November 20, 2019

Adopting a new view of faith and family

Let’s get one thing out of the way — yes, Susan Silverman is the sister of actors and comedians Sarah Silverman and Laura Silverman. Perhaps more significant, however, are Silverman’s other achievements and credentials. She is a Reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, where she is a highly visible leader of the egalitarian Judaism in Israel. She is the author (along with her husband, Yosef) of “Jewish Family & Life.” And she is the founder of JustAdopt, a nonprofit that is dedicated to finding homes for “unparented” children from around the world.

That’s the theme of her latest book, “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World” (Da Capo), an endearing and inspiring account of her own efforts to adopt a child from Ethiopia and raise him as a Jew in Israel. As we quickly learn, the first task turned out to be rather more daunting than the second. Indeed, Silverman’s book reveals some important truths about the choices one is compelled to make to be a parent, a Jew and a resident of Israel.

Silverman, as it happens, is a natural storyteller, and “Casting Lots” is a memoir rather than a manifesto. She harks back to the formative years of her childhood and allows us to witness a childhood tragedy that cast an ineradicable shadow over the generations. She introduces us to her sisters in intimate and surprising ways: Susan and Laura bestowed the nickname “Skunky” on younger sister Sarah because they regarded her as “poopy” and made fun of Sarah’s abundant body hair. “We took to petting Sarah’s legs, repeating, affirming, ‘Your fur is so beautiful.’ ”

And so we begin to understand the toughness and resilience that can be found in Silverman’s big, noisy, sometimes contentious but ultimately loving family. She explains, for example, that the divorce and remarriages of her parents opened the door for other kinds of blended families. “My family doesn’t make distinctions among ‘step,’ ‘half,’ or, to some extent, ‘ex,’ ” she writes. “ ‘Adopted’ was certainly not going to be a defining category.”

When Susan flew to Addis Ababa in 1999 to bring home her adopted son, Adar, it was yet another sister, Jody, who accompanied her. “My whole life had led to this place,” Silverman writes of their arrival at the African Cradle Children’s Center. Yet the baby who was handed to her was dressed in pink. “I looked at him face-to-face and said, baby-voiced, ‘We’re gonna make sure YOU have a penis.’ ” And Jody cracked: “Your first words to your son. Should I write them in his baby book?” Susan said: “This is the first uncircumcised penis I’ve ever seen. Well, sober.”

Susan Silverman, like her sister Sarah, may be blessed with an ironic and ribald sense of humor, but she is also given to theological musings that are no less edgy. “[F]or the first time in my whole life, no voice in my head negotiated with God,” she recalls. “[N]ow, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing — the shattered and the whole — the promise of Sinai. And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.”

The adoption was only the first obstacle. Silverman, a Reform rabbi, sought an Orthodox conversion for her Ethiopian-born son, a culture clash of epic proportions. “I thought about calling the Unitarians,” she cracks. But she was willing to cope with rabbis who refused to recognize her own ordination “as an insurance policy against the schmucks who would question Adar’s Jewish identity.” Even so, it took six years to complete the conversion. But the long ordeal only deepened Silverman’s understanding of Jewish identity.

“Adar held within him a world of disparity and contradiction — gratitude and blame and hope and fear — that could be cracked open like an egg, exposing its spiritual and physical contours,” she muses. “Appreciating mystery is the only way I could honestly approach Adar’s origins. It was the only way I could fathom God. In this way, Adar was a portal to kedusha – holiness.”

“Casting Lots” is, among other things, an act of courage. Silverman is brutally honest about herself, her family and her faith. She wants to inspire her readers, but she never fails to remind them that parenting requires not only love but, perhaps even more importantly, patience, strength, compassion and determination, all qualities that’s she possesses and seeks to share. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.