Searching for My Birth Mother's Jewish Heritage

How I Grew Up as a Non-Jewish Adoptee in an Orthodox Family

‘Reindeer-herding Appalachian Jew’: Albert Stern (left) was adopted into an Orthodox Jewish family and enjoys teaching his son about his British, Appalachian and Native American roots.
Dani E. Go
‘Reindeer-herding Appalachian Jew’: Albert Stern (left) was adopted into an Orthodox Jewish family and enjoys teaching his son about his British, Appalachian and Native American roots.

By Albert Stern

Published August 13, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014.

Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family in Miami Beach in the 1960s was like being raised in a Technicolor Anatevka.

Shabbats and Jewish holidays dictated the rhythm of life for the community. I spent endless hours in synagogues davening or pretending to, and half of each school day focused on Jewish studies. Firsthand accounts of horrifying events were related to me by garishly clad old men and women with numbers tattooed on their forearms, who spent the sunny days brooding on folding chairs beneath the palm trees and who were always grateful to find a youngster they could unsettle and depress. South Beach in my formative years was an insular subtropical shtetl, and the idea of living outside a monolithically Jewish community would have been as alien to me then as the possibility looking out the window and seeing snow.

I was told that I was adopted at the age of 7. When I was 11, my family rabbi gently informed me that since no one knew who my birth mother was, I’d have to undergo a conversion in a mikveh in order to be considered Jewish. After the ritual, I became sensitive to the ways that Jewishness seemed to be an admixture of biology, faith and practice, and wondered if perhaps a meaningful gulf existed between me and the rabbi’s pedigreed son, my best friend. Absent the Jewish biology, could I be considered as Jewish as him if I did not believe as adamantly or practice the faith as assiduously?

When I would kvetch about the Jewish upbringing inflicted upon me, an adoptee, friends enjoyed pointing out the irony — I really didn’t look Jewish at all. They would note my red hair, blue eyes, and freckled skin and opine that I had to be Irish, a consensus roundly affirmed after I discovered saloons and took instinctively to a robust drinking life that didn’t involve Kiddush cups. As an adoptee I never felt as if I fully owned the Jewish backstory, so I longed to know whether or not I was biologically Jewish, at least in part.

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Twenty years ago, at age 31, I finally worked up the nerve to request available non-identifying information about my birth mother from the state of Florida. She was a 22-year-old Catholic of Welsh, English and Irish stock from “a large Pacific state.” Given that Jewish descent is matrilineal, this confirmed that I could not be considered “biologically” Jewish. However, my birth mother knew my adoptive family’s religion, and did not object to my being placed with them. This tidbit allowed me to spin a story of a star-crossed affair between a Jewish man and my gentile birth mother, ending with me properly being passed on at birth to the Jews.

With this fantasy in mind I spent two decades searching for my birth mother. After I struck out with adoption registries, social media, and an unscrupulous private investigator, a fellow adoptee on Facebook suggested I try testing my genes with one of the services available online. I might match a close relation in the database or find out if I carried Jewish genes.

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