be myself around her; she loved me unconditionally. She was so proud to be my great-grandmother. She was Christian, I was Jewish, but we were family.
As her age began to take its toll, she struggled to remember who I was. On my final visit with her, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand for about an hour. She liked when people held her hand. Though the TV was playing in the background, she still wanted to make conversation. She would fluctuate between thinking I was Michael, or another family member. From time to time she would have me remind her who I was, and where she was. Interestingly, she was never startled when she didn’t recognize me. She still saw me as a member of her family. She often asked how are we were related. When I explained the connection, the expression on her face was like that of a child being presented with a trip to Disneyworld. She was so happy she was a great-grandmother and that she had, “such a good looking family.” It was very hard for me when my great-grandmother did not know who I was. The woman to whom I felt so connected, who loved and accepted me unconditionally, who would inspired me, did not know me for me. Yet, there was comfort in knowing that she sensed a familiarity with me. I was her great grandson, her husband, her brother, her cousin…her family, her future.
Some people want to find the nearest fresh fruit and veggie stand. Other people seek out good, fast take-out Chinese. When my family showed up in New York City—a white woman, an African American man, and two biracial children—we went shul shopping.
I was looking for diversity, though fully aware that most American Jews are white. Most of us are, like me, Ashkenazi, immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Yet according to Be’chol Lashon’s numbers, about 20% of Jews in America are non-White or non-Ashkenazi. Less than ten percent of American People of the Book are non-white (which is actually more than I’d thought before I looked it up). Some are historically Jewish, other joined the Jewish people from international adoptions, and there is a small but growing group of biracial marriages and mixed-race children.
So I tried to temper my expectations. After all, this may have been NYC, but it was still the USA. And, in fact, we saw diversity in terms of congregation size, clothing fashion, and number of women wrapped in talitot, but we were pretty much looking at white faces.
We decided, instead, to seek out a friendly environment and were busy on Friday nights, checking out services at Reform and Conservative synagogues.
We had thought Reform was our best bet, but it was actually a Conservative synagogue where the rabbi hopped down off the bimah while the cantor was leading a prayer, to say hello. He was very friendly and very genuine and made us feel right at home, if a little singled out. We introduced each other and he promised to chat during the oneg, which we did.
OK, this was a place where we might integrate the congregation but at least we felt welcomed. There was a smattering of diversity; I was sure I saw an Asian face.
When we signed up for Hebrew School, though, it turned out that we had hit the jackpot. Maya would be in the third grade class with a bunch of boys, which was her preference at that stage. But, somehow, Ari entered a preschool Hebrew class with four other children: one with two black parents, one from a single-mother-by-choice family, and another with an Asian mother. And one plain old double-Caucasian girl.
The older generations at the synagogue were all white, but Ari’s class gave us hope that the future would be more colorful and that our children wouldn’t be alone in ushering in that changing demographic. Maybe when they go shul shopping they won’t need to look so hard.
“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.
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Sukkot appears to be one holiday in which the Moroccan and Ashkenazic customs and rituals are fairly similar. We both use the lulav and etrog and we both build a sukkah. I imagine that the sukkah building materials might have differed in Morocco than the materials my family used in London, England and before that in Russia and Poland.
One thing that do I know was different was the temperature outside when sitting or sleeping in the sukkah. My husband, Motti, is not sure about whether families slept in their sukkot during the holiday back in Morocco though the average temperatures in Casablanca during the months of September and October range from 66 – 73 degrees Fahrenheit (I checked!) so it does seem possible. He does, however, remember once sleeping in the sukkah as a kid in Beersheva, but it did not seem to be a family tradition.
My paternal great grandfather, on the other hand, did sleep in the sukkah and had an ingenious way of dealing with the London rain. He had a retractable roof which he used when the weather was not cooperating. Apparently he always slept outside during the holiday which is remarkable when you consider the rain and the chilly temperatures (55-61 Fahrenheit on average – yeah I checked that out too!).
Here is New Jersey, we do not sleep outside, but we do have an annual gathering in our sukkah on the second day of Sukkot in which we tend to play, “Can we outdo ourselves again this year?” Perhaps I’m a little insane, but I have kept track of my guests and menus for all Jewish holidays, plus Thanksgiving, for about the last 12 years or so. Subsequently, although my friends may not recall what was for dessert on Sukkot 2012 or 2013, I know and often don’t want to repeat myself so soon.
At the same time our guests have also developed a fondness for certain dishes such as Motti’s vegetable soup (a self-created item that technically is always changing!) and his myriad of Moroccan/Israeli salads including, but certainly not limited to, roasted peppers and various eggplant dishes. Our friends look forward to our Sukkot lunch and can name certain favorites that they hope will top the menu this year. I too have made some dishes along the way which are also enjoyed by our guests including Moroccan fish and baklava, the latter perhaps not so Moroccan, but passed along to me by my Tunisian sister-in-law Shosh and made by other family members. Please take note that it is not as difficult to make as you think as long as you are not planning to make the filo dough yourself.
