On Monday, Melissa Fay Greene shared the story behind the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Twenty years ago, as I set out upon my very first book tour, for Praying for Sheetrock—my 1991 work of nonfiction about the heyday of a corrupt ‘courthouse gang’ on the flowery coast of Georgia and the belated rise of civil rights there—I discovered I had a line in my book-talk that only Jews laughed at.
It was unintentional on my part. I thought it was funny; I didn’t realize until I criss-crossed the country with it, like a stand-up comic, that it wasn’t funny to non-Jews.
The scene: “the blazing summer nights of 1975, as darkness dropped…” when the rural black citizens of McIntosh County, enraged by the police shooting of an unarmed man and by the deliberate neglect of the all-black public school system by the all-white school board, stormed across the sand parking lot, illuminated by bare light-bulbs dangling from wires strung through the live-oak trees, and crowded into the weather-beaten Shorters Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I read aloud from my book: “Every pew in the church was packed; well-dressed people lined the walls and crowded into the rear of the church; and a choir in royal-blue satin robes led the congregation in rich and heartfelt music. The choir held hymnals without looking into them and swayed heavily back and forth in unison, stamping once as they leaned left, stamping again as they leaned right, and the congregation in full voice joined in.”
Then I told a story that was not in the book. “Whenever I attended one of these political prayer meetings,” I told my audience, “I was always seated up front, an honored guest, the only white person in the room. It was a disadvantage because I couldn’t really see what was going on, without constantly looking over my shoulder. One night the minister, to be especially welcoming to me, invited me to come up and lead a hymn. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t,’ I stammered, ‘for two reasons: first, I can’t sing like THAT, like these incredible voices. And secondly, I’m Jewish and I don’t know the words.’
“’Welcome to you!’ cried the tall skinny perspiring coal-black reverend, dressed in a tight-fitting coal-black suit like a mortician. ‘The black and the white, the Greek and the Jew, we’re all children of Christ.”
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November 2001, I pulled up to the gates of the compound of the Beta Israel people (disparagingly known as Falashas [strangers]), hoping to be admitted, along with my brand-new daughter, to Shabbat morning services.
Arriving among these religiously-observant and destitute people, of rural origin, by taxi rather than on foot was likely to make a poor impression. But I’d known no one in the area to ask for Shabbat hospitality and my hotel stood half a city away from this dusty ramshackle neighborhood of mud huts and corrugated tin roofs. It was my first trip to Ethiopia. I’d flown seven thousand miles to report for the New York Times Magazine on conditions among some of Africa’s orphans of HIV/AIDS (which eventually gave rise to my book, There Is No Me Without You (Bloomsbury, 2007) and to meet a five-year-old girl named Helen, whom my family was adopting.
We were an American-Jewish family of seven, living in Atlanta; we had four children by birth and one by adoption from Bulgaria. The year the children were 6, 9, 13, 17, and 20, I lingered at the sunny kitchen table one morning and read in the newspaper that the United Nations was calling Africa “a continent of orphans.” Fourteen to twenty-five million children had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. I read those pages not only as a concerned world citizen, but as a journalist, and as a mother aware that a perfectly good twin bed upstairs was going unused. “Could I write about this?” I wondered. I’d only stepped foot in Africa once, in Morocco, in my 20s. “Can you adopt from Africa?” I also wondered. “Can you adopt one of the fourteen to twenty-five million orphaned children?”
Aware of Israel’s airlift of 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 in Operation Moses (Mivtzah Moshe) and another 15,000 in Operation Solomon (Mitzvah Shlomo) in 1991, I located online an organization called the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry [NACOEJ], which helped support Jewish organizations in Addis. I phoned their New York office and asked, “Are any of the Jewish children orphans in need of adoption?”
The answer was yes, there were orphans, but no, they were not available for adoption. NACOEJ’s mission was to bring the people to Israel. They told me of an American orphanage in Addis, and I phoned there next, asking the same question in reverse: “Are any of the orphans Jewish?”
“They may be,” I was told, “but many don’t know what they are. We have a quarter-of-a-million orphans here. Is that your only criteria?”
By November I was on a plane to Addis: the New York Times had commissioned a story; and my family had been matched with Helen, a tiny, bright, and darling (non-Jewish) girl who’d lost her father when she was two, and her doting mother just a few months earlier.
Our first afternoon together in Addis Ababa, I took Helen shopping for new clothes, including shul clothes, and watched as she stepped out of her dusty orphanage jean overalls and into a complicated plaid wool jumper, a white blouse with a lace collar, and a royal blue corduroy jacket with brass buttons. Curly yarn sheep were affixed to the jumper and jacket. The ensemble seemed designed to be worn in Scotland at Christmastime rather than on a dry African plateau in 90-plus-degree heat to a jerry-rigged local synagogue. While I paid for the outfit and a new pair of sandals, she hopped beside me in excitement.
Helen wore her new clothes that Saturday morning as our taxi parked outside the Jewish compound. Half a dozen young men—guards—surrounded our car and looked through the windows. Helen scooted under my arm in shyness. Our driver got out of the car to explain that I was an American Jew hoping to attend services. Arguments seemed to follow, with a lot of gesticulating, while more young men jockeyed for a closer look at us through the windows. I rolled down the window to greet them with my paltry number of Hebrew words. I displayed my Chai necklace, but they turned away. The discussion grew heated outside the car, until the taxi driver got back in to report that the guards did not think I looked Jewish. The child looked Jewish, but I did not. If only I’d brought a letter from a rabbi or from the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, they would have welcomed me happily; but, without anyone vouching for me, they were obliged to turn me away.
In America, I look Jewish. In Ethiopia, I did not look Jewish. In Ethiopia, Helen looked Jewish. But, in America, Helen does not look Jewish. She has borne this bravely, while embracing Judaism with a full heart.