Probably there isn’t any such thing as a typical adoption story, but if there were to be one, it certainly wouldn’t be Yael Schusterman Adler’s.
Yael, who grew up in Fort Lee and now lives in Randolph, always knew that she was adopted. Her parents, Marcy and Herb Schusterman, never kept that truth from her. But none of them talked about it much, and Yael wasn’t very interested in it. She grew up as a happy only child, close to her family, cherished by her parents and secure in their love. She didn’t particularly look like her parents, but not all children do, and she didn’t stand out as not possibly theirs by DNA.
But just about two years ago, after her father died, she was helping her mother clean up their apartment when she came across paperwork about her adoption. “It was a treasure trove,” Yael said. “It was gold. It was things that I’d never seen before; it was exciting and intriguing. And I’d just turned 30 — a big milestone birthday. So it made me think — now I have all this information in front of me. What do I do? Do I ignore it? Just go on with my life? Or do I pay attention to it.”
There would have been no story had she ignored it, but she did not.
Instead, she followed up.
Yael’s search was surprisingly easy; this is another way in which it diverges from most of the adoption stories we hear. She didn’t have to dig very hard. “I was very lucky,” she said. “Everything just fell into place.
“The attorney who was involved in my adoption made sure to have information online, because he knew that people would be searching, and he wanted to be a resource for them.”
Yael took the information that the lawyer, Robert Braun, gave her, and decided that she wanted to find her family. So — just before covid struck — she went to Romania to search for them.
Some of what she learned surprised her, some felt just right, and all of it confirmed her place in not one but two worlds. It also led to her newly published book, “From Gypsy to Jersey,” which she dedicates to her beloved parents, Marcy and Herb Schusterman, and hopes will encourage other adoptees to embark on their own explorations of their backgrounds.
First, the big surprise.
Yael had known that she had been adopted from Romania; what she had not known until Robert told her was that her birth parents were Romani — or as they are commonly, and perhaps denigratingly, known, Gypsy.
Her adoptive parents — to be clear, on every emotional level, they are absolutely her parents, with no qualifying adjective necessary — had known that “I was born into a Gypsy family, but my mother never told me that,” Yael said. “I think she thought that there are some negative misconceptions about Gypsies and the Gypsy culture, and she never felt the need to share it with me.”
Yael was struck by the similarities between Romani and Jews; there are many differences, of course, but both are small, tribal groups, bound together by history and family and memory as well as theology. Both groups have been misunderstood, victimized, even reviled; both were targets of the Nazis’ Final Solution. We Jews have flourished in ways that the Romani have not, but that difference should not eclipse the resemblances.
As Yael writes, her parents tried to conceive a baby but could not; they tried to adopt a baby in the United States and had thought they’d arranged one, but it fell through, as frequently happens. They had understood the possibility of such an outcome — birth mothers of course have the right to change their minds up until they’ve signed final adoption papers — but they were devastated.
Then they learned about the desperate situation of so many Romanian babies, who had been consigned to impoverished, loveless orphanages as the political situation in the country rotted. Some of those babies were adopted by Americans. The Schustermans took heart.
They called Robert Braun and eventually they flew to Bucharest and then went on to a smaller city, Arad, to meet 2-year-old Yael. The process wasn’t easy — after the adoption was finalized, still they had to go back home without her, and she hadn’t much liked those strangers anyway — but eventually Yael got to New Jersey, and soon afterward she fell in love with her parents, who already were head-over-heels about her.
Her parents had her converted twice when they brought her home. Once was through the Fort Lee Jewish Center, the Conservative shul to which the family belonged. The other conversion was Orthodox; “my parents didn’t know where my life would end up, and they wanted to be sure that there never would be any issues down the road,” Yael said.
Yael went to Tenafly High School and then on to the University of Arizona. She got married, to Marc Adler; they have two children, and a third will arrive soon. She has a good career; she’s the marketing director for Thrive. “We implement mental health support services for New Jersey public school districts,” Yael explained.
Everything was going well.
“The only time throughout my life that I really have been reminded of being adopted was at doctors’ visits,” she said. “In terms of medical history, that’s an issue that always came up, and my response always was, ‘I really don’t know.’”
The only really upsetting thing that had ever happened to her was her father’s death.
And then she decided to go to Romania.
Even the trip was far easier than it could have been.
Robert put her in touch with Daniel Musteata, a Romanian who worked with him. Daniel now helps people find their Romanian families; he told her that it usually takes about a month to find the information he needs. Because he has spent so many years in the field, Daniel has many contacts. Yael asked him to go ahead.
She soon found her mother’s name. She’s Daniela Cirpaci. Daniel learned that her mother still was alive — and that she’s Romani. Next, she talked to her on the phone; after that, she flew to Romania to meet her and the rest of the family in person.
