For Years, I Wanted My Brother to Identify as Jewish. This Is What I Learned

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Mira and Jeffrey in January 1991, the first night they met.
Mira and Jeffrey in January 1991, the first night they met.Credit: Courtesy of Mira Sucharov

I’m sitting in front of the Mac SE in my McGill dorm room, writing the final essay for my Ancient Greek History course, when the phone rings.

“Mira, I have some news.” It’s my mom.

“Is everything OK?” A sense of mild panic rises in me, as it always does when I hear from my parents. They are in Vancouver and a sense of superstition lingers, as if my being across the country, in Montreal, where I arrived a few months earlier to begin university, will be a catalyst for disaster.

“Everything is fine. More than fine.” My mom inhales sharply. “I found Jeffrey.”

Jeffrey is the baby my parents gave up for adoption 19 years ago, in 1971, a year before I was born. The one whom I designated my imaginary friend when I was eight, after I learned about his existence over a bowl of Cheerios at my mom and stepdad’s kitchen table one Saturday morning before spending the afternoon at the YMHA in Winnipeg.

My mom had become pregnant with Jeffrey as a result of a short affair with another man during my parents’ decade-long marriage. At the time, my parents were living down the street from where I was sitting right now. My dad had been slogging through medical school and my mom had been working at a Jewish nursing home, helping to make ends meet.

After quietly giving up Jeffrey to a Jewish adoption agency when he was a week old and telling their extended family, including my dad’s mom, that the baby had died, they moved back to Winnipeg. I was born a year later, but my parents’ marriage buckled some four years afterward, under the strain of the trauma and the secret.

Even though the paternity was uncertain right up until the birth, my parents had chosen Jeffrey’s first and middle names in memory of two of my father’s relatives: his Auntie Frieda, who had been a much-loved Jewish day school teacher in Winnipeg, and an uncle who died without any children of his own. Days later, as the facts had become obvious – Jeffrey’s complexion resembled that of the Caribbean-Canadian man with whom she’d had the affair rather than that of her white, Ashkenazi Jewish husband – my dad had decided it was all too much.

I knew my mom had been looking for Jeffrey. For much of my senior year in high school, she had been corresponding with a private investigator. She was eager for any scraps, any clues, as to Jeffrey’s whereabouts. Since the adoption records had been sealed from the start, this had been her best bet, or so she believed.

I hold the phone closer to my ear as I stare at my Rime of the Ancient Mariner poster taped to the cinder block wall.

Mira Sucharov and the cover of her book "Borders and Belonging: A Memoir."Credit: Palgrave Macmillan/Courtesy

“Two weeks ago, I received a letter, a registered letter, from a social worker,” she explains. “The letter said that Jeffrey had recently registered at the adoption agency.” So had my mom, a decade earlier. “He’s 19 now. He lives, with his adoptive family, in Montreal. He wants to meet.”

My mom and Jeffrey had exchanged letters over the past week. He’d soon be flying out to meet her, on his midterm break from university. But since I was already in Montreal, attending another university a few blocks from his, perhaps I’d like to meet him first.

I swallow hard.

“It’s almost a miracle, isn’t it?” she says.

“Wow, Mom, this is…” My voice trails off, and my heartbeat quickens.

“I’ll mail you some photos,” she says. “I don’t know if they’ll arrive before you meet each other, but this way you can know what he looks like. He’s very handsome,” she adds. She sounds giddy.

The news takes a few minutes to sink in. By the time I had left home seven months earlier to work at a Labor Zionist summer camp and then got consumed with a romantic relationship that sucked the vitality out of me at the same time as it kept me hooked, I was distracted and had nearly forgotten about her mission.

***

War and sundaes

Two weeks later, I’m waiting in the main floor common room of my residence hall, with a couple of friends who have come downstairs with me, curious to meet Jeffrey. As we look toward the glass doors, we see a nice-looking guy enter. He’s wearing jeans and a shiny blue and red baseball jacket and we hug, a bit awkwardly. He has a huge smile. The one thing I know about him so far – from reports my mom has given me – is that he hopes to transfer to a U.S. college to play NCAA baseball.

“Hey!” he says.

“Hey,” I say, and we both laugh.

“Do you like sushi?” he asks. He says it quickly. It comes out dyulikesushi.

“I’m from Vancouver. Of course I like sushi!”

He laughs again, and I follow him to his car.

That night, January 15, 1991, is the deadline the UN Security Council has set for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. If Iraq refuses, Washington has promised that it, along with the coalition it has assembled, will launch an air campaign to repel the invasion. We keep the radio on in the car, half listening to the unfolding news as we head downtown.

