Sunday, October 11, 2009

The heritage

Arik and his half-Russian half-Ukrainian wife are here in Kiyv, doubling the size of their family by adopting three children from Ukraine.

Two of the children they are adopting are Jewish. A. participated in a hosting program in the US, and there was an intent from the hosting family's part to adopt A. and her brother D. They thought that A.'s protests that she didn't want to be Christian were a passing phase, but luckily they realised that as much as A. liked them, she had no desire to become part of their family before a lot of money and time was invested into the potential adoption.

When talking about them, A. makes a distant facial expression.
"They were nice people, they just didn't want me to be Jewish."

I ask her what it means to her to be Jewish. Intense concentration follows as she counts it out on her fingers.
"Jews don't believe in Jesus. Jews don't celebrate Christmas. When my mother was alive, we never ate pork. There is only one G-d."

Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

The 5 years since their mother died is like eternity for an 11-year-old child. Her whole life was taken from her, being moved to a different city, to an orphanage, leaving everything she knew behind. Everything but one thing: she knows she is Jewish. She remembers bits and pieces from the life that was: the first lines of the Shema, the way her mother baked challah and the wine cup of the kiddush.

Visiting their hometown to get the necessary confirmation from the local rabbiless synagogue that she indeed is Jewish, an old lady gives Svetlana two pewter candle sticks and a kiddush cup. They belonged to A. and D.'s parents. She also thinks she might have old pictures of the children and their parents, so she gets Svetlana's address. With a wrinkled smile she says, "You live close to my son. I will take you the photos in the summer." Svetlana asks her about the children's father. Her face takes upon the same expression as A.'s the day before as she tells the story of the man who went to Kiyv for a better job and was killed there in an accident. "He was a nice man. He wasn't religious, but he always came to pray on the High Holidays."

Eve of Simchat Torah, eve of  Shabbat. Sitting on a worn couch in a Kiyv apartment, the third child, G. is looking through photos of Simchat Torah, marvelling at serious, bearded men dancing with the Torah scrolls. She doesn't understand, so I try to explain it to her with the few Russian words I know and with the few English words she knows. Svetlana brings out the Torah in Russian, and they read the last portion of Deuteronomy and then turn the book to the very front.
In the beginning...
G. comes back to my laptop to look at the funny men dancing with their Torah. "They sure are happy to have their Torah," she says.
A. nods with an all-knowing smile: "It's a lot shorter than the Christian Bible."

That's a valid point, too. 

Bedtime comes, the three kids share a double bed. Before tucking them in, they say their evening prayers with Sviet and Arik. A. and D. recite the Shema, G. longingly looks on. Arik sits down with her and teaches her the Lord's prayer. She hesitates after a few lines, but goes on for the sake of Arik.

Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.

G. had been christened Roman Catholic, a week before she was left in the baby home. That is the extent of her religiousness. Her orphanage was visited a few times by Christian missionaries, but she never really got much religion out of it. What she got was more memorable than that: human touch and attention that she had never known.She got some coloring books from them and hair fixings that she still has and cherishes.

The morning comes. Three clear young voices ring out. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.

Churchbells ring somewhere as the new family sits down for breakfast together. I catch Svetlana's passing glance. It's full of questions, full of wonder. They are so different yet they are the same: they are now a family.

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