The Column: Meeting Madeline helps me redefine what a family is

I’m going into the pickle business. My partner is my 11-year-old niece, Madeline. She already came up with a name for our fledgling enterprise: “M&D’s Knok Your Sox Off Pickles.”

Trust me, the pickles are fabulous, but not nearly as much as the beautiful, giggle-prone Madeline, who isn’t really my niece. To be precise, she is my adopted half-first-cousin-in-law-once-removed.

In other words, family.

I met Madeline only a month ago when she and her mother, Jenet, came down from Seattle to visit. They played tourist during the day, exploring Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown, then hung out with us the rest of the time.

Madeline and I hit it off instantly. Within minutes of meeting me, she took an interest in my guitar. I taught her a few chords and a simple blues progression, which she mastered quickly — she plays violin and has a true feel for music.

Then she wanted to learn a Taylor Swift song. One YouTube instruction video later, and we were both on our way to playing that, too.

Afterward, we got on our pickle kick. The two of us labored away in the kitchen, prepping and pickling several quart jars of cucumbers, carrots and cauliflower — with a jalapeño pepper thrown in for zing. All the while I felt deliriously happy from all the unclehood.

What was it about Madeline that enchanted me? For starters, she was born in Yangchun, a city in southern China. As her mother recounted the story, the infant Madeline was found in a box left outside a shop. Inside the box by her side lay an apple, the traditional Chinese symbol of good luck.

It was the best send-off her birth parents could give her.

Once Jenet completed the tedious adoption process, she brought her baby home to Seattle. Since then, Madeline has been a happy, all-American girl.

What astonished me about our time together was how deeply I felt the family connection. Madeline is not Jewish. Her mother and uncles, whom I last saw in 1998, are half-first-cousins to my wife, all of them from solid Protestant stock.

Yet as Madeline’s presence reminded me, the concept of family is more elastic than I used to think.

Including all my cousins, in-laws and their spouses, I claim in my extended clan evangelical Christians, Albanian Muslims, Mennonites, Unitarians, African Americans, Filipinos, Chicanos, Nepalese — and now Madeline.

I asked Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, rabbi at Oakland’s Temple Sinai and herself the daughter of a Chinese mother, about the Jewish take on family.

“If you’re talking about the broader peoplehood aspect,” she told me, “in the story of leaving Egypt, the Israelites were a mixed multitude who wanted to be connected and have the same path or vision.”

I like that. Certainly the provincial family identity I grew up with, surrounded as I was by lox-and-bagel Ashkenazi Jews, has been supplanted by my own mixed multitude.

Putting this column together, I came across an essay by the great talmudist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He wrote about Jewish identity, how some label us a nation, others a people, and others a religious community.

Steinsaltz said his preferred term is “family.” After all, we are the “children of Israel,” which certainly suggests a family tie more than anything else.

When I told Rabbi Mates-Muchin about Madeline, she suggested a new way for me to think of my connection to her: “We are a Chinese family, we are a Jewish family, and we are going to explore that together.”

That’s what I hope to do with Madeline, though I’ll take my cues from her and her mom. Right now it probably means nothing to her that she has a Jewish uncle. Someday, she might grow curious.

Meanwhile, she’s going to get a guitar so we can play together again via webcam. I’m not sure Skype lends itself to tag-team pickle making, but I won’t rule it out.

My long-term plan is to be in Madeline’s life as much as possible, and watch her blossom into the beautiful woman I know she will become.

L’dor v’dor works in mysterious ways.

Dan Pine can be reached at

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at