Melis­sa Fay Greene is the author of No Bik­ing in the House With­out a Hel­metShe will be blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Author Blog series.

The whole fam­i­ly at Yose­f’s bar mitzah par­ty, 2010

In Addis Aba­ba, Ethiopia, in Novem­ber 2001, I pulled up to the gates of the com­pound of the Beta Israel peo­ple (dis­parag­ing­ly known as Falashas [strangers]), hop­ing to be admit­ted, along with my brand-new daugh­ter, to Shab­bat morn­ing services.

Arriv­ing among these reli­gious­ly-obser­vant and des­ti­tute peo­ple, of rur­al ori­gin, by taxi rather than on foot was like­ly to make a poor impres­sion. But I’d known no one in the area to ask for Shab­bat hos­pi­tal­i­ty and my hotel stood half a city away from this dusty ram­shackle neigh­bor­hood of mud huts and cor­ru­gat­ed tin roofs. It was my first trip to Ethiopia. I’d flown sev­en thou­sand miles to report for the New York Times Mag­a­zine on con­di­tions among some of Africa’s orphans of HIV/AIDS (which even­tu­al­ly gave rise to my book, There Is No Me With­out You (Blooms­bury, 2007) and to meet a five-year-old girl named Helen, whom my fam­i­ly was adopting.

Helen in the orphanage

We were an Amer­i­can-Jew­ish fam­i­ly of sev­en, liv­ing in Atlanta; we had four chil­dren by birth and one by adop­tion from Bul­gar­ia. The year the chil­dren were 6, 9, 13, 17, and 20, I lin­gered at the sun­ny kitchen table one morn­ing and read in the news­pa­per that the Unit­ed Nations was call­ing Africa a con­ti­nent of orphans.” Four­teen to twen­ty-five mil­lion chil­dren had lost one or both par­ents to HIV/AIDS. I read those pages not only as a con­cerned world cit­i­zen, but as a jour­nal­ist, and as a moth­er aware that a per­fect­ly good twin bed upstairs was going unused. Could I write about this?” I won­dered. I’d only stepped foot in Africa once, in Moroc­co, in my 20s. Can you adopt from Africa?” I also won­dered. Can you adopt one of the four­teen to twen­ty-five mil­lion orphaned children?”

Aware of Israel’s air­lift of 20,000 Ethiopi­an Jews to Israel in 1984 in Oper­a­tion Moses (Mivtzah Moshe) and anoth­er 15,000 in Oper­a­tion Solomon (Mitz­vah Shlo­mo) in 1991, I locat­ed online an orga­ni­za­tion called the North Amer­i­can Con­fer­ence on Ethiopi­an Jew­ry [NACOEJ], which helped sup­port Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions in Addis. I phoned their New York office and asked, Are any of the Jew­ish chil­dren orphans in need of adoption?”

The answer was yes, there were orphans, but no, they were not avail­able for adop­tion. NACOEJ’s mis­sion was to bring the peo­ple to Israel. They told me of an Amer­i­can orphan­age in Addis, and I phoned there next, ask­ing the same ques­tion in reverse: Are any of the orphans Jewish?”

They may be,” I was told, but many don’t know what they are. We have a quar­ter-of-a-mil­lion orphans here. Is that your only criteria?”

By Novem­ber I was on a plane to Addis: the New York Times had com­mis­sioned a sto­ry; and my fam­i­ly had been matched with Helen, a tiny, bright, and dar­ling (non-Jew­ish) girl who’d lost her father when she was two, and her dot­ing moth­er just a few months earlier.

Our first after­noon togeth­er in Addis Aba­ba, I took Helen shop­ping for new clothes, includ­ing shul clothes, and watched as she stepped out of her dusty orphan­age jean over­alls and into a com­pli­cat­ed plaid wool jumper, a white blouse with a lace col­lar, and a roy­al blue cor­duroy jack­et with brass but­tons. Curly yarn sheep were affixed to the jumper and jack­et. The ensem­ble seemed designed to be worn in Scot­land at Christ­mas­time rather than on a dry African plateau in 90-plus-degree heat to a jer­ry-rigged local syn­a­gogue. While I paid for the out­fit and a new pair of san­dals, she hopped beside me in excitement.

Helen now

Helen wore her new clothes that Sat­ur­day morn­ing as our taxi parked out­side the Jew­ish com­pound. Half a dozen young men — guards — sur­round­ed our car and looked through the win­dows. Helen scoot­ed under my arm in shy­ness. Our dri­ver got out of the car to explain that I was an Amer­i­can Jew hop­ing to attend ser­vices. Argu­ments seemed to fol­low, with a lot of ges­tic­u­lat­ing, while more young men jock­eyed for a clos­er look at us through the win­dows. I rolled down the win­dow to greet them with my pal­try num­ber of Hebrew words. I dis­played my Chai neck­lace, but they turned away. The dis­cus­sion grew heat­ed out­side the car, until the taxi dri­ver got back in to report that the guards did not think I looked Jew­ish. The child looked Jew­ish, but I did not. If only I’d brought a let­ter from a rab­bi or from the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, they would have wel­comed me hap­pi­ly; but, with­out any­one vouch­ing for me, they were oblig­ed to turn me away.

