‘American Baby’: Ethics of Jewish Adoption Explored Through a Tragic Family Story

By | Mar 25, 2021
Jewish World, Latest
American Baby

Best-selling author Gabrielle Glaser’s new book, American Baby, starts with a dying cantor’s search for a mother he never met. It shares the intimate, intricate stories of two Jewish families: the teen couple in love who gave him life and the loving Holocaust survivors who raised him. It also unveils—in incredibly rich detail—a disturbing history of adoption practices in America, and in the American Jewish community, in the mid-20th century. Glaser is mom to three girls she birthed and raised and is neither an adoptee nor “birth mom.” As a journalist, though, she has been fascinated by the subject of adoption for nearly 20 years. From her home in Montclair, New Jersey, she talked with interviewer (and adoptive mom of two) Minna Scherlinder Morse.

You’ve written an incredible book, meticulously researched and captivatingly told. For those who haven’t read it, how did you first meet the adoptee at the heart of the story, Cantor David Rosenberg?

I was a reporter covering adoption and reproductive technologies in Portland in 2007, and this story was being forwarded from Jewish reporter to Jewish reporter. There weren’t very many of us, and someone said, “This has your name on it.” 

It was primarily a kidney donation story, right? But it was also clear that David had another motive in opening his life to reporters.

Yes. David was this larger-than-life guy who had a real gift for connecting people with the way they could perform tikkun olam. He was getting a life-saving gift from a friend and was committed to using the story to promote organ donation. He even invited me to meet him in the dialysis center—such a vulnerable, intimate place to meet someone for the first time. But very quickly he spilled this other part of his story. “I hope the story goes viral. And I hope my birth mother sees it.” He was very specific. He said he wanted to know more about his medical history for his kids. He was very careful not to in any way impugn the memories of his beloved parents, the Rosenbergs, who raised him. 

You and David became friends, but that article didn’t lead him to his birth mom. How did they end up meeting?

David did a DNA test through 23andMe and matched with a distant cousin who was fascinated with family history. He told her, “You are the first birth relative I’ve ever made contact with outside my three kids.” And she said, “Well, do you want to meet your birth mother?” 

This woman did painstaking research through New York City birth indexes and managed to find his original name, including his birth mother’s last name, which made it easier—with his birthdate—to find her first name. And even though she married his birth father when she turned 18, and has been Margaret Katz nearly all her life, she intentionally included her maiden name on her Facebook profile, thinking that one day her son might look for her there. I’d been living in New Jersey for about five years when he called and said, “Hey, it’s Rosie. Are you sitting down?” And I said, “Now I am.” Then he told me, “I found my birth mother and she lives just 45 minutes from you.”

Just one of many coincidences in this story. There’s a part of the book that describes years when David was living with his adoptive parents in the Bronx, literally just blocks from his birth parents in their first apartment. As an adoptive mom of kids in open adoption, I have to say, that just made me cry. They were so physically near, and they didn’t even know it.

Yes! And now, finally, they could meet. In that phone call, he told me, “She never wanted to give me up. She’s loved me my whole life.” That reversed the narrative that he had believed all of his 50-odd years. The words “given up” that were used at the time makes it all sound so voluntary. It wasn’t voluntary for Margaret or many others. Back then it was about teens in post-war America, with unprecedented levels of privacy, their own bedrooms and access to cars, engaging in premarital sex with absolutely no sex education or birth control. And it was often about parents desperate to keep up appearances or protect their dreams for their children’s futures. Near the end of his life, David finally learned that Margaret had done everything she could to try to maintain custody of him and that she just had no voice in this large system of concentric circles of control—her family; her religious community; the adoption agency; and even the state itself, which criminalized premarital sex. It reversed the narrative of his life just before he died of cancer. And I have to tell you that as a human being, hearing his voice say, “She loved me my whole life,” I really did have to be sitting down for that. 

So how did this become a book?

One thing that drew me to this subject, even on this beat in Portland, was thinking about the different ways of being a mother. What is love? Can love conquer all? What is the healing power of love, of kindness, of chesed? What is the healing power of knowing you screwed up and you keep getting up and trying to do better? What is the role of that in raising a child? What is the role of that in helping a human being develop their full, loving self?

After David died, I got to know his extended family, beyond his wife and children, whom I’d gotten to know in Portland. I met both his birth family and his adoptive family in New York and Israel. And I launched into research about what had happened to them. It’s such a universal story of loss and love and separation and healing. It’s a story about the essence of who we are as human beings, who we are as a people. 

