My Jewish father always said that you should aspire to change another’s life in a positive way. The concept is known as tikkun olam, which roughly translates as, “in some way, repair the world.” That idea was instilled in me from an early age, and I was determined to apply the concept to my family.
That family of mine started off in 1970 when I became the first single woman in the United States to adopt a foreign child. My first adoption was a seven-year-old child from Korea. The second was a little girl from Vietnam.
There was so much interest around the topic that in 1976 I authored a book, They Came to Stay. It was an unexpected hit and was credited with raising awareness for adoption, not only internationally but domestically as well.
Although I was a busy TV reporter, I was also having to cope with being the single parent of children from diverse cultures. One of my priorities was to share with them the importance of embracing their heritage and religious beliefs and respecting people of all faiths and backgrounds.
In 1979 I married a Jewish member of Congress and my family grew exponentially as my husband had four daughters from a previous marriage. We then had two biological children and shortly thereafter made room for an immigrant family of five from Vietnam. They lived with us for twenty-five years.
My husband had learned early on the importance of respecting the faiths of others while preserving his own Jewish heritage; his father an Orthodox Jew who owned a grocery store located in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. He was known for feeding the homeless and taking care of others who were less fortunate, which also taught him the importance of changing another’s life in a positive way.
With so many family members from a myriad of different backgrounds and beliefs now living under the same roof, we committed to observing holidays in accordance with many cultures and religions. Although my husband and I were both Jewish and celebrated Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover, we added in Christmas, Easter, and Lunar New Year. The children went to Sunday schools, both Catholic and Jewish, and there were many ecumenical weddings. It was an organic way to make everyone feel included while also exposing the family to other belief systems.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t confusion along the way. Vu, now an anesthesiologist, and the youngest member of the Vietnamese family, was conflicted because his devout Catholic mother frequently expressed her hopes of his becoming a priest. One day, after one of her entreaties, he confided to me, “I don’t want to become a priest. All my friends are having bar mitzvahs. I want to have one too!” That was the end of his path to a Roman Collar. He was already well versed in saying the HaMotzi.
My experience as the mother of eleven diverse children as well as my role as family peacemaker prepared me to transition from the conflicts of one house to those of the House of Representatives.
My eleven children are now grown, and I have twenty-one grandchildren. The little ones say the most hilarious and unexpected things. Spending time with them always reminds me of the fun, laughter, ideas, and values that three generations of my family now have in common. This is what led me to write my latest book, And How Are the Children? Timeless Lessons from the Frontlines of Motherhood. Picking up where the original book left off, it explores my life as a parent in a blended multicultural family, my passion for empowering women around the world, and my work in the political universe.
It was never my intention to run for political office. My professional ambitions had been fulfilled as a correspondent for NBC and its affiliates. I had a demanding job, a sprawling home with an ever-changing number of occupants, and a husband who had held political office and was also active in local and national politics. In my mind, one politician in the family was more than enough.
However, in 1991 I began to hear a steady buzz that I throw my hat in the ring. Perhaps it was because I had a familiar name from so many years on the air, combined with the fact that I spent a lot of time in Washington and was married to a politician so I knew the ropes. At first I ignored the suggestion, but the drumbeat grew louder. It was always the same question, “Would you consider running in the primary for the seat as the democratic candidate for the House?”
As you can imagine, a political campaign is an investment for the entire family. Everyone is impacted and, it goes without saying, they will be thrust into the public eye. We held a family meeting and discussed the pros and cons of the opportunity. The consensus from adults and children alike was that I should give it a shot.
This was definitely an uphill battle because I was running in a largely Republican district. Fortunately, the campaign generated a flurry of coverage because my story seemed to have media appeal — first single person to adopt internationally, a blended family of eleven children, a husband involved in politics, and a television journalist. That it happened to be The Year of the Woman, didn’t hurt either and gave us an added advantage. frankly I was shocked when I won. In fact, I only brought a concession speech with me on election night. I had always contended “you can’t win if you’re not prepared to lose.”
Suddenly, I was thrust into the political whirlwind of Capitol Hill. Diving headlong into the maelstrom I can only say how grateful I was that my experience as the mother of eleven diverse children as well as my role as family peacemaker prepared me to transition from the conflicts of one house to those of the House of Representatives. Family mediation skills served me well in the political universe where getting things done means working with elected representatives from every faith and creed, and where divisiveness and disagreements are the norm rather than the exception. I felt right at home. I also realized I had been given the enormous responsibility of continuing to fulfill my father’s credo of tikkun olam, to repair the world and to help change lives, but now on a much grander scale. In the House I had the opportunity to make a difference and to work on the issues I cared so much about, such as climate change, gun safety, domestic violence, and womens’ equality.
In 1994 Democrats went down in flames. I accompanied them. I lost my reelection bid and the defeat stung, but I quickly made peace with the pain and felt content with all I had accomplished legislatively in a short period of time. Soon thereafter I headed the US delegation to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and subsequently founded Women’s Campaign International (WCI), a non-profit, I still run which has been actively training women of many faiths and backgrounds from more than fifty countries to actively participate in public advocacy and the political process.
One thing I have learned from all these experiences, whether in my own home, the Hill, or in countries around the globe is that, different though we may be, there is far more that unites than divides us. I continue to try to make a difference in peoples’ lives and it makes me proud that my children and grandchildren continue our family tradition to “repair the world” in their own unique and impactful ways. For me, tikkun olam goes on.
Marjorie Margolies is a former member of Congress from Pennsylvania, a journalist, a women’s rights advocate, and a serendipitous mother many times over. She is perhaps best remembered for being the first unmarried American to adopt a foreign child and for casting the deciding vote in favor of President Clinton’s 1993 budget, the Omnibus Reconciliation Act. Born in Philadelphia, Margolies graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked as a journalist with NBC and its owned and operated stations for 25 years, winning five Emmy Awards. Running as a Democrat, she was elected to represent the traditionally Republican 13th District of Pennsylvania in Congress. She was also the deputy chair of the United States delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing in 1995. As a result of that experience, she founded Women’s Campaign International (WCI), an organization that provides empowerment training for women around the world. She is currently a faculty member at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and at last count, her family consisted of 11 children and 21 grandchildren.