In Amer­i­ca, I look Jew­ish. In Ethiopia, I did not look Jew­ish. In Ethiopia, Helen looked Jew­ish. But, in Amer­i­ca, Helen does not look Jew­ish. She has borne this brave­ly, while embrac­ing Judaism with a full heart.

In my book, I describe prepar­ing Helen for her con­ver­sion to Judaism at age six, includ­ing a vis­it to the mikveh. Jesse, then age 7, tried to explain:

Jesse had loved con­vert­ing to Judaism! Well, he hadn’t loved the in-hos­pi­tal under-total-anes­the­sia cir­cum­ci­sion, but he didn’t real­ly remem­ber it. He had loved going to the mikveh. To attain a state of rit­u­al puri­ty, reli­gious men and women dis­robe and immerse them­selves in a cis­tern, a nat­ur­al spring, a flow­ing riv­er, the ocean, or a very small indoor pool. Jesse fear­less­ly, naked­ly, can­non-balled into the water of a tiled mikveh at a local syn­a­gogue under the gaze of an Ortho­dox rab­bi; he immersed him­self the required three times, and for good mea­sure did a som­er­sault, his lit­tle white butt flash­ing briefly above the water line.

Now, in the back seat of the car, he excit­ed­ly pre­pared Helen for her vis­it to the mikveh. The blue-green water will cov­er all your body and make you Jew­ish!” he enthused.
Yes! You take off all your clothes and you jump in!”
Wait. You take off all your clothes?” she asked.
Yes! And you jump in the blue-green water!”
And the rabbi’s there?”
Then I’m not tak­ing off my clothes.”
Yes, you have to,” he insist­ed. The blue-green water touch­es every part of your body and makes you Jew­ish.”
I’ll wear a swim­suit,” she said.
You can’t! Right, Mom­my? You have to be naked so the blue-green water can touch every part of your body and make you Jew­ish!”
I am not tak­ing off my under­pants.”
You have to!” he said again„ alarmed by this unfore­seen obsta­cle. (In fact, it would be con­duct­ed with mod­esty and pri­va­cy.) Jesse was near­ly weep­ing now: The blue-green water has to touch every part of your body to make you Jew­ish.”
For­get it,” Helen pro­nounced, look­ing out the win­dow to end the dis­cus­sion. I am wear­ing my under­pants.”
FINE!” yelled Jesse. Fine! But your BUTT is NOT going to be Jewish!”

Though Helen had been reas­sured of the mod­esty of the mikveh cer­e­mo­ny, she nev­er­the­less pan­icked when the big day was upon us. She refused to emerge unclothed from the dress­ing room. I don’t need to do this! I’m already Jew­ish!” she cried through the closed door. My moth­er was Jewish!”

Helen, REAL­LY? How do you know?” my hus­band and I called back.
Because we always cel­e­brat­ed Chanukah!”
OK, sweet­ie, hang on, let us ask the rabbi.”

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, no, you’re not Jew­ish, come out!” we called, and she came.

She’s been trust­ing us ever since. She believes us that not all Jews are white peo­ple, although she was the only child of col­or in Reli­gious School (until a fam­i­ly arrived with an adopt­ed bira­cial daugh­ter). She was the only child of col­or at her Jew­ish sleep­away camp. She was a gor­geous and his­tor­i­cal­ly-accu­rate Queen of She­ba (who was from Ethiopia) in Atlanta’s Purim parade. She helps make Sha­bos every Fri­day night. She dav­ened so beau­ti­ful­ly and haunt­ing­ly at her bat mitz­vah, and then at her younger brother’s bar mitz­vah — lead­ing the Torah ser­vice, read­ing from the Torah, chant­i­ng the Haftorah, lead­ing Min­chah — that elder­ly men wept and asked where she’d been all their lives.

When Helen has out­grown her Jew­ish sleep­away camp, we will be hap­py to send her to Israel for trav­el and study, like her old­er sib­lings have done. I believe it will be obvi­ous to every­one in Israel — teem­ing with Ethiopi­an Jew­ry — as it is obvi­ous to us and to our con­gre­ga­tion: this is what a Jew­ish child looks like.

Melis­sa Fay Greenes No Bik­ing in the House With­out a Hel­met is now avail­able. She will be blog­ging here all week.

A two-time Nation­al Book Award final­ist and win­ner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Hadas­sah Myr­tle Wreath Award, the ACLU Nation­al Civ­il Lib­er­ties Award & oth­er hon­ors, Melis­sa Fay Greene is a cur­rent Guggen­heim Fel­low, a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times Mag­a­zine, and a fre­quent guest on NPR.