At a little Japanese restaurant on Mountain Avenue, we sit across from one another. I smooth out the white tablecloth and examine Jeffrey’s face through the dim lighting. He has my mom’s nose.

The gyoza appetizer arrives, and I grab at a dumpling with my chopsticks.

I’m trying to make conversation, catch up for lost time, figure out the right balance of substance and chitchat. “When did you find out you were adopted?” I ask.

He gives me a puzzled look, and it takes me a few seconds to decipher his confusion. Isn’t this what people usually ask adoptees when they’re getting their backstory? But then I catch on. He is Black; his adoptive parents are white (and Ashkenazi Jewish); as is their biological daughter, his adoptive sister. “How could I ever not have known?” his expression says.

“Sorry,” I say, awkwardly. “Of course.”

Over miso soup and tuna maki and dynamite rolls, we talk about our families and our interests and our friends and our career goals. We talk about Jewish identity and how, despite being raised by a Jewish family, having grown up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in Montreal, and having a Jewish-sounding last name, he doesn’t connect with that part of his background.

“I don’t really consider myself Jewish,” he says.

I try to take that in, trying to hold, analyze and chip away at the issue, and I end up talking too much. I have a decade of Jewish summer camp and seven years of Jewish day school under my belt, and I’ve spent lots of time analyzing Jewish identity and Israeli politics and the connection between people, and the threads of Jewish heritage. I wonder, privately, how he can just reject this part of his identity even though everything points to him being Jewish.

“But your adoptive family is Jewish and my mom, uh, Faye, um, your birth mother, is Jewish. Jewish identity traditionally passes matrilineally. By all accounts, you’re Jewish.” I’m thinking: How can he just willy-nilly say he’s not Jewish?

He shrugs.

I realize I’m trying to claim him.

The wiser part of me knows it’s not my place to push identity on anyone. Besides, I’m irritated enough by the “Jewish continuity” arguments prevalent in Jewish institutions. I’m contemptuous of the exclusionary attitudes toward intermarried couples. People should be able to love whomever they want, I believe.

Still, part of my seemingly open-minded stance, I realize, is self-protective: both of my parents married non-Jews after their marriage dissolved and I never liked the feeling that others might be judging them.

I decide to change the subject. “Ice cream?”

“I’m always up for ice cream.”

So we walk the few blocks to Ben and Jerry’s, where we order sundaes. My boyfriend, who has stopped by to meet Jeffrey, takes the camera I’ve brought along with me for the occasion so he can snap pictures of our matching eyebrows. The eyebrows are my mom’s: thin and well-defined and nicely arched. Thirteen years later, my daughter will be graced with the exact same ones.

We finish our sundaes and manage not to bring up the subject of identity for the rest of the night. Instead, we listen to the radio on the way home, waiting for war to begin.

***

Jeffrey pictured in 2004, with his baby niece, Mira’s daughter.Credit: Courtesy of Mira Sucharov

‘The Cosby Show’ and other arguments

Over the next several years, Jeffrey takes his rightful place as part of our family, while remaining tied to his adoptive family, of course, and later, to his own wife and child. My mom is Baba Faye to his daughter, as she is to my kids.

My dad finally arranged to meet him about a decade after Jeffrey and my mom’s reunion. He knew he’d be seeing him at my wedding later that summer, and he wanted to make sure the special day wasn’t marred by awkwardness. They were friendly enough, in my dad’s shy way. My stepmom, the most neutral party in this saga, wrapped him in a warm embrace. And my dad eventually told my paternal grandmother the truth, undoing the years of lies and secrecy. The baby didn’t die, he explained. He is very much alive, and his name is Jeffrey. Years later, my dad will tell me that he wouldn’t necessarily have made the same choices now as he did then. His decision-making as a young man, he will explain, was a result of fear and immaturity. I don’t press the issue further.

The multicity distance makes frequent visits a challenge, but we do what we can: a road trip with a friend in university to meet for chicken wings near his college town; an afternoon Hanukkah party with his adoptive family in Montreal over winter break; weddings in Vancouver; Bar Mitzvahs in Ottawa; my own conference and professional travel to New York. For a few years, we even lived in the same city – when I was in grad school and he was in law school, in Washington – and then we hung out frequently.

Jeffrey and I have never managed to play soccer like I did with my imaginary friend to whom I’d given his name. But we did manage to go to hot yoga class together, in Brooklyn, on one visit.

Not long after that, I visit him and his wife, and now baby, again. That evening we get into an animated conversation about race and whiteness, and “The Cosby Show” and humor and representation and Jewish identity. I tell him about the analyses of the show I’ve been reading about in the course of my research on the Israeli sitcom “Arab Labor.” I relay to him the critiques of colorblindness that some Black critics have levied against Bill Cosby and the show’s writers.

