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Tamar Lev-Zion's grin spreads from ear to ear and her eyes sparkle. She's holding the official notification of an astonishing 98 percent on the English section of her high-school bagrut (matriculation) exam.
Tamar was born with Down's syndrome and was abandoned in the hospital by her birth parents. For a time, no one thought she was capable of learning anything beyond the most rudimentary skills.
"I'm not surprised," says her adoptive mother, Martha Lev-Zion, a single woman who rescued the 14-month-old toddler from hospital neglect.
"I expected her to pass with a high score. I encouraged Tamar to expect that she'd do well. Expectations are very important for children. You have to set high standards and let the child know that you believe she has the ability to succeed."
The Israeli press covered the first sad year of Tamar's life (1985) extensively.
"Tamar's birth parents weren't prepared to accept the fact that their little bundle of joy wasn't perfect, so they left her in the hospital. At that time, Tamar was one of 22 such babies who'd been abandoned by their parents - but the real crime was that they were not being offered for adoption."
Lev-Zion first heard about Tamar from neighbors arguing over a television expose about the 22 abandoned babies. "They all had physical or mental problems such as spinal bifida or Down's - one little boy was blind. My neighbors were arguing about whether anyone would want to adopt such babies."
Lev-Zion jumped into the discussion. "I'd adopt a baby like that myself," she said, and asked her neighbors to help compose an application letter. Their skepticism was understandable: Lev-Zion was 45 years old, unmarried, and without children. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she made aliya in 1977 with a PhD in history and worked at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Why would a single, accomplished, professional woman complicate her life with a special needs child?
"I've always loved children. I worked with children with disabilities while studying at Columbia. The parents who gave birth to this child were not prepared. They expected something else. For me, that wasn't true - I knew what I was getting into. I chose it. That's the difference."
Long after her application was mailed, Lev-Zion received phone call. '"Come up for an interview,' a woman's voice said. 'What for?' I asked. 'To meet a social worker. Remember? You applied to adopt a baby!'"
Lev-Zion later learned the reason for the 16-week delay. After the television expose, 64 couples applied to adopt the 22 babies, but most changed their minds after seeing the children. Two parent families were given preference but each, in turn, had rejected Tamar. Only when no family units were left, was Lev-Zion given a chance.
"I visited the baby three times a week, for three hours at a time. I 'goo-goo'd' her, cuddled her, held her, jiggled her, talked to her. In all that time, she never once responded to me in any way. It occurred to me that this might be too big a project for me, but I pushed the thought away."
On May 18, 1986, Lev-Zion brought the baby home.
Tamar was emotionally scarred by her 14 months in hospital, says Lev-Zion. "She was kept in a closet with one other baby. She was fed - overfed, actually - and diapered, but no one loved her or played with her. No wonder she was unresponsive. But the day I came to pick her up, the most amazing thing happened. When I took her in my arms, she laughed! It was as though she knew that someone had come to take her home."
Two weeks later, the baby's grandfather telephoned her and promised help if needed. An aunt was also supportive. Lev-Zion went about caring for the baby, oblivious to the fact that the birth parents had filed a court petition to place her in an institution in New York. Social workers had not told her about the lawsuit, saying that information was released on a 'need to know' basis, and they didn't think Lev-Zion needed to know.
The birth parents lost their case in a lower court and appealed to the Supreme Court, where the aunt testified in favor of the adoption - but the issue was uncertain for many months.
"I'd asked about adoption papers many times and signed forms, but all I was given were papers relating to her medical condition, saying she had an IQ in the 40-73 range. It was three years before I knew she was finally mine," says Lev-Zion.
Problems constantly cropped up. "I found a wonderful nursery for Tamar near the university, but some parents complained to the director that they did not want their children to associate with a child with Down's. The director was marvelous. 'We're sorry you don't want your children to stay in our school', she told the parents."
Lev-Zion had many battles with the education establishment. At the time, children with Down's syndrome all went to special education, even though they may have had wide-ranging abilities.
"Down's syndrome," named for the British doctor who identified it in 1866, is a genetic condition in which a baby, for reasons yet unknown, is born with an extra chromosome. Approximately one out of 1,000 births results in a baby with Down's. Their ability to learn and function varies dramatically.
"I worked very hard with Tamar. She knew how to read and count even before she started school. To put her in special education as the bureaucrats wanted would be a total waste. I refused to accept it."
Lev-Zion fought for Tamar's education. "There simply were no good facilities for someone like her, so I finally compromised when they suggested an 'integrated' school for both special needs and regular kids. That was a mistake."
Lev-Zion attended an open parents' evening at the school and saw beautifully decorated, brightly colored classrooms. "Tamar's classroom was a small storage room with two tables and bare walls - for children who need more stimulation, not less. I picked her up and took her out. In one school, I was so frustrated that I demanded a regular classroom for Tamar. Eventually the principal agreed, and I found a teacher who agreed to take her, except for one hour a day of special math education. One day I dropped in to her 'math' classroom and found the students learning the aleph-bet, when Tamar could already read."
Tamar never really overcame the loss of a year of math, says Lev-Zion. "She can add up a bill, divide and multiply, but couldn't catch up. Tamar can learn anything, but more slowly and it takes much more effort."
Tamar had to work at copying from a blackboard. "First you have to read, then write what you read, then go back to the board and remember where you were. Tamar couldn't do it. She needed extra help, so I bought a blackboard and hung it on the wall at home. Evening after evening, we'd practice. Finally she got it - but it took an unbelievable amount of effort."
Down's children have distinctive character traits, says Lev-Zion. "Children with Down's are very stubborn. They get set in their ways and refuse to budge. We used that stubbornness to work for us, not against us. Hour after hour, Tamar would sit and study, analyze and apply, over and over, to learn each little thing."
Peer acceptance is one of the greatest hurdles for a Down's child. "When Tamar was in the 5th grade, she had three close girl friends; but one mother told me that her child was too good to be associating with a child with Down's, and ordered me to forbid their playing together. I was stunned - I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was very sad because even though the girls managed to stay in touch by telephone, Tamar was left without a friend. She was heartbroken. It affected her in many ways, and became very difficult to work with. It happened about the same time she began asking questions about her birth parents, why they'd abandoned her."
Tamar saw several psychologists over the years. "One told Tamar to write down 100 questions she'd like to ask her birth parents. That seemed to help her come to terms with her situation, but she's never really trusted anyone since. She still holds back from friendships. I think she doesn't want to risk being rejected again," says Lev-Zion.
Tamar is now 20 years old and ready to move into independent supervised living quarters in Beersheba. The shared home is one of a string of white cottages interspersed with flowers and greenery. Inside, chirping parakeets sing along with a television while men and women talk, laugh, and eat lunch in a common dining room. Everyone is greeted with warm hugs.
"I can't wait to move in. Some of my school friends will be here, and there are other people I can be friends with," says Tamar.
What are her plans, now that she's graduated high school?
"I'll work. I'm not sure what yet. I'll start as an apprentice somewhere - it'll be fun," she says.
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