When our kids were little, we used to joke that we were the “complete multicultural family.” Our appearance wasn’t too shocking by the 1990sat least on the East Coast. We often evoked stares and even rude comments traveling in some other places. But our religious affiliations often left people confused, if not downright dumbfounded or occasionally scandalized.
My husband, of French-Canadian and Huron ancestry, had been raised Catholic. I had been raised non-denominational non-churchgoing Christian in a mixed Protestant-Catholic family, and my ancestry included Celts of all nationalities, Swedes, Germans, and Algonquins. But my husband and I had become Quakers in the 1980s. Quakers aren’t really big on celebrating holidays, period, since life should be kept simple and our hearts should always be filled with the Light; but we carried our earlier traditions with us and made merry on the major Christian holidays. When our first-adopted reached preschool age, however, research suggested that the best match for him was the local Jewish preschool and kindergarten, and his sister followed in his tracks a few years later. So for the next six years, we found ourselves going to Quaker Meeting on Sunday, while saying the pre-meal blessing in Hebrew (because our four-year-old was appalled that we didn’t know how, he taught us), celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah, attempting (badly I’m afraid) to create our own Passover Seder shortly before celebrating Easter. We had a Menorah, then hung sparkly dreidels on the Christmas tree. My daughter loved hamentaschen and her Queen Esther costume when she was little, although now I struggle to remember the name of that spring holiday.
One day our son surprised us by asking: “We’re Jewish right?”
“No, we’re Quakers,” my husband explained, “You know we go to Meeting on Sundays, right? But you go to a Jewish school.”
“We’re not Jewish? But everybody’s Jewish!”
We had to laugh. We lived in central New Jersey, and he was absolutely right that most of our friends and almost all of his schoolmates were Jewish. But, we pointed out, we also lived on a street where most of our neighbors were Christians—and half were white and half were black, including our Muslim friends next door.
It was around this time that we tried to introduce Kwanzaa, but without much luck. The mistake the founders of it made with Kwanzaa, I think, was trying to institute a holiday the day after Christmas. Our kids, at least, couldn’t have been less interested in principles of self-reliance and making homemade gifts when they still had new Christmas toys to play with. I gamely kept trying for about five years, even attempting them to get to go to community Kwanzaa celebrations at local churches or colleges. But they were no more interested in Kwanzaa than they were in the African drumming circles my husband tried to get them to go to. Still, they at least grew up knowing what Kwanzaa was and what it was all about.
In the meantime, I was taking yoga and meditation classes to counteract the stress of motherhood to these two very hyperactive children, and I became fascinated with Eastern religions. During this time I believe I described myself as a Quaker with Buddhist blend-ins and Hindu sprinkles. This did not strike my kids as odd at all. They learned about different religions in First-Day School and even went on “field trips” with the other Quaker children to visit other kinds of religious ceremonies.
My husband’s aunt, however—a Catholic sister who had strongly supported our attempts to adopt our children in the face of other relatives who worried about it—was concerned for their mortal souls. Although they’d had a Quaker “Blessing” ceremony welcoming them into the community, she could not rest until she had personally baptized them both as they lay sleeping in their beds. If I hadn’t assured her that my parents had had me christened as a baby, I’m sure she would have done the same thing to me. And indeed our blessings are many.
Our holidays have been many, too; although now that the kids are really young adults (still living at home), we’re mostly back to celebrating Easter, Christmas, and birthdays—and of course, Adoption Day. On the day of each child’s adoption (five weeks past our son’s birthday, eight weeks past our daughter’s), the celebrant gets to choose which restaurant we will go to for dinner. But they refuse to let us sing the Adoption Day song any more.
How have our children been affected by all these influences? We have always made attempts to live in multicultural neighborhoods with multicultural schools, and in two of our three locations, we have succeeded. The kids were a little confused at times, but have grown up open-minded about different cultures and comfortable with all different kinds of people. My daughter went through a couple phases in junior high where she identified only with the white kids (claiming she was Puerto Rican or “mixed”) and then only with the black ones—a period when she was embarrassed to be seen with us. But she righted herself in high school and (now “almost a senior”) is friends with both, as well as with classmates who are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, (as well as gays. We love New York.) She is agnostic herself, although she has tried on different religions over the years. Our son, on the other hand, is very spiritual. He rarely goes to church, but when he does it’s a Unitarian-Universalist. And he loves to discuss religion with people. He has a friend who is a fundamentalist Christian, and they really get into it over Revelations!
I am proud of our kids’ healthy interest in other cultures and belief systems, as well as in the generosity and concern for the disadvantaged they are beginning to show, and I truly believe that their multiculturalism has only enriched them in the long run. If this multiculturalism is a new tradition, it’s one this fractured world much needs, and I hope my children will pass it down to future generations.