613 Words: Not Everything is Black & White
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 2001, I showed up at the gates of the compound of the Beta Israel people (disparagingly known as falashas), the Ethiopian Jews.
Arriving there on Shabbat by taxi rather than on foot was not wise, but I’d known no one to ask for Shabbat hospitality and my hotel was far away. It was my first trip to Ethiopia. I was reporting for the New York Times Magazine on the state of Africa’s millions of orphaned children; and I was meeting five-year-old Helen, whom my family was adopting.
On Friday morning, I’d taken Helen shopping for shul clothes. The little girl (who’d lost her father at age two, and her mother earlier that year) took instant possession of the shop, as if this were not the first time in her life she’d stepped foot inside a store. She whirled about, making selections, sending salespeople scurrying, until I realized she’d chosen a wedding gown, a man’s bicycle, a hunting rifle, and a pair of red plastic sandals. I said yes to the sandals, then steered her away from weaponry and vehicles. She picked out a navy-blue wool dress ornamented with embroidered sheep.
She wore her dress and sandals on Saturday, as young men from the Jewish compound blocked our path and looked through the car windows at us. The driver exited to explain that I was an American Jew hoping to attend services. Arguments followed, while more guards jockeyed around for a closer look. I rolled down the window to greet them in Hebrew. I displayed my Chai necklace, but they turned away.
The driver returned to say I could not be admitted as the young men did not believe me to be Jewish. If I had a letter from my rabbi or from the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, OK, but they couldn’t accept my word, as I absolutely did not look Jewish.
In America, I absolutely do look Jewish. This I know from the frequency from which I’ve been asked, all my life, by non-Jews, “Are you from New York?” (I’m from Georgia.) Or, more vaguely, especially in the rural South, “Where y’all from?” Or from the rapidity with which other Jews knowingly insert a Yiddish word into conversation after introductions.
In Ethiopia, Helen (who was not born Jewish) looks Jewish. In Israel, Helen looks Jewish. But, in America, Helen’s the one who does not look Jewish. She has borne this bravely.
She panicked at her conversion, afraid to emerge unclothed from the dressing room for the mikvah. “But I’m already Jewish!” she cried. “My mother was Jewish!”
“How do you know?” my husband and I called through the door.
“Because we always celebrated Chanukah!”
“OK, Helen, hang on, let us ask the rabbi,” we said.
The rabbi laughed merrily. “She picked the wrong holiday!” he said. “Ethiopian Jewry is older than Chanukah. If she’d said Sukkot, we’d have had something to talk about.”
“Helen, get out here!” we called, and she did.
She’s been trusting us ever since. She believes us that not all Jews are white people.
Helen is an excellent Hebrew student and prays beautifully. She’s an expert maker of charoset and matzah balls. She loves I. B. Singer’s children stories and she was a gorgeous Queen of Sheba in our local Purim parade. She helps me make Shabbat every Friday night; she practices Anim Zemirot over the phone with her college brother. She goes to Jewish sleep-away camp every summer and comes home brimming with Zionist fervor and new best friends.
Our Jewish community has accepted our daughter absolutely. So have they accepted adopted children from China, Guatemala, Honduras, and Eastern Europe. So have they accepted African American congregants.
We plan for Helen to study in Israel as our older children have studied. It will be obvious to everyone there, as it is obvious to us and to our extended family: this is what a Jewish child looks like.