Of the 613 laws in the Torah, the one that appears most often is the directive to welcome strangers. The girl once known as Fu Qian has been thinking about that a lot lately.
Three weeks ago, she stood at the altar of her synagogue on the Upper West Side and gave a speech about it.
Fu Qian, renamed Cecelia Nealon-Shapiro at 3 months, was one of the first Chinese children — most of them girls — taken in by American families after China opened its doors to international adoption in the early 1990s. Now, at 13, she is one of the first to complete the rite of passage into Jewish womanhood known as bat mitzvah.
There are plenty of American Jews, of course, who do not “look Jewish.” [see my joke at the end] ...But seldom is the juxtaposition of homeland and new home, of faith and background, so stark. And nothing brings out the contrasts like a bat mitzvah, as formal a declaration of identity as any 13-year-old can be called upon to make. The contradictions show up in ways both playful — yin-and-yang yarmulkes, kiddush cups disguised as papier-mâché dragons, kosher lo mein and veal ribs at the buffet — and profound.
...While no statistics are kept on the number of Chinese children adopted by Jewish families, over all, 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 44,000 since then, according to the State Department.
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“This long journey to becoming a bat mitzvah today has provided me with so many ways of learning,” she said. “The part that will always stay closest to me is the importance of caring for strangers. Just like Jews were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we have all been, or will be strangers at some point in our lives.”
Cece finished, touched the fringe of her shawl to the Torah and kissed it. She returned to her throne and sat down, cheeks red, looking exhausted and relieved.
That night — the eve of the Chinese year of the pig, as fate would have it — Cece and her guests reconvened at the Faculty House at Columbia University. The outer room was set up like a casino, with Cece-backed playing cards and Cece-faced play money. Inside, the music throbbed, the D.J. yelled, the fog machine billowed. Cece and her friends traded their shoes for white socks and pogoed across the floor.
After dinner — kosher Chinese for the kids, steak for the adults — the D.J. cranked up “Hava Nagila.” Cece, in a chair in the middle of the dance floor, was lifted up, up, up until she bumped her head on the Chinese umbrellas hanging off the chandelier.
Then she was back on the floor, dancing with her mothers and little sister and singing along with the recording: “Hava neranena, venis’mecha,” or: Let us sing and be glad.
A Jewish sailor docks at Shanghai port and takes off on a walk. From afar, he spies a Magen David and rushes up to the building which, sure enough, turns out to be a synagogue.
The door is open and he peeks in. Sitting there are 9 Chinese men holding siddurim with kippot on their heads.
He bursts in and shouts, "I'm your tenth! We have a minyan."
One man, obviously the gabbai, gets up, places a hand on his shoulder and says, "Funny, but you don't look Jewish."