Adopted Russian sisters leave their red shoes behind

Everyone told Pamela Singer she was crazy.

Crazy to adopt two children as a single parent. Crazy to choose children who spoke no English and had no medical records. Crazy to try her hand at parenting while running her own business.

But when Singer went to the airport to meet her daughters Aksana, 7, and Dina, 5, for the first time, she knew she had made the right decision.

"I didn't know how to respond. These were my children walking off the plane. They looked like they just stepped off a Walt Disney set, wearing little red dresses and red patent-leather shoes. I instantly went down on my knees, to look at them face to face," says Singer, who had sent the girls a book of photos of herself and the San Francisco condominium that would be their home.

"Aksana pulled the little book of photos out of her backpack and said `Hi, mommy.'"

That was all the English the girls knew.

Now, only nine weeks away from an orphanage in the former Soviet Union, the sisters have picked up enough English to talk about trick or treating and Pocahontas. As for their mother, she has not only learned enough Berlitz-enhanced Russian to communicate with the girls, she also seems to have slipped into the parental role as easily as if it were her mother tongue.

In an interview, Singer sits flanked by her daughters on a fluffy couch. Together for just over two months, the trio already performs the mother-daughter dance like a well-rehearsed and seamless tango. Dina leans across her mother's lap, as Aksana fits her head into the crook of her mother's shoulder. As Singer talks, boo-boos are kissed, hair is stroked, apples and colored markers are provided just as the children get fidgety.

"She's an incredible artist," says Singer, holding up Aksana's carefully penned drawing of a house and yellow-orange sun. The older child is a perfectionist. After completing the picture, and tearing it out of a sketch book, she carefully runs a scissors along the page's jagged edge.

As the two girls color, looking down at their work with huge brown eyes, they seem as peaceful as the painted, wooden Russian dolls that decorate the home.

Singer, on the other hand, is temporarily emotional. Just talking about her frequent trips to the hospital, which finally led to an emergency hysterectomy in December of 1993, forces her take to off her glasses and dab the corners of her eyes.

Having biological children was suddenly impossible. "It was one of the biggest tragedies I had experienced. I thought I was going to get pregnant, do a `Murphy Brown,' I guess you'd call it," recalls the self-employed corporate head-hunter.

Slowly, she began researching the possibility of adopting, attending local seminars and talking to adoptive parents. She knew she wanted to adopt two children, and when a local international adoption consultant showed her a picture of Aksana and Dina, she felt an instant connection.

"I just knew they were mine. I just knew. It's the most phenomenal thing. I can't explain it. When I reached into my heart, I knew," Singer says.

She knew she wanted to raise the sisters, who come from Krasnodar, a town near the Ukrainian border. But she didn't know that the girls had a secret about their past.

Singer — a volunteer for several local Jewish agencies — prepared a Shabbat meal to teach her new daughters about the holiday. Candles, grape juice and challah were placed on the table, and 15-year-old Zoya Prepelitsky, a former Hebrew Academy student, was invited as a translator. Soon Prepelitsky began having "a long conversation with Aksana," Singer recalls.

She told the translator that her birth mother was Jewish, and so was her babushka (grandmother).

Singer, wary of Soviet anti-Semitism, hadn't included her religion on adoption papers filed with the local Redwood City agency, Adopt International. Likewise, the orphanage in Krasnodar hadn't told the American adoption agency the sisters were Jewish.

"They told me it was very rare for Jewish children to be in orphanages. Usually, there's an extended family to take them in," Singer says.

After confirming Aksana's story with her former orphanage, Singer canceled her plans to convert the girls — they were already Jewish.

Converting the girls to their new life in America, however, wasn't always so easy. For the first two weeks, for example, they would only wear the red patent leather shoes they came with — the only shoes they owned before moving here.

"They wore those shoes to the park, on walks, everywhere. They would slide all over, fall. But they just wouldn't put on the tennis shoes I bought them. The shoes were the only connection they had between Russia and their new home," says Singer.

Finally, after several weeks, the girls stopped wearing the red shoes. With frequent reminders from their mother that this was their permanent home, that she wouldn't send them away, the girls settled in.

Currently, they attend Hillwood Academy, a small private school where teachers can spend extra time helping the girls with their English. A half hour of "Sesame Street" every morning and a Jewish Community Center music program are also helping the Singer girls integrate into their new lives.

Their mother also credits support from her parents, Ellie and Bill Hillman of Moraga, and dozens of friends who have called daily with encouragement. Everyone from family to strangers on the street are curious about the family, and tell Singer they are inspired by her gift to the children.

"People are always saying what a great mitzvah I did for the girls," Singer says. "I always tell people, I need them as much as they need me."