This year we are bringing out a few of the old time favorites and trying some new dishes. We will see what works and what if anything makes its way into the Benisty top ten. In the meantime, I recommend trying the roasted peppers and baklava when you get the chance. You won’t regret it!
8 pepper of varying colors
Juice from ½ a lemon
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1) Grill the peppers until soft. This can be done on an outdoor grill, over an open gas flame or under the broiler. Make sure the skins are blackened all over.
2) Place the peppers in a paper bag while warm and close. Leave to cool to aid in peeling. Then peel skins off the peppers so that no skins are left.
3) Peel the blackened skins off the peppers and slice the peppers into ½ inch strips.
4) Mix the peppers with the lemon juice, olive oil, sliced garlic and salt.
5) Refrigerate any leftovers.
Note that this dish will keep for several days.
Baklava appears as a favorite dish through the Middle East. Filo dough one of its essential ingredients can be found in many grocery stores and specialty markets but be sure to check the date to assure buying fresh products.
1 package filo dough (20 sheets) return any left over sheets to the freezer
2 sticks margarine, melted
1 pound chopped walnuts
½ cup sugar
4-5 ounces of honey
1) Defrost filo sheets/leaves as per the instructions on the box.
2) Grease an oblong pan or baking sheet
3) Brush half the leaves (ten) completely with the margarine one at a time on one side only. Arrange them one on top of the other in the pan.
4) Mix together walnuts, sugar and cinnamon
5) Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the prepared filo sheets.
6) Repeat step three with the rest of the filo sheets.
7) Freeze for one hour.
8) Remove from freezer and cut completely through dough making diagonal lines in both directions so that little diamond shapes are formed throughout the dough.
9) Bake in a 400 degree oven for about a half hour, but check after 20 minutes to make sure that the dough does not begin to burn.
10) Remove from oven and pour the honey over the diagonal cuts in the pastry. Let honey absorb, cool and serve.
Celebrating Sukkot on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, as I did as a child, was fraught with complications. Evening temperatures often necessitated hats and heaters and our hot soup cooled before it had a chance to warm our insides. But the thrill of the holiday, the opportunity to sit out on nights it did not rain, under the green and the stars made it worthwhile. We lived in a middle-sized city with a small Jewish population but on our block there were two other families who sat in Sukkot. Our differing approaches to religion meant that we rarely shared meals but sitting out in the back yard we could hear each other repeat the same blessings and sing the same tunes and with that, our community felt expansive, our medley of practice seamless, and being Jewish was perfect.
That expansive safe inclusive feeling is essential to Sukkot. The holiday, which follows the hopefulness of Rosh Hashanah and the solemnity Yom Kippur, has us sitting in huts for seven days of ‘our joy,’ as our tradition calls this holiday. Sitting in Sukkot is supposed to remind us of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Though the people of Israel complained pretty much non-stop during the trek, it was in many ways a pretty wonderful time. Despite living in temporary dwellings, throughout, they were guided by God’s presence; they were provided with ample food and drink in a dry, sparse dessert landscape. Outsiders attacked them but God assured their safety. And those who wandered in the wilderness knew God through miracles and revelation. Temporary and rough though it might have been, in many ways it was a time of joy and possibility like no other. Jews of many tribes lived together in peace, they had deep sense of the holy in their midst and their basic needs were more than adequately take care of. Being Jewish was perfect.
As the celebration of Sukkot nears, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a perfect Jewish space—even if only a temporary one. For my daughter that place has been summer camp. For my son, it is his school fall retreat. I’ve been blessed over the years to have many temporary Jewish spaces that capture the expansive, inclusive, joyful feeling that Sukkot is meant to inspire but one that has gained particular meaning for me in the last few years is the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp.
Every fall, Be’chol Lashon organizes a weekend of Jewish learning, living and sharing in the rolling hills just north of San Francisco. Like the Sukkot singing of my childhood, the diversity of this community helps me experience the Jewish world as inclusive and accepting. There are people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, family configurations. Some people come alone, others come with several generations in tow. There are many different kinds of religious Jews and secular Jews too. The scholars-in-residence have ranged over the years from Indian-American artist Siona Benjamin, to chef and Afro-culinary historian Michael Twitty, to this year’s Rabbi Gershom Sizomu from Uganda. This range embodies my belief that there are many ways to be a Jewish leader and help me to see the full vibrancy of modern Jewish life. Black, Asian, Latino and white Jews share meals having serious conversations about race as well as fun and silly discussions about pop culture. It is a safe space and one in which Jewish life is inclusive, expansive and vibrant. And though it is temporary, like Sukkot, the retreat gives me hope and inspires me for the complexities of daily Jewish life.
