Review: No Biking in the House without a Helmet

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While their friends were counting down the days until their empty nest, Melissa Fay Greene and her husband Don Samuel realized they didn’t feel “done” with having children.  They talked about another, but at 42 Melissa reluctantly decided that she was too old. After a surprise pregnancy and miscarriage at 45, she began looking into adoption and ultimately adopted five children. She tells her family’s story in No Biking in the House without a Helmet, published by Sarah Crichton Books.

The Samuel family first adopted a 4-year-old boy, their 5th child, from an orphanage in Bulgaria. When parents express interest in a particular orphan, the agency in the foreign country prepares a video of the child for the parents to evaluate. The Samuels found an expert to analyze the tapes to discover whether the children have suffered neurological damage. So many of the children have been abused or neglected before or during their orphanage stay. The expert will assess the child’s neurological and communication skills. Delayed development is expected, but there is always the risk that there has been irreversible damage.

An important measure of neurological development is head circumference. Before adopting 4-year-old Jesse, the adoption official had to have the orphanage in Bulgaria recheck the measurement, which had been in error. That clinched their decision. As she would do with each subsequent child, Greene traveled to the country of her future son to get to know him and his environment. Then she returned home—the worst part for the children—to finalize the arrangements.

The first months at home with Jesse were difficult. Jesse clung to her,  rocked himself to sleep, and trembled in fear at the thought of not having enough to eat or drink. When he got a deep gash in his face from a fall, he didn’t cry out. These behaviors were typical of children raised in orphanages.  Greene writes, “I had no idea if he was going to turn out to be a regular little kid or if we were at the top of a staircase that would descend into years of confusion and difficulty and loneliness and chaos.”  Greene later learned that she might have suffered from “post-adoption depression syndrome.” Reading about adoptive parents who fall in love at first sight with their new child set up an unrealistic expectation, just as it can for parents who give birth biologically.

Eventually, Jesse adjusted—Greene and the family did grow to love him–so they looked into adopting again. This time, they chose Ethiopia where they found a reliable agency and healthy children who had started off in loving families, but were orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Ultimately four subsequent Ethiopian children joined the family.

Sometimes Greene’s book reads more like  series of loosely connected essays instead of a cohesive account, but many scenes that will remain with me  for their sensitivity, honesty and humor:

  • Transferring their oldest child, Molly, out of public high school to an Orthodox Jewish school for two years: “We had kept her safe, but we’d made her sad.”
  • A visit to an Ethiopian orphanage, while equipped with whoopee cushions. “‘Ethiopians are very polite people,’  I was told. ‘They will not appreciate whoopee cushions.’ I’d never met children that polite, I felt, so I packed them.”
  • A spontaneous and skeptical decision to follow 8-year-old Fisseha’s directions to his grandmother’s home in the heart of Addis Ababa, and the emotional yet humorous reunion that followed.
  • The mixed feelings of the now-Americanized children when they return to their native Ethiopia with their adoptive parents to collect the final two members of the family, a pair of brothers.
  • The children on the dance floor at an Ethiopian restaurant, recalling intricate moves they didn’t know they had ever learned.
  • Sol’s (Fisseha’s) prowess with spearing game, making him the star of the neighborhood.

Greene discusses the ethical dilemmas involved in taking children away from their home country, to a new culture and religion and a mixed-race family. Her family worked to preserve each child’s traditions and personal connections. Her analysis of her parenting decisions seems indulgent at times, but you forgive her because she is so sincere, and well aware that her family was privileged to be able to provide both emotionally and materially for these children. Which is why her story is so inspiring.

More on books from A Mother in Israel:

The River of Doubt, by Candace Millard

What Plotlines Do You Avoid in Novels?

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

 

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Comments

  1. I’m so excited to see that my local public library actually HAS this book. Looking forward to reading it – thanks for your honest, helpful review.
    Jennifer in MamaLand recently posted..Pinchas Parsha Summary: TRUE leaders and NEW leadersMy Profile

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  2. miriami says:

    One of the most moving books I ever read was Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock. She is such a gifted writer and caring person. Thanks for the review.

