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Adoption and Anti-Semitism

April 21, 2014
by Janet Ruth Falon Parent-and-baby-feetThe families referred to us as “those people.” My husband and I were about to adopt a newborn boy, but the extended family of the biological father convinced him to keep the baby, in part, we learned, because we’re Jews. They grilled us at a very tense meeting in a Chinese restaurant. When my husband Cary and I explained that our Bible is the Old Testament, and their Bible includes both the Old and New Testaments, the birthmother’s mother — who’s proud of being Born Again — said, “So does that mean that Judaism is a branch of Christianity?” And when she wanted to know if we believe in Jesus, we told her we accept that he was a spiritual man who once lived on earth but that we don’t believe that Jesus was God’s son or that he was the Messiah. Our explanation was met with silence as wide as a Bible Belt cornfield. The extended family was distressed that the baby, if we raised him as a Jew, would be left behind on the ravaged planet earth at the time of The Rapture, when all good Christians will ascend en masse into heaven and only heathens — including Jews — will remain behind. But here’s the kicker: The teen-aged birthmother, who didn’t mind our religion from the get-go and was eager for the adoption to go smoothly, told the hospital to let us make any important decision, such as whether the baby should receive certain immunizations. (We arrived in the birthparents’ home town, half-way across America, three hours after the baby was born.) So one of the doctors asked if we wanted to circumcise the baby, and we declined, knowing we were going to have a bris when we brought our son home. Later, once the deal had fallen apart, we heard that the birthfather’s mother and her kin gave as an example of our strangeness that we hadn’t even circumcised the baby. This must be the first time in the history of Jewish-Christian relations that Jews have been faulted for not circumcising a newborn boy. Luckily, once it was clear that there might be a problem, we never took the baby back to our hotel. I’m glad I never gave him a bath, burped him, fed him, or watched him sleep. I’m glad, once we knew this might fall through, that I didn’t call him by the name — my late father’s name — Cary and I had chosen. I didn’t want to take care of this baby, let alone fall in love with him, until I knew it was safe. (By the way, Cary and I didn’t use the word “birthfather” to describe the young man, who was 18; he was going to have his second child a few months later, the mother being another young woman. We referred to him as “the inseminator.” We heard that his family was proud of his virility.) My guess is that the families of both young people didn’t know that the head of the adoption agency we worked with was a lesbian (although the agency was based in Northampton, Massachusetts, a progressive college town with a reputation for acceptance of difference.) I’m assuming that the families’ intolerance of Jews was part of a package that included other differences such as sexual preference, race, etc., as is usually the case. Cary and I had anticipated that our religion might be a concern out here in a small town in the Midwest, and had discussed the Jewish issue with the agency director (who was a Jew, as well as a lesbian). We weren’t going to lie about who we were if asked directly, but we weren’t going to volunteer that observing Judaism in our own creative but committed way is an important part of our household. I figured we could always use the word “spiritual” to describe ourselves, an all-encompassing word that doesn’t commit to anything specific. Still, the birthparents’ families were devastated by the news that we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas. How could we rob our child of Santa Claus? Of trimming a tree? Of Jesus? This is just a sampling of the anti-Semitism we encountered in the American heartland, in John Ashcroft’s hometown, which you might imagine to be an exemplar of “family values” — and if what we experienced is the fallout from “family values,” then I’m more certain than ever that what I think of as my “family value,” and these family values, don’t jive. This was a small city with a Wal-Mart, a surprising number of sushi restaurants, and one synagogue, dwindled down from several, where, when we showed up for Friday night services, many of the friendly congregants flocked to us, hoping that we’d relocated, eager to increase their community by two. Cary and I experienced overt anti-Semitism directly during this adoption fiasco, but this does not include the unspoken animosity and the bundle of assumptions based on an almost certain absence of fact. I sniffed this out like the beginning of a fire, and it stuck with me and compelled me, whenever we met with any of the baby’s family, to turn over my Star of David medallion so that I’d be wearing a neutral, less identifiable symbol. Anti-Semitism was not the only reason why this adoption fell through; the biological grandparents’ desire to raise this baby was another, as was the fact that the birthparents, who hadn’t been romantically involved since a few months into the pregnancy, were young; also, this was the families’ first grandchild, and Cary and I were both in our late forties at that time. But anti-Semitism was an easy “out,” something tangible to grasp, a hook to hang their hats on (which were much more likely to be John Deere caps than black fedoras). So Cary and I didn’t get the baby. It’s funny: In their desire to make sense of this aborted adoption, my husband’s parents wondered if maybe Cary’s beard — his lovely full, rabbinical beard — had been a turn-off to the baby’s extended family, who were predisposed against Jews anyway. I think his parents are wrong, that we could have looked like Hitler’s little blondies and it wouldn’t have mattered much, not as long as we were Jewish and we were going to raise our child as a Jew. If the cake had already gone bad, it didn’t matter that the icing didn’t look perfect, either. All this was new to me; lucky me, I was an innocent. I grew up in New York City, where Jews and non-Jews are familiar with each other and many of each other’s traditions. I went to college in Boston, at a university with a large Jewish population. And I live in a town that has enough Jews to support a kosher bakery; I can practically smell the sweet-wheaty odor of challah in the air on Friday afternoons. If anti-Semitism has ever caused someone to judge me or kept me from achieving something, I haven’t picked up on it. So anti-Semitism catches me off-guard. I just don’t expect it, and I hadn’t anticipated how I’d respond if I was ever its victim. Until we lost the little boy who was going to be our son. Something gave way inside me, broke open. Here’s what I wanted to scream to the Springfield, Missouri, families, on both sides: YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH ME BECAUSE I’M A JEW? WELL, I’M REALLY GOING TO BE A JEW, THEN, RIGHT IN YOUR FRIGGING FACE. I imagine myself stepping closer as I spit out each of these words until I’m right in front of them, closer than they’re comfortable with. I imagine myself red-faced, contorted, my voice coming from God knows where, my Jewish star necklace splintering the sunlight, and thin shards of glass slashing their eyes. Update: The events described here happened twelve years ago. (Emotionally, I couldn’t have written about it at that time.) Cary and I are the happy parents of a wonderful 11-year-old daughter, whom we adopted from China two years after the Missouri catastrophe. Because most Chinese babies are abandoned — left in public places such as train stations or stores to be found by other people — the birthparents’ preferences are not an issue. Cary and I still marvel that we had the ability to bounce back and try again after all that we went through. You can understand why we chose our daughter’s name: Hope. Janet Ruth Falon has been published in the New York Times and many other publications, and is the author of The Jewish Journaling Book, published by Jewish Lights in 2004. She teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania.