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From Le Thi Hong to Rivka Shoshanah

Review of Rebecca's Journey Home, by Brynn Olenberg Sugarman, illustrated by Michelle Shapiro (Kar-Ben, 2006).

Last year, a good friend traveled to China to bring home her new daughter. She wasn't alone. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 13 percent of all adopted children in the United States were foreign-born (258,000) and nearly half of them were born in Asia.

Families with international adoptees know that their children will face special challenges, from racial discrimination to the more subtle issue of identifying both with their biological heritage and their new family's cultural background. These are issues for which children's books can be immensely helpful, and in recent years, many books have appeared with the theme of international adoption.

Rebecca's Journey Home is just such a book, with something added. For a Jewish family adopting a child from Asia, Rebecca's Journey Home fills a special niche. While addressing adoption issues, the story focuses particularly on bringing an Asian child into a religious Jewish home.

As the story begins, the family (mom, dad and two sons) is excited because it's finally time for the mother to depart for Vietnam. Author Bynn Olenberg Sugarman handles the question of "why" in a particularly sensitive way:

Mrs. Stein had always wanted to adopt a baby. She loved her two boys, Jacob and Gabriel, very very much. It had felt warm and wonderful each time she had a baby in her belly. But she also knew there was another way to build a family. That was to share their home with a child who was already born.

Much of the story focuses on the name of the Stein Family's new daughter, and this proves to be a useful conceit for exploring identity. When the children argue whether she will still be Vietnamese after she joins the family, the mother explains how it's possible for her to be Vietnamese, Jewish and American all at the same time. Her given name is Le Thi Hong. The name bestowed on her by her new family is Rebecca Rose. Later, when the baby is brought to the mikvah, the ritual bath, she gains yet another name. Now, she has a Hebrew name: Rivka Shoshanah.

"She was Vietnamese, American and Jewish.
'And she'll be many more things someday," Mrs. Stein said.
'Maybe a mother like you," Jacob suggested. 'Or an astronaut like me," Gabe added.

It's a winning approach for exploring these issues, especially for a family with young children. The bright, double-page illustrations and softly appealing portraits of the family will entice young children to sit through a reading. For somewhat older siblings whose feelings are more challenging, families might consider pairing Rebecca's Journey Home with Just Add One Chinese Sister by Patricia McMahon and Conor Clarke McCarthy, illustrated by Karen A. Jerome (Boyds Mills Press, 2005). This sensitive story about Asian adoption, while not including the Jewish perspective, is nevertheless beautifully told from the ambivalent perspective of the older sibling in the family.

For Jewish families and for interfaith families, these recent offerings about international adoption will be warmly welcomed.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher.
Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.

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