Monday, January 15, 2007


As I considered non-Jewish recipients for my genetically Jewish embryos, I pondered the difference between being culturally Jewish, genetically Jewish and religiously Jewish.

Someone who wants it badly enough to attend school several times a week for two years and learn to read and write in a new language can convert to Judaism. Part of the conversion process is an immersion in Jewish culture. By the time the convert finishes this lengthy process, s/he is considered fully Jewish. It is not allowed to ask if a Jewish person has converted. There is not supposed to be any distinction between people who are Jewish by blood or by conversion.

It is also possible to be culturally or genetically Jewish with little to no knowledge of the religion. As a child I never attended Hebrew school or went to religious services. Before my children were born the only time I entered a synagogue was for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings. Having watched their European relatives killed for being Jewish and facing discrimination here in the US, my parents tried to ignore our ethnic and religious heritage.

It is only since having children that I have begun to practice my religion. I mean "practice" in the most literal way: repeating simple acts over and over because I have no idea what I'm doing or saying. This is why I'm trying to find Jewish recipients for these Jewish embryos: it diminishes a person to be ignorant about one's own heritage.

My wife is adopted. Her culture is that of her parents who, by raising her, transmitted their values and beliefs. But she also has a genetic heritage from her birthmother. A child can celebrate both cultures and still know that her real family is the people who raised her.

I know several white couples who adopted baby girls from China. All of them are helping their children understand their genetic/cultural heritage through attending Chinese cultural events, sending their daughters to after-school programs in the Chinese language and culture and/or allowing their children to attend summer camp with others who share their genetic background.

This would be my ideal for children from my embryos whose parents were not Jewish. However, I worry that the very thing that has helped Jews assimilate within European and American cultures will blind the parents of children from my embryos to the need for outside resources to help their children understand their Jewish heritage. The fact is that parents of Chinese-American kids are reminded of differences in their children's cultural heritage every time they look in their eyes. By contrast, my children with their blond/chestnut hair, pale skin and button noses just blend in. There is nothing about their appearance that underscores their need for information about their culture of origin.

I entered the embryo donation process hoping the parents of any children resulting from my embryo donation would understand the importance of a child's need to know both aspects of what shapes her: her family's culture, and the history behind her genes. I was surprising myself by considering non-Jewish recipients. How could I help create a climate where they would reward my gift by helping their children understand their Jewish heritage? As I struggled to resolve this issue for myself I wondered what the potential donors were thinking about all of this. I knew there was only one way to find out, and I resolved to do so.