I’m interested to know whether there is anything we can learn from the American conversation over racial justice when it comes to my primary expertise as a political scientist focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

But there is something more immediate nagging at me. I’ve had a rough summer when it comes to these issues, having been schooled by the Twitterverse in the course of the fallout from a piece I’d published in Haaretz. I’m used to the mudslinging over debates about the occupation, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. But in this op-ed I had waded into the topic of U.S. police training in Israel, and the reaction – entailing issues around race in America – was startling.

This evening, at a Brooklyn restaurant, I feel driven, almost compulsively so, to share with Jeffrey and his wife the lessons I’ve absorbed, where I learned the hard way about identity erasure and white fragility and emotional labor. My white, Jewish friends in Ottawa have heard me tell them about my social media crisis, as have my husband and my parents, and my mostly white, Jewish social network has seen the internet conflict play out in real time.

I’m planning to apply for a fellowship from my dean’s office on how to best teach racial justice in the classroom. And now, tonight, I have a chance to talk about these issues with those who are most affected and I just can’t seem to stop, even as I know that one of the lessons I’m supposed to have learned is not to pressure non-white folks to talk about race.

“C’mon,” Jeffrey says, in response to my point about colorblindness and “The Cosby Show.” “Why does every show made by African Americans have to be political? Why does everything made by Blacks have to serve some academic standard of racial consciousness?”

“That’s a good rejoinder,” I say, nodding, as I look over at the bar.

“What do you mean ‘rejoinder’? Why the fancy words?”

Jeffrey is a successful lawyer and savvy entrepreneur, and has plenty of jargon vocabulary in his toolbox, I know. So I sense that his calling me out on my use of “fancy words” has something to do with irritation about talking about race, here, during happy hour at his favorite neighborhood haunt, on a warm September night, where he’s probably eager to shed the stress of his workday and have a relaxing evening.

But somehow I can’t pivot. I need to keep talking about all the racial ideas I’ve been learning about in my activism and in my reading: white privilege, equity, redlining. Though I’m aware of his growing discomfort, I press on.

“Let’s talk about Little League,” he says, trying to steer the conversation back to family matters. My son has become an enthusiastic baseball player, and Jeffrey is a proud uncle.

But then later that night, over roast chicken and caramelized carrots and a woody cabernet from their local wine shop, I take the identity conversation into even more sensitive territory, bringing whiteness and Jewishness to the fore.

I say that I feel the terrible events of Charlottesville the previous summer – where neo-Nazis marched and shouted “Jews will not replace us” – show how Jews, even white Jews, are still not secure. I say that while I acknowledge that I very much benefit from white privilege, I also feel that, as a Jew, my whiteness is conditional. Charlottesville reminds us of this, I say.

“That’s ridiculous,” he says. “You can’t change your whiteness, just like I can’t peel off my Blackness.” He turns to his wife. “Isn’t that crazy?”

“It’s true,” she says, cautiously. “As a Black woman, I can’t change my skin color whenever I want to. My Blackness isn’t conditional on anything. It just doesn’t make sense to me for you to say that your whiteness is conditional.”

As Jeffrey and I continue to argue, I try not to aim my fervor at his wife. I sense she is trying to keep a lid on the intensifying atmosphere between Jeffrey and I.

“Don’t tell me how I should identify,” I say finally, to Jeffrey.

“And don’t tell me how I should identify,” he responds. “All the years you demanded that I should feel Jewish…”

Now I feel tears welling, and soon my voice breaks and I am sobbing.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to.” I know he’s right.

Embedded in our argument are more than academic questions of ethnic or racial justice, of chosen or ascribed identity, or of communal expectations. Wrapped up in the conversation are the volatile admixture of the emotions of one adopted child and one biological child; one who was given up and is Black, and another who wasn’t and is white, but whose parents’ marriage still didn’t survive the rupture.

His wife nudges us together. “C’mon you two, hug it out.”

I sleep fitfully that night, finally rising around 3 A.M. I walk down the hall to the kitchen and root around in the fridge for a can of mango LaCroix. I’m thirsty from the crying and from the wine.

The next morning, having slept in too late to catch the hot yoga class we had planned to go to before the argument kept us up later than expected, we meet in the kitchen.

“Hey,” Jeffrey says.

“Hey,” I say.

“Do you like smoothies?”

It comes out as dyulikesmoothies.

“Do I ever,” I say.

Jeffrey fills the blender with kale, blueberries and a banana, looks over at me with a grin, and flips the switch.

Mira Sucharov’s Borders and Belonging: A Memoir is out now, published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced $29.99.

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