Thursday, September 3, 2009

Q & A with Belinda Cheung

Belinda Cheung is a Chinese Jew who went through an Orthodox conversion in 1998. Her husband Jack Botwinik wrote about their relationship in his book, “Chicken Soup with Chopsticks: A Jew’s Struggle For Truth in an Interfaith Relationship.”
She lives in Ottawa, Canada with her family.

Q: What are some of the key challenges you face as someone who is both Chinese and Jewish?

A: Keeping kosher while attending family gatherings with my Chinese family is a challenge. The Chinese, in general, know very little about the Jews, and it makes things (Jewish practices) look very strange at times. Thank G-d, my Chinese family is very respectful of other religions, so in my case, although it is a challenge, there has been no family conflict raised from it.


Q: Do you ever struggle with finding a balance between both cultures? Do you have children? If so, what traditions do you value the most from each culture?

A: I have some but not huge struggle with finding a balance. To me, Judaism is prime. Chinese custom comes second. The challenge is not in what to choose, but how to do what we choose that is acceptable by our Jewish and Chinese parents/relatives.


I have, thank G-d, four kids, ages 8, 6, 3 and 9-month. They are all being raised Orthodox Jewish in terms of ethical living, academy education, life style, etc. They are given both Chinese and Yiddish names. I speak to them in Cantonese, while my husband speak to them in Yiddish. We cook Chinese, Italian (my mother-in-law is Italian from Rome, so my husband cooks Italian) as well as Jewish foods. We have books, games, videos and songs in Chinese, Hebrew and Yiddish.


Q: When did you convert to Judaism and how was the process? Is it typical for one person in an interfaith relationship to switch over? 

A: I converted in 1998 in Toronto. In 1994, I started learning about Judaism and the Jewish people informally from dating Jack (now my husband), as we were learning about each others' culture. We also explored other religions, as well as different branches of Judaism, and we both gravitated to Orthodox Judaism. Our learning got more formal and serious. It was very mind-opening and for certain one of the most impactful experiences of my life.


It was not an easy decision to convert. Judaism itself does not proselytize (I was rejected three times even before being considered as a potential convert). Even when one believes in the Torah and the Jewish G-d, there is no obligation to convert. You can live as a righteous gentile and still "go to Heaven" so to speak. My process took about 3 years with lots of learning and changes, both inside (the way I understand the world, men and women, higher purpose, etc.) and outside (the way I dress, I speak, etc.)


For many interfaith couples, the challenge of finding an united way to express their religions usually comes when children come into the picture. I don't think it is typical for a person in an interfaith relationship to completely switch over (although it does happen, as in my case, and many others that I know). Most people find a blended way of doing things. The difficulties are the mixed messages that the children are getting. They may identify with both, or in some cases, neither religion. There are also couples that my husband and I personally know, where one of them become more religious in his/her own religion when they are older (when kids are grown and they are well-established) and it creates trememdous stress in their marriage and families.

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