Children of the Commandment

Other heroes (like Shimon Waronker) notwithstanding, Melissa Fay Greene and Donny Samuel get this year’s Jews and Others Award (which I just invented) for the Bar Mitzvah of the decade in Atlanta, where four of their five adopted children (three from Africa, one from Bulgaria) were called to the Torah in one morning as the fifth and their four older, biological children joined in and beamed proudly.

Each of the five adoptees was plucked out of orphanhood in a poor country and plunked down by Melissa and Donny into a stimulating and comfortable middle-class urban American life. And because their parents are very Jewish (without being remotely Orthodox)

all nine of the kids are too.

You can learn much more about this amazing family on Melissa’s web site, but I’m going to say things about the couple here—all good—that you won’t hear from her. While the rest of us watch remote suffering on TV and feel sad, they turn their lives inside out to offer deprived children from the other side of the world a wonderful life.

I met them in the ‘80s, when we were neighbors with small children who had recently settled in Atlanta. My wife and I shared pizza with them at a local place and heard about Don’s law practice—he’s now the best-known criminal defense attorney in these parts. We also heard Melissa was writing a book. To my credit, I was very supportive. I always am. But I walked off thinking, that’s nice, local mom aspires to authorship.

The book was Praying for Sheetrock, a lyrical and moving account of small-town race relations in seventies South Georgia. It was nominated for the National Book Award and listed as one of the 100 most important journalistic works of the twentieth century by The New York Times. Three other award-winning books followed, including The Temple Bombing, about the episode in the fifties when Atlanta’s leading Reform synagogue was attacked because its rabbi supported integration, and most recently There Is No Me Without You, about an Ethiopian woman who adopted over a hundred AIDS orphans.

Compared to that selfless lady, Melissa will readily tell you, she doesn’t think she’s done much, but to me, she and Donny are practically saints, and the results of all they have done were on display last Saturday, when these extraordinarily generous people took over a camp in North Georgia and Rabbi Hillel Norry (head of Atlanta’s Congregation Shearith Israel, largely moved north for the occasion) led a service in which four kids who had started life in Ethiopian or Bulgarian orphanages came to maturity as American Jews.

Daniel arrived only last year from Africa. Fisseha (aka Sol) has been here longer, while Helen (also from Ethiopia) and Jesse (the Bulgarian) have been here six or seven years. But all said the blessings over the Torah. Jesse and Helen read a hilarious skit in English, basically a riff on the Torah portion of the day, which said you have to take care of your brothers. (It means, said Jesse, if all of us are poor and move in with you, you can never kick us out!) Daniel read a translation of the Torah portion in Amharic.

But as the boys would freely tell you, diminutive, lovely, brilliant Helen, just shy of twelve, carried the largest liturgical burden. In impeccable Hebrew she read from the Torah about the Jubilee year—”Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof!” which is carved on our Liberty Bell, is in this portion–the Haftorah (a linked long excerpt from Jeremiah chanted in a different mode), and the entire service following the Torah reading.

When we first came to Atlanta we rejected this congregation because our daughters would not be treated equally. Now, under a new, liberal, young rabbi, not only a girl but a former African orphan whose mother died of AIDS was standing on the bima leading two hundred people in Jewish prayer, doing more at her Bat Mitzvah than most boys born Jewish in America ever do. So the Jewish Liberty Bell might have rung for Helen.

And of course, they all come from racial backgrounds that once would have tested the tolerance of most American Jewish congregations. But here and now they were tearfully welcomed into the Jewish fold, praised to the skies, and at the end of their great accomplishment showered with the traditional rain of candy, to link Jewish learning with all the sweetness of life.

Of course, not all that is Jewish is sweet. Daniel and Yosef, the ten-year-old whose Bar Mitzvah is still in the future, were circumcised recently, which can’t have been fun at their age. On the way home, Daniel reportedly said in his still halting English, “Mom… doctor…very dangerous…very dangerous!” But by the day of the huge sibling triumph, they were fully recovered and having a wonderful time.

During his remarks on the Torah portion, the deeply spiritual Rabbi Norry said, “Donny and Melissa asked me not to say anything about what they have done, so I won’t.” In the second or so of silence before he went on to praise the children, everyone—certainly every parent—there created in his or her own mind a moment’s monument to their sacrifices. When I mentioned it later to them separately, they each said, “It’s not about us.”

Well, maybe that wasn’t, but this is.

2 thoughts on “Children of the Commandment

  1. Hi Mel

    So nice meeting you too.  Thank you for forwarding me the link to your blog and for the beautiful piece on the "Jumbo Mitzvah".  But most of all, thank you for so beautifully putting into words what so many of us were thinking.

    Ok with you if I forward the link onto others?

    Best

    Faith Levy