Of Unknown Origin: A Memoir

Of Unknown Origin: A Memoir, by Debra Levi Holtz, Council Oak Books, $23.95

DEBRA LEVI HOLTZ’S STRONG SENSE OF PLOT SETS this memoir by an adoptee apart from scores of others. The book opens on the eve of the author’s Jewish wedding, with the arrival of an unsigned postcard from someone claiming to have met Helen, her birth mother, and stating only that she is “VERY nice.” This card, however, does not immediately launch the author on her search to find her birth mother. Instead she waits several years and does not begin to look until, like many adoptees, she herself becomes a mother.

Through court papers, a Motor Vehicle Bureau check, and tips from a support group, Holtz eventually identifies her birth mother, but this discovery only raises more questions, because Helen neither acknowledges nor completely denies the biological connection, flatly refuses to share information about the man who fathered Holtz and makes veiled threats of violence to keep Holtz from pursuing a relationship with either of them.

The author recounts in flashbacks her adoptive father’s murder by underworld business connections, followed quickly by her mother’s mysterious second marriage (during which Little Debbie is sent to live with cold grandparents) before her mother resurfaces with her soon-to-be-third husband. Much later the author finds out that her adoptive mother may have used connections to have some adoption records “destroyed” in the belief that their existence would enable the birth mother to reclaim Holtz.

Although Holtz’s adoptive family is Jewish, neither her birth mother nor the man she suspects of being her birth father were Jews. Her birth mother consented at the time of the adoption to her child being raised by Jews. When the author discovers what she had long suspected—that she was not born Jewish—she is not shaken, and downplays the genetic component of being Jewish. Holtz writes, “But for my fears about [my husband] Steve’s response, it didn’t really matter to me whether or not I was Jewish. Religion is not genetic; there is no DNA molecule that flows through our blood dictating what our faith will be. We follow our own beliefs.”

Holtz does not address the religious legal issues of identity here. (She did not convert to Judaism nor was she born to a Jewish mother, leaving her, technically, non-Jewish). Instead, she makes an interesting connection between the mixed blessings of being a Chosen People and being a “chosen baby” (the euphemism for an adoptee): “… I had much in common with the Jewish people. Like Israel, surrounded on all sides by people different and distrustful, I had felt isolated and constantly under attack. My birthday fell on the same day that Israel declared its independence. And just as the Israelites were chosen to receive God’s revelation, I too had been chosen to fulfill someone else’s vision of whom I should become.”

Michele Kriegman is an adoptee who is reunited with her birth mother and birth father. She is the president of the marketing consulting and communications firm, InterMarket Directions.