Growing up Jewish & Chinese in an Interfaith Family

From time to time I ask people to – in their own words – speak about how being part of an interfaith family has impacted them. This piece is by Daniel Citron, a young man who has thought deeply about his identity as a Jew.

My name is Daniel Tamor Liu Citron – my name reflects both my father’s Ashkenazi Jewish background (Daniel Tamor Citron) and my mother’s Chinese background (Liu). Growing up, I attended religious school and Jewish youth group twice a week for twelve years, including a Bar Mitzvah after I turned 13. At home, we would celebrate the major (Reform) Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Channukah, Pesach) as well as say blessings for Shabbat on Friday evenings. My mother is Christian, but as a family we never went to church or learned much about what it meant to be Christian. We had candy on Easter and a tree on Christmas.

Currently, as I live now, I do not actively practice Judaism, save for attending Yom Kippur services. Some of the reason for this is that my personal interests have drifted from religion to science – I went to college intending to learn about early Christianity, and ended up studying physics and economics instead. Another major reason is that I personally am very conflicted over my own Jewish identity. On the one hand, Reform Judaism does not feel Jewish enough, but on the other hand it is the only denomination that is liberal enough to accept me despite the fact that my mother is not Jewish.

When I first got to college, I met, for the first time, Jewish students who came from families that were far less assimilated than my own. I grew up in a household that barely knew the correct blessings to say over Channukah candles, let alone the minute details of Kosher laws or annual observances of lesser holidays. It was uncomfortable to be corrected on the rules for being Jewish. It was especially unpleasant to be told, after twelve years of Jewish education, that nothing really mattered except whether my mother was Jewish. Not feeling particularly welcome, I found my interests drifting away from practicing Judaism.

I have also encountered resistance from other Jewish people because I do not “look” Jewish. Even in Israel, where you can find immigrant Jews from Russia, Iraq, and Ethiopia, my outward appearance was so foreign and exotic that many Israelis insisted that I was from China. I tried explaining that I could be both American and Chinese, but that idea was as strange to them as someone being both American and Jewish. Of course, growing up Reform in the Bay Area, there were lots of multiracial Jews in my community – it never occurred to me that this would be so out of the ordinary to other Jewish people.

After traveling briefly in Cairo, I was taken aside and questioned at length by the IDF who could not seem to understand why it was that this man with a Hebrew first name and an Ashkenazi last name did not appear to be European. Finally, after many minutes of awkward questions about where I was “from” (“America”), I told the guards that my mother’s family was from China. There was a moment of epiphany, and one of the guards gestured at her face and said, “that explains this then.”

At the same time, I have found that when I do want to actively practice Judaism, I much prefer less modern modes of worship. After I left college, I spent five months living in Israel and became much more familiar with the rituals of traditional Judaism. That year I spent Yom Kippur fasting and praying in Orthodox synagogues in Jerusalem. I felt an incredible connection to such an ancient tradition that survives today. I continued to attend services throughout the High Holy Days, and discovered that even though I did not understand everything that was going on I much preferred traditional services to Reform services. Having liturgy printed exclusively in Hebrew helped me feel more connected to the long tradition of Judaism. Today, when I go to services, I try and go to Conservative services. When I go to Reform services, with all of the pews nailed down in rows and everyone singing together in English, it feels more like being in church than it does like being in a synagogue.

Overall, I have been trying to figure out for myself how important it is for me to actively pursue belonging to a Jewish community if that community has difficulty coming to terms with welcoming someone who looks different and had a modern, assimilated, American upbringing rather than a traditional Jewish education. At the same time, the form of Judaism that really speaks to me most strongly, with traditions, rituals, and language so far removed from modern American culture, is one that does not welcome me as a member. It’s a strange place to be in.