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Ghosts of the Orphanage

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

13th Birthday in China

After the dramatic visit to the orphanage, the Helgesens planned some tourist activities to fill out the trip. They went to Mao's hometown, climbed the Great Wall and flew kites in Tiananmen Square. Leah celebrated her 13th birthday in China. She was delighted that her mother bought her a traditional silk dress in yellow, her favorite color. And two pairs of shoes, one pair with very high heels. Leah's parents teased her that since they were in China, and the Chinese respect their elders, she would have to be extra nice to her parents on her birthday. Leah retorted that she wasn't Chinese. Then, quickly correcting herself, she said, "Well I am Chinese, but too bad I don't follow the Chinese rules. So they have to be extra nice to me!"

Another Rite of Passage

Once the Helgesens return home, they look forward to another major family event. Leah begins preparing for her bat mitzvah, the Jewish passage into adulthood. Becky is Jewish, and Tom is the son of a Lutheran minister. They are raising their children Jewish.

While Leah practices chanting her Hebrew up in her bedroom, Becky designs the invitations for the event. They've already had one clash over designs. Becky picked one that was navy blue and white. Leah nixed it in favor of something more her style: yellow and sparkly.

Becky explains that while she's not exactly the most religious person in the world, connecting Leah with the generations in her family is a powerful experience. She remembers hearing Leah's Hebrew name for the first time at her naming ceremony shortly after the adoption. "Because in Hebrew names, it's 'daughter-of' and Leah's case, it's 'daughter of Rebekah' because Tom's not Jewish." And when I heard 'Leah bat Rivka' that meant more to me than any of the adoption stuff."

The bat mitzvah would be a huge test for Leah. "It's very scary for her, partly because some of her language disabilities really press her to the wall and it's a challenge for her to learn to chant the Hebrew," says Becky. The event will combine many of the skills that are toughest for Leah: learning a foreign alphabet, reading fluently and carrying a tune. All in front of an audience.

"The hardest I guess you have to go like in front of everyone. Ugh! It's killing me," sighs Leah.

Leah at her bat mitzvah.
photo by Sasha Aslanian

Finally the day arrives at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. A crowd of about 50 people gathers to hear Leah be called to the Torah. She is nervous. She calls attention to every stumble, and the cantor is soothing. But then Leah is chanting, with the cantor, then alone, her voice soaring.

Surrounded by friends and family, Leah Helgesen, a Chinese daughter, becomes a Jewish woman.

Becky says Leah understands she has multiple identities, each of them important. "She is connected ... to her birth family who we will never know, but we know some things about them, and she's connected to her Chinese heritage and traditions, and that can't be taken away from her. And she's also connected to our family's heritage and traditions, and that's a very important part of her. And that's the part I can do something about. I can't do too much about some of the other parts, but I can do something about this one."

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