When he called me about finding his mom, I had recently seen the movie Philomena, about a woman searching for the son taken from her in a maternity home in Ireland. The story was so similar to what had happened in the maternity homes across America at that time. Especially Lakeview, where David’s mother had been sent by her mom, a home run by the premier Jewish adoption agency in New York, Louise Wise Services. So this was universal, but also very much a story about Jewish people in America. And it was such a powerful narrative about love.

There is a lot in the book about unethical practices that were widespread in what many now call the “Baby Scoop Era:” the maternity homes, falsified histories, closed records, an obsession with seeing babies as blank slates and with resolving the age-old nature-nurture question.

It was absolutely an obsession. I was deep into research about the Louise Wise Services agency when the documentary Three Identical Strangers came out about a Louise Wise sponsored research study that intentionally separated twins and triplets to study nature versus nurture. And that wasn’t the only disturbing research I was unearthing. Rather than placing babies quickly, Louise Wise kept them in interim care for months—not so birth parents might have a chance to reclaim them, but so they could assess, essentially, their marketability. One scientist snapped rubber bands at infants’ feet and rated their responses as reflective of high or low intelligence. Even though I knew that attitudes and practices around adoption were consistent nationwide, I was so torn about what I was finding out about this particular Jewish agency in New York, I even went to my rabbi for advice.

I said, well, what do I do? He gave me all these books on bioethics and said to me, you know, do you agree with everything Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says? Do you agree with everything all Jews say or do? No. Does that make you less of a committed Jew? No. This was a story that needed exploring, and if not me, who? So I left my rabbi’s study committed to seeing this research through.

It is unsettling that a Jewish institution was using children for this kind of research and engaging in these kinds of practices. How did this happen, do you think?

Well, all of this was transpiring in the shadow of the Holocaust. And here were these couples coming in, unable to conceive. They were being left out of the American Dream as access was expanding after the war. Instead of living in concentrated neighborhoods on the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, the GI Bill helped many Jews move into suburbia. All of a sudden, white Italians, white Irish people, white Jews were becoming part of the mainstream. If you were unable to partake in that, it was incredibly isolating. The role for a woman in those days—and definitely for a Jewish woman—was to have a family. For childless Jewish women, the one place they could turn was this Jewish agency, which promised to provide blue ribbon babies to the best parents. Couple that with the shame reserved for unwed mothers, and you have this story—girls shepherded to maternity homes, babies taken from them at birth, stories concocted about birth parents to fit the fantasies of hopeful adoptive parents, sealed records—and voila, “problems” solved.

There is much about this story that is unique to the mid-20th century, but perhaps not everything. What has changed, do you think, and what hasn’t?

What hasn’t changed is that there are still adoptions in this country and worldwide that are unethical. I’m sure you saw the news about the Netherlands shutting down international adoptions. And here, there are these “crisis pregnancy centers,” many posing as medical clinics, and those are pretty much all tied to adoption agencies or attorneys. The operations are huge, and those adoptions are frequently closed. 

But what has changed is that more and more adoptions have incorporated some degree of openness. What’s changed is that you are an adoptive mother of two children who know their birth families. Being able to access your origin story, being able to integrate from an early age the idea that “This is my family, and this too is my family. This is who I am.” To be able to integrate the complexities of that as a child is such a gift. That’s enormous.

What has also changed—and I talk about this a bit in my book—is adult adoptees finding each other, birth mothers too, and sharing their stories, and rallying for change. 

You have become a rather vocal advocate yourself of opening closed birth records. Is there a call to action you hope readers will hear?

Yes! I absolutely went from being an objective observer to being a flat-out ally. One thing I hope people can take away from this book is that this is something that happened to millions of young women, millions of their sons and daughters. It was shut away in secrecy and shame, and in 40 states, grown men and women still do not have access to their original identities. That, to me, is fundamental. There are so many things that our country has done wrong, and this is one we can rectify. People say, well, what about DNA? Isn’t that how David found his mother? It can be helpful, but it is no substitute. Let’s say you’re an adoptee of color. Many people of color in this country have valid reservations about handing over their DNA. Think Henrietta Lacks. They’re less likely to find relatives in the registry. So, no, it’s not a substitute. Also, some people are running out of time. They are getting older, and they want to know who they are before they die. 

There’s one way to right this wrong, and it is to open birth records and make them accessible to adoptees.

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