Literally and figuratively Sukkot are essential for Jewish life. We all need oases where we feel the pure joy of being Jewish in an accepting, inclusive safe environment. Just as the holiday of Sukkot gives us hope during the somber High Holy days, having a Jewish space that lives up to your vision of Jewish community—even if temporary—can fuel the fullness of Jewish life at other times. Creating or finding that space, can be as challenging as wandering in the dessert or sitting in a Sukkah with a space heater, but making the effort is definitely worth your while.
From black-eyed pea hummus spiked with homemade horseradish harissa to matzoh-meal fried chicken cooked in shmaltz, to peach noodle kugels touched with garam masala, Afro-Ashkefardi is my way of cooking Jewish. While some of my DNA goes back to old Jewish genes, I converted to Judaism in 2002. For 14 years I’ve been working on creating a working Jewish identity grounded in my love of being African American and the African Diaspora melded with my love and appreciation for the Jewish people, my other Jewish family. Around my table, only kashrut fences me in. On my plates there are no limits!
Front and center is sorghum. I love sorghum, it’s a gluten-free grain that can be crushed to produce a sweet syrup that doesn’t crystallize. Domesticated in Africa thousands of years ago, it was once grown across the South and Midwest as a cheap sweetening agent. Today in the new Southern cooking based on local ingredients and traditional flavors, sorghum has made a comeback.
In honor of Rosh Hashanah and in hopes for a sweet year to come, I offer these geshmakht sorghum chicken wings, so good your Ima, Umi, or Mameleh will have to run for cover (to avoid the obligatory mama-smacking). As I begin writing my forthcoming food and family memoir, The Cooking Gene, I hope for more discoveries linking my table with the past and stories to share that will inspire us all to nourish our stomachs and family trees.
Wishing you all a Shanah Tovah U’mitukah, a sweet New Year and a tasty one too!
5 pounds chicken wings, separated at the joints into drummettes and flats, (wing tips reserved for other use such as soup)
1 tablespoon kosher powdered chicken broth or bullion
2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 clove of minced garlic
2 tablespoons of minced onion—yellow or red
1 tablespoon of vegetable or canola oil
¼ cup of water seasoned with 1 ½ teaspoons of powdered kosher chicken broth
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons of prepared chrain or red horseradish
¼ cup of sorghum molasses
In a large bowl, season the chicken wings with the broth powder, oil and black pepper, tossing to coat well. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line two baking sheets with 1-inch sides with aluminum foil. Place cooking racks on foiled sheets and spread chicken and roast for 45 minutes.
While the wings are baking, in a medium pot, saute the garlic and onion in the oil. Add the broth-water, vinegar, chrain and sorghum molasses. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer, stirring frequently for about 7-10 minutes or until the sauce reduces significantly or coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat, and allow it to thicken for 20 minutes. Remove the roasted wings from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.
Place the roasted wings in a large metal or ceramic bowl. Drizzle half the prepared sauce over the wings, reserving the other half for dipping, and stir several times to coat well. Place the wings on a new set of racks with and allow them to glaze in the oven for another 15 minutes.
Ladino first cast its magic spell on me in childhood. It always struck me as a graceful, rolling language, one of emotion and longing, filled with desire. It was a secret language that my mother spoke with her mother, my grandmother, of blessed memory. My grandmother immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria, arriving as Ladino-speaking Tanya and eventually becoming Hebrew-speaking Shoshana. But when my mother and grandmother wanted to speak without us girls understanding, they spoke Ladino. And so Ladino took root for me as the language of women.
In 2004 I founded the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble, which appears around the world with a rich and fascinating program of Sephardic music. Sephardic musical culture has been preserved for hundreds of years. Ladino songs originated in the 9th-13th centuries, when Jewish life flourished in Spain. It continued to develop after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. And it is this music that inspires me and my ensemble.
As a professional, delving into magical musical materials preserved in Ladino, I discovered that the preservation of this tradition by women was not unique to my family. When the Jews were expelled from Spain and spread across Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, etc., it was the men who worked outside the home, mingling with the locals and the language of the place. By contrast women rarely left their homes, did not integrate into the local population and continued to exclusively or dominantly speak Ladino. Women continued to create songs and melodies in Ladino expressing their feelings, difficulties, joys and grief. The vast majority of Ladino songs are songs “feminine;” wedding songs, lullabies, love songs, etc. Through women, the language has been preserved as it was spoken centuries ago.
