Better Off Than You Would Have Been: Feminist Legacies for Transnational Adoptive Families in the Jewish Community
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Better Off Than You Would Have Been:
Feminist Legacies for Transnational Adoptive Families in the Jewish Community

My mother, Helen Radin, a first-generation American from a family of European Jews (many of whom died in the Holocaust), moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. When her husband left—leaving half the furniture, the daughter they had adopted together, and no money in the bank—my mother did not stop dreaming, fighting, or living. She continued to establish herself as a documentary film producer and adopted me as her second daughter in 1976. A talented and inspiring woman, she ran a film company and raised two daughters with admirable balance. By adopting me, she became a pioneer on a journey that many Jews are now embracing, especially Jewish feminists.

My mother was one of the first women in the Jewish community to adopt interracially and internationally. Developments partly stimulated by feminists within and outside the Jewish community have made transracial and transnational adoption one of the preferred options for couples who can't conceive, homosexual parents, and single women who courageously refuse to give up on the dream of having children because they haven't found the right partner yet. International adoption has emerged as a major method of family formation: [End Page 143] Almost 7,000 immigrant visas for orphans from China alone were issued in 2003.1 Within the Jewish community, one need only walk around predominantly Jewish areas such as the Upper West Side or Park Slope in Brooklyn to see the prevalence of transnational adoption.

Increasingly, because of my involvement in the Reform and Conservative movements and my status as an adult adoptee, I have become involved with Jewish families who have adopted transnationally and/or interracially. For many of them, two aspects of Jewish feminism—the explosion of ritual innovation it has inspired and its critique of racism—are having a critical influence on their path as adoptive parents. They are asking crucial questions about an array of adoption-related Jewish rituals, and they are examining racial dynamics in the U.S. and the psychology of racial identity within families and society.Jewish feminists and other Jews want to know how their choice to adopt interracially impacts their families and individual identities as Jews. These questions fascinate me in the context of my background in sociology, my career as a public high school teacher, and my own experiences as a transnational adoptee raised in a Jewish family.

Gender, Race, and Duality in Jewish Identity

In many ways, transnational adoption is challenging the typically Ashkenazi Jewish communities in the U.S. in a way that parallels how women have challenged Judaism within the Reform and Conservative movements. For me, growing up in an all-women family, these gender transformations were a part of everyday life. At the same time, the disparity between my outer ethnic appearance and my inner culture and background has been both a source of struggle and a blessed gift in my life.

I think I was always aware of "looking different" in synagogue, and at times I felt uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Judaism played a crucial role in my socio-political development. After my Bat Mitzvah, I stayed involved Jewishly and became the president of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement in New York City, with a membership of over 200 high school pupils. The values of tzedakah and tikkun olam that I learned in the Reform Jewish context blended with my mother's own social activism to engender a deep sense of social justice within me. Like Barry Kanpol, a teacher who has written that his Jewish identity is intertwined with his pedagogy, I was fascinated by "stories of [End Page 144] escape, justice, freedom, martyrdom and commitment to a 'promised land.'_"2 These traditions, coupled with my mother's independence and commitment to humanity, helped guide the choices I have made in my life.

The summer before my senior year in high school, I went to Israel through the Bronfman Youth Fellowship program, which brings together teenagers of all Jewish denominations to learn and travel together. My experience that summer was twofold. As I...