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  3. I so thoroughly enjoyed this book. I’d long admired Greene’s writing. This book was fantastic. Such a moving story and told with her unique flair.
    Rebecca Einstein Schorr recently posted..Being AdventurousMy Profile

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  4. “Greene discusses the ethical dilemmas involved in taking children away from their home country, to a new culture and religion and a mixed-race family.”

    i think it’s very wrong to adopt a kid from a different religion and expect him or her to join another faith while still a youth. i know halacha provides for this and it is the standard practice, but in my mind it’s a forced conversion and the geirus should be invalidated.

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  5. @Abba’sRantings – It’s a good thing you’re not in charge, because probably MOST adoptions in religious Jewish families probably involve some type of conversion. It’s only a “forced conversion” if you consider Judaism to be something unpleasant, a burden. In fact, the halachic principle is that you are giving your child the great BENEFIT of a religious Jewish upbringing. Of course, should the child choose – at the age of bar/bat mitzvah – to return to the religion of his or her birth, the conversion is simply (according to my understanding) nullified by their wish. Most families I know raising (converted) Jewish children of another culture do their very best to expose the child to that culture as well. I was waiting for bais din one day and the people ahead of me were a couple with their little Chinese daughter… they were going to name her Miriam. I actually teared up, thinking of the wonderful Jewish life she would have with her new family, instead of in some miserable orphanage somewhere, unwanted. I think it’s beautiful that, like our hearts, Hashem’s “bris” with bnei Yisrael is big enough to accomodate everybody, even those who weren’t born Jewish. Sorry this is so long… just had to jump in to vehemently disagree. ;-)
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    • JENNIFER:

      “It’s only a “forced conversion” if you consider Judaism to be something unpleasant, a burden.”

      no. it’s only forced conversion if you consider that 12/13 year olds lack the knoweldge, mental capacity and maturity to make a permanent and all-encompsing major life-changing decision such as conversion. it is further forced if you consider that said children may be making a “choice” to be jewish due to a conflict of interests (conscious or otherwise)

      “the halachic principle is that you are giving your child the great BENEFIT of a religious Jewish upbringing”

      please point me to a source for this principle in a standard halahic work.
      but on the topic of halachic principles, my understanding is that 12/13 is the age of adulthood (in terms of obligations) and that is why children converts get to decide at that point. but just like today we would not even fathom letting kids get married at 12/13 (normal according to halacha), i don’t understand why they are any more prepared to make the decision to convert at that age.
      finally, we don’t (today) actively seek converts (although we welcome those who come to us). we are not a prosletying people. no matter how special we think the benefits of yiddishkeit are, we don’t go door-to-door to spread it. thus i don’t give any weight to your point that a child is better off by bringer him/her into the fold.

      “I think it’s beautiful that, like our hearts, Hashem’s “bris” with bnei Yisrael is big enough to accomodate everybody, even those who weren’t born Jewish.”

      i don’t disagree in the least. but this has nothing to do with my point. i don’t in the least bit object to converts joining the jewish people as full members. my objection is to childhood conversions.

      “It’s a good thing you’re not in charge”

      probably for more than one reason!

      “Sorry this is so long”

      back at you
      Abba’s Rantings recently posted..David’s MoonMy Profile

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      • alpidarkomama says:

        Two of our children were adopted, both converted, BUT Jewish conversions are not halachically binding until bar/bas mitzvah (when the child himself confirms the decision to be a Jew), so I think it’s essentially a non-issue!

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  6. Not to hijack the thread so this is my last, but I wanted to add a source here:
    >”please point me to a source for this principle in a standard halahic work.”
    http://www.koltorah.org/ravj/The_Ger_Katan_Controversy_1.html
    (not a standard halachic work, but he brings in several)
    In any event, agreeing or disagreeing is somewhat irrelevant, like disagreeing that marriage should be something a man does, in halacha, by giving a ring worth a prutah to acquire a woman; to modern sensibilities it may feel wrong, but practically speaking, that’s how it’s Done ;-))
    Let’s leave Mother in Israel out of this and let her visitors find out more about this good book/author…
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  7. ALPIDARKOMAMA:

    “so I think it’s essentially a non-issue”

    of course it isn’t. may you get much nachas from them.

    JENNIFER:

    thanks. kesubos 11 is certainly a standard source.
    abba’s rantings recently posted..David’s MoonMy Profile

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