One of the historic Jewish centers in Spain was in Cordoba. Moses Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of all time, was born there circa 1135. But he left, as Muslim rule made Jewish life difficult. Later Christians ruled the city and in the 15th century the Jews of Cordoba were expelled or forced to convert along with their fellow co-religionists. So it was particularly meaningful when the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble was invited by the City of Cordoba to appear in the 13th International Sephardic Jewish Music Festival in Spain.
We arrived in Cordoba late at night. Our group of passionate Israeli musicians includes Gilad Ephrat on double bass, Idan Toledano on guitar and oud, the violinist Chen Shenhar and myself singing the vocals. We woke in the morning and set out to discover this warm, sleepy town. We went to the Old City in search of the statue of Maimonides. We had heard about the blessing and good fortune that befalls those who touch the feet of the statue and pay tribute to the great scholar. A short tour of the alleys of Cordoba’s Old City taught us that the current vibrancy of the modern municipality is tied to the ancient culture and heritage left by our ancestors when they were expelled. It was amazing to see intense tourist activity in the Old City. The statue of Maimonides is a focal point of an attractive tourist center. The municipality of Cordoba has already embarked on an extensive public relations campaign and refurbishment of the Jewish synagogue to be completed in 2015 on the 700th anniversary of its founding.
The International Sephardic Festival which takes place every year in June is one of the city’s main music events. For the last 13 years, Spain has hosted musicians from around the world. This year, the beautiful botanical gardens were the site for six days of performances from Spain, Poland, Portugal and Israel. After visiting the Old City and the dark, horrifying museum of the Holy Inquisition, we headed towards the botanical gardens where the festival was to be held. There was a wine tasting workshop, followed by the opening act of the festival. The transition to the pastoral calm of the setting and the beautiful music was jarring, but we had come for a short visit to a city with a glorious but troubled past and it could not have been otherwise.
My daughter is wise beyond her years. She teaches me. Recently a family with older children handed down to us a plastic toy kitchen set. My 15-month-old was delighted. As she happily played, I “Facetimed” my parents so they could join me in watching her fun. However as soon as Bubie and Zada’s faces appeared on the iPhone screen, my daughter lost all interest in her toys. She had eyes only for the grandparents she loves and engaged them in a rousing game of peek-a-boo.
Watching Eliyana’s developmental leaps is wonderful. Just yesterday she was grabbing the iPad and looking behind it for the people. Today she understood she could interact with the people on the screen, that she could initiate play with them. I learned too. I learned that she values relationship far more than “things.”
When my husband and I first arrived in Ethiopia to meet our beautiful child, I was appalled by the starkness of her orphanage. There were no colors to brighten the walls. There were less than half a dozen toys, and no books. Our daughter was happy and thriving, perhaps because of her inner strength and love of life, perhaps because the nannies there carried the babies in their arms as much as possible. The gifts of board books and games I brought on my second trip were received politely but with puzzlement. “Of what use could these possibly be to a baby?” I read on the faces of the nannies.
When we brought our daughter home, we filled it with love, toys, and many many books. We made the rounds of doctors, each marveling at Eliyana’s sociability and her easy smile. “This child has been loved” they each said to us. We would discuss this concern or worry and the doctors would repeat “She has received love and attention. That is the most important ingredient to her development.” We settled into becoming a family and Eliyana thrived.
Many of my fellow Ethiopian adoption parents tell me their children did beautifully in daycare, having been socialized to being around other children and waiting their turn already in the orphanage. My daughter was miserable. No one would play with her. At first I wondered if there was racism involved. Finally I realized it was culture. The room was filled to the brim with every kind of wonderful toy and the expectation was that the children would play independently with the toys. My child wanted relationship but was instead offered Western materialism. With help and support I came to understand I was allowed to listen to the needs my daughter was broadcasting loudly for me on all frequencies. She wanted people, not things. We found a way to provide this while I work. Happiness has been restored.
Martin Buber wrote, counter to the psychology of his time, that identity begins in relationship, not in individuality. In Ethiopia, this was understood. I wonder now at my Western arrogance, my shock at an Ethiopian orphanage’s lack of toys and books. Here in the West, where we have everything, we have much to learn about what is important. I am learning every day.
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It is true that every family is different, but for multiracial families that difference can bring with it specific challenges. Married to an African American, Russian born Alina Adams struggles with how her family looks to others and the implications.
Less than a year ago, two blond children in Ireland were taken from their Roma parents because the police decided they didn’t look related, even though legal documents, including passports, were produced. Meanwhile, the same thing happened to a blond girl in Greece. Even though her DNA didn’t match anything on record in the Missing Child database, and even though her biological mother was found and insisted she had voluntarily left her daughter with a Roma couple, the State decided that little Maria should not be returned to her foster parents, but placed in an orphanage, instead.
I followed both cases closely because, in our house, my three kids are darker than I am, but lighter than my African-American husband…Continue reading