On most sacred day of year, Chinese-born girl became ours

It was the most sacred day of the Jewish year, but we weren’t in shul. Nevertheless, we hoped our absence would be forgiven this Yom Kippur. We were in Hefei, China, on Oct. 4, 1995, waiting in a hotel room to meet our daughter for the first time.

Having flown here through Typhoon Sybil, and having watched everyone else in our 12-family adoption group receive their babies amid applause in the hotel lobby that morning, we were more than ready to welcome the child we would call Sylvie. But she wouldn’t be arriving until late afternoon.

I had never been a parent before, and I was more nervous than I had been on my wedding day. Anxious to finally embrace our child after years of wanting her, my husband, David, and I decided to quell our stress by spending the time together creating an impromptu Yizkor, the Yom Kippur service during which we remember the dead.

David had brought our Marin congregation’s poetic machzor, and we took turns reading passages aloud. Then we talked of family members we have lost, especially those our daughter would be named after: David’s Aunt Sylvia, Grandmother Pauline and Grandma Sarah, and my Aunt Jo. That dull little room in the Anhui Hotel practically glowed with the spiritual presence of so many loving, strong women.

When it was time, we read the Ne’ilah service, during which it is believed the Book of Life is sealed for another year.

Just as we finished, one of our Chinese guides arrived, followed by an orphanage foster mother carrying a frightened, screaming 22-month-old girl. As her cries grew louder, her foster mother repeated to her, “Mamma, Mamma,” and pointed to me. Then she put Sylvie in my arms and abruptly left. It took at least five minutes, the longest five minutes of our lives, but armed with cookies and patience, we eventually managed to calm Sylvie down.

Within 24 hours, she made it abundantly clear that she had accepted us as her parents by pointedly rejecting every one of our guides and their orphanage-official companions while clinging tightly to us. Only one night after Yom Kippur had ended, we were already playing patty-cake and peek-a-boo to her contagious giggles and enjoying her performance of a Chinese song, complete with gestures to act it out.

But the little girl from China who had just become Sylvie Josephine had yet another story to live before she would have her full Hebrew name.

Two months after we returned to our Marin County home from China, we began arranging a baby-naming in David’s hometown in Connecticut. Suddenly, his father, Abraham Knepler, was hospitalized. When his condition worsened, we flew to Connecticut in January 1996, fearing that this would be his last chance to meet his only grandchild, Sylvie, and, sadly, it was, because he died a month later.

It was a great consolation that when they had met in the intensive care unit of Bridgeport Hospital, although Sylvie was shy and frightened of all the medical devices hooked up to Grandpa Abe, she had brought such joy to her 84-year-old grandfather; he had been showing off photos of her to everyone in the Jewish Home for months.

As if to sum up the cycle of life we were witnessing, he’d struggled for the right word to describe her, saying, “She’s so…vital.” Although it was difficult for him to speak, he aptly characterized her: “She sparkles.”

And how right he was. Sylvie, now 3-1/2, is the life of the party everywhere we go. Total strangers continually comment to us about our “little dynamo,” our “ball of fire,” our “beautiful baby.”

Months after we had returned from Connecticut, David planned another baby-naming for August 1996. But before her naming in the Conservative synagogue where David had celebrated his bar mitzvah, she was converted in a mikveh because, as B’Nai Torah’s Rabbi S. Jerome Wallin defined it, we had no way of knowing if Sylvie’s birthmother was Jewish. With the mikveh over, the celebration could begin.

Sylvie already had a very long Hebrew name: Sara (for David’s father’s mother), Peral (for his mother’s mother), Neilah (for the final service of Yom Kippur), bat Avraham Avinu (because all converts are considered sons and daughters of the patriarch Abraham). But a day before the naming, the rabbi, who had led David’s bar mitzvah and had been good friends with David’s father, insisted we add one more.

So to echo Avraham, we named her Avigayil, after the brave prophetess. It was in this way that Sylvie came to be named for someone she had actually met, unlike other Ashkenazi Jews, who are usually named only after the deceased.

At the nearly three-hour Torah service for her naming, numerous friends and relatives honored us by taking aliyahs. Since females are not allowed on this synagogue’s bimah, the rabbi came down to Sylvie to bless her, and it was clear from the expression on his face that he has a special place in his heart for her.

At the naming party for Sylvie Josephine Knepler, Avigayil Sara Peral Neilah bat Avraham Avinu Knepler, we had friends, family, food, and thankfully, plenty of Kleenex, as remembrance is so emotional. While Sylvie and her 4-year-old friend, Jake, chased each other around the room, we remembered people she was named for. Different family members each read a letter to Sylvie about one of the people she was named after, wishing for her the best qualities of that person.

After each remembrance, we laughed at funny memories, and sometimes shed tears. David read the last letter, about the name Neilah, and about how it seemed on Oct. 4, 1995, one last little angel, our Sylvie, had slipped out through the gates of heaven on Yom Kippur just as they were closing.

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