We gather around the Shabbat candles. My fourteen-year-old daughter holds T, who’s almost four. I motion for her to take one step back. I’m worried that T is still too close. I light the first candle and T immediately begins to sing “Happy Birthday” in Cantonese as she tries desperately to blow out the candles between breaths. Instinctively, my fourteen-year-old takes a few more steps backwards. T struggles. She is determined to blow out the candles.
I point to the flames and tell her “No” firmly. She seems to understand, but I suppose it was my tone. She doesn’t know any English yet. She doesn’t know me yet. I have only been her mother for two hours.
The food on our Shabbat table is as unfamiliar to her as we all are. I hand her grape juice and try to communicate to her to wait. We don’t share a language. We don’t share DNA. We don’t share memories. All we really have shared so far are a dozen one hour visits within the confines of a sterile tiny institutional room.
She spills her entire cup of grape juice before my husband even begins Kiddush, and the next one too. I refill it a third time but hold onto it this time for her until it’s time to drink. It occurs to me that she probably has never had grape juice before and I’m not entirely certain that she has ever drank out of a cup (having only seen her drink from sippy cups).
We have chicken and noodles with Chinese spinach on the side in the hopes that some of this might seem somewhat familiar to her, but I truthfully don’t know what her meals were like.
She clutches the piece of challah offered to her. She doesn’t taste it. She just holds it.
We somehow make it through our first night. We don’t go to shul the next day, which feels strange, but everything feels strange to me. I can’t imagine how it feels to her.
Late Saturday evening when it’s my husband’s twentieth turn to try to settle her again, I check into Facebook. We had announced that she was home just before Shabbat.
There are so many comments. I try to read through them all. I am asked again and again, “What would prompt us to adopt since we already have three children of our own.” The question, though asked by people with the best of intentions, is framed by two false assumptions: that adoption is something only for people struggling with infertility and that this little girl isn’t our own.
And while I have so many questions, like “Will I ever be able to be the mother this little girl desperately needs and how long does it take to really learn to love someone?” the question of why is perhaps the only one I can easily answer.
It is simple. “We are Jewish,” and this to me is one of the clearest ways to express that.
Time creeps by. The days are long and filled with a seemingly endless struggle to get her to do things that are nonnegotiable, like hold my hand on the city streets and not hurt the cats.
It is her third week as part of our Jewish family. It is Friday afternoon. She and I are on our way home, somewhat in a rush, as we have stayed just a little too long at the playground. She is happy there. She can run and play and likely pretend that she is somewhere else. She still doesn’t speak much English. She barely speaks at all.
I spot a young couple huddled together scanning a map on the hill just above our home. He is wearing a kippah, black trousers and a white shirt and she a long skirt and a tichel. It is very close to Shabbat.
“Excuse me. Can I help you? Which do you need, Chabad or Ohel Leah,” I ask.
They abruptly look up from their map and look first at T in her playground clothes and then at me. They seem stunned.
“Chabad,” he answers, after pausing to consider how this strange pair has come to find them and how we are able to anticipate his question without him needing to ask.
“We live close by. Let us walk you part way and point you in the right direction,” I tell them. I push the stroller past our building while explaining the easiest way for them to get there. When I am certain that they are on the right track, I assure them that the walk will only take them another five minutes and they still have plenty of time.
They thank me profusely.
Then, from out of stroller, as if that was the most natural thing in the world for her to say, T yells “Shabbat Shalom!”
I turn to walk back in the opposite direction towards home. I pause to lean down and give her a kiss. I say, “I love you T. Mommy loves you.”
It will be a long time before she will know that her new name, T, is in fact a Hebrew name and is also my grandmother’s name ob”m. She doesn’t really understand what many of my words mean yet. She is still learning what it is to be loved and what it means to have a family, but I know that she is also quickly learning what it means to be a Jew.