Local Jewish author Deborah Jiang Stein explores her troubled beginnings in new memoir

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It’s not every day you get the opportunity to read a personal memoir written by your next-door neighbor.

Lucky am I to live just yards away from Deborah Jiang Stein and her family. She is not only a great neighbor but also a good friend, and mother to wonderful teenage girls who babysit for our family and whom my kids adore. Now that’s a fortuitous roll of the neighbor dice!

Jiang Stein was born and spent the first year of her life in prison: the Alderson Federal Women’s Prison, which sits in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia in the heart of Appalachia.

While Jiang Stein knew that she was adopted — her brown face stood in stark contrast to the pale visages of her parents and brother — she only learned of her prison origins at age 12, when she found a letter while snooping in her mother’s dresser drawers.

She was taken from her prison mother when she was around one year old and, after foster placements, was finally adopted by the Steins, a Jewish couple living in Seattle. (Jiang Stein’s mother was “a Minneapolis girl” hailing from the Dworsky clan.)

Her brother, older than her by only 18 months, was also adopted, but being white did not stand out in the same way Jiang Stein did. The days when transracial adoptions would become commonplace were still several years in the future.

Jiang Stein’s memoir, Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison, is her look back at how this knowledge colored her early years, her trials as a young adult and, ultimately, her journey toward making peace with herself and the world.

The book is an intimate look into Jiang Stein’s life and struggles and I commend it highly to readers. For me, it was a reminder that Jews come in many different varieties. I believe that our Jewish communities are all the richer for the diversity.

The book is dedicated to the 150,000 women in jails and prisons in the United States, and the 2.3 million children — most younger than age 10 — with an incarcerated parent. Jiang Stein founded the nonprofit organization The unPrison Project, which received 501(c)3 status last year, although the prison work began 10 years ago. The organization’s tagline, “Freedom on the Inside,” refers to its mission to enhance life skills and advance mentoring, education, mental health and emotional wellness for incarcerated women and girls across the country to help reduce their return to prison. This has become Jiang Stein’s life work.

She is a motivational speaker who travels around the country talking to incarcerated women and presenting at conferences, and her work is, doubtless, a labor of love, and ultimately true tikkun olam, work to repair a broken world.

After I finished reading the book, I asked Jiang Stein a few questions:

AJW: Does being adopted impact your relationship with Judaism?

Jiang Stein: No doubt. As a Jew, first through adoption and now by practice, I struggled in my relationship with Judaism for a long time. Eventually I felt more accepting. And finally, at last I’ve embraced Judaism. The struggle came from me trying to know where I fit as a Jew of color, where I belong in a knit-tight community where sometimes curiosity and suspicion towards outsiders rings stronger than we want to admit.

My understanding of Judaism began in Seattle where I grew up in the 1960s, a time when culturally or racially mixed families were an oddity.

AJW: Does being adopted have an effect on your participation or involvement in Jewish life?

JS: Yes. I’ve found that I’m sometimes in the position to explain or answer the question: “How are you Jewish?” or “How do you come to Judaism?”

I know the questions come out of honest curiosity; however, I can say that most Jews by birth I know are not asked this. It also depends where I am. In larger cities with multiple Jewish communities like Los Angeles or New York, I find Jews of all colors and levels of practice, and the question is never asked of me or my family.

To be honest, I think unconsciously, I withhold from fully participating. We belong to Temple Israel and feel most welcome and embraced there. Still I think I’m less involved than I might be if I didn’t hold this hesitation, which I’ve carried deep for many years. It’s a different world today in some ways and I look forward to the day when old beliefs catch up with the blending of families.

Right: Deborah Jiang Stein

AJW: Does being of mixed race impact your relationship with Judaism?

JS: Adoption, race and everything related impacts my relationship with Judaism. I feel like I need to stand up stronger to proclaim I’m Jewish than my friends do who are genetically born into the religion and culture.

AJW: In your book you talk about times in your life when you were involved in criminal activities and substance abuse. Do these past events impact your involvement with Judaism?

JS: My past criminal activities and substance abuse have not impacted my relationship to Judaism. While I lament parts of my past and any harm I caused others through my actions, the way I walked through life at that time was all I knew to mask pain and sorrow. We all find ways to cope. Mine were destructive and self-destructive.

I’m grateful for my parents who stood by me through it all. Especially my mother, a Minneapolis native who was a pioneer in her vision of a cross-cultural, blended-race family.

The positive side of my past is how my work today with women and children in the margins of society is founded in authentic life lessons, using storytelling for social change. After all, I sit in temple and we hear stories from the pulpit, in fact in every religion.

I bring the power of story into prisons where we have great need for making a difference in the lives of those in the margins. Ironically, only this year, after 10 years of bringing various programs into prisons around the country, did I hear the phrase tikkun olam tied to the circle back from my roots into my work today.

This is The unPrison Project, the nonprofit I founded to help bring hope, mentoring, literacy and new life skills into the darkest of corners — women and girls in prison. To date we’ve reached 30,000 incarcerated women across the country with the basics of our life skills program, and 27 prisons have also requested this curriculum. We’re working on funding the travel and costs to reach these prisons.

AJW: How has motherhood impacted your life, and your connection to Judaism and the Jewish community?

JS: Motherhood brought me back to Judaism. This is when I first reached out to try and identify as a Jew, more than before being a mother because I wanted to give my children the faith, values and culture I’d grown up with, as much as the experience caused pain when I was a kid.

The pain of feeling an outsider — I know this has sometimes been the case for my children as well. While I protect their stories, since it is for them to tell one day if they choose, I know they’ve faced some of the same struggles that I have in feeling accepted in total.

We’re a mixed Asian family and we know firsthand the sting of racially based name-calling and bullying in our community, however we’ve moved on in our healing. But still, these are wounds we carry as a family.

I encourage my children to explore other cities as they move into life beyond high school because I want them to experience a larger landscape, with Jews and non-Jews. I’d love for my children to explore Jewish communities where Jews of color are as prominent as any other.

It’s not all about race. It’s claiming a state of mind about Judaism, about belonging in a community and transcending categories to find a place, to feel at home.

For information about Deborah Jiang Stein and her book, Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus, visit: www.deborahstein.com. For information about The unPrison Project, visit: www.unprisonproject.org.

Jiang Stein can be contacted at: deborah@deborahstein.com.