Yael’s writing about her visit to Romania is intense. The emotion is so strong that the page nearly vibrates. Before she left, she learned that she’d never been in an orphanage; her mother had kept her until she was 2 years old, when it was clear both that Daniela could not afford little Adriana, as she was named then, and that a better life for the child was possible. But Yael realized that she’s been loved throughout her entire life. She was extraordinarily lucky not to have been in a Romanian orphanage; her chances of a happy, healthy, emotionally stable life would have been reduced significantly had that happened.
Daniela already had a slightly older daughter, Monica. Yael learned about her and got in touch with her early on in her search — unlike most of the Romanian family, Monica is on Facebook — so she went from being an only child to having a sister, a brother-in-law, nieces, and nephews.
Now, Yael met the entire family.
Most of them speak two languages — Romanian and the Gypsy dialect, Romani. Yael speaks neither. Daniel translated, but some nuances were lost.
“They knew that I am Jewish,” Yael said. “I mentioned it to a relative, and her response was, ‘Okay, we both have a connection to Jesus.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’
“I know that they are religious, but I’m not clear on what religion. They go to church, and I know that my sister doesn’t eat pork, for religious purposes, although my mother does. It was hard, with the language barrier, to understand that. But I know that they are very devout churchgoers, with a very strong belief in God.”
Yael learned that her birth mother has very little money; she earns what she can by sometimes going to France, where she cleans houses. She learned, to her shock, that her mother does not have a toilet in her house.
“I definitely have an even greater appreciation for my life now,” she said. “I am aware of the drastic cultural difference that exist, how our two worlds are just so different, how I never would have had access to any of the opportunities I have now. I have a greater appreciation for my life, for all the people in my life, for my dog, for my access to education, for not living in a male-dominated society like they do.” (One of the things that impressed Yael unfavorably was how dominant the men in her birth family’s culture are, and how correspondingly subservient the women tend to be when men are present.)
One thing that the trip has not changed at all is her relationship with her mother, Yael said. “I know that my trip was a difficult and emotional thing for her, and my adoption always has been a very emotional subject for her. But it didn’t change a thing in our relationship.”
She hasn’t been able even to consider going back to Romania; her trip ended just months before the pandemic began. But she does hope that someday she can return.
Robert Braun, the adoption lawyer, has had an interesting life. He’s 72; “I grew up in Flatbush, and I’m the first member of my family to go to college,” he said. Is he Jewish? “Is the pope Catholic?” he answers, with what sounds like irritation. The answer is yes. Of course yes! His junior high school, Meyer Levin, “was named after the first Jewish aviator killed in World War II,” he said. “I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood.”
He ran away from home when he was a senior at Samuel Tilden High School, and joined VISTA, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, and was sent to a Navajo reservation “because I have good language skills,” he said. “It was necessary for me to learn a good amount of Navajo to be successful.” He did, and he was, he said.
He went to Brooklyn College, studied anthropology, “got a full scholarship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne — the only real University of Illinois,” he said. After he earned his master’s degree, he accepted a teaching job at Bryn Mawr. “To be clear, I had many job offers from various places, and I chose Bryn Mawr because I thought that young women should have the same opportunities as men,” he said. He taught there from 1971 to 1974; he’s lived in or near Philadelphia ever since he first moved there for that job.
One summer, toward the end of his time at Bryn Mawr, Robert got a grant from the National Science Foundation to take five undergraduates to do field work in the Amazon basin. That was unusual, he said; “they’re usually only for graduate students.”
Back then, before the internet, people worked with travel agents. Robert was no exception. His travel agent had a favor to ask. “When you’re down in Peru with your students, do you think you might have any time to look around to see if there are any kids there available for adoption?” The travel agent and his wife had been having fertility issues.
“It was 1975,” Robert said. “I was in my mid-20s. My only interest in children those days was called birth control. But I had extra time, so I looked into the possibilities, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, I am doing the wrong thing with my life. I find this so much more compelling than doing theoretical anthropology about how people in the Amazon basin are undergoing cultural changes and joining the country in which they live.’
“I resolved that I was going to change my career. I would rather do international adoption and use the skills I have —being able to relate to people across cultural divides, plus language skills. I realized that it would be a much better intellectual match for me.
“Although,” he added, “Bryn Mawr is fabuloso. It is the best place to teach.”
(And, he added, he was not able to match his travel agent with a child in Peru. It was all too new for him then. But he did put the travel agent in touch with people more able to help him.)
Robert realized that his new career would demand not a doctorate in anthropology, and not the degree in social work that most adoption professionals have, but a law degree. “So I went back to school,” he said. “I went to Temple University, I graduated in 1984, and by ’86 I had established the International Family licensed adoption agency. And then I started doing adoptions in various countries around the world that interested me.”
He had many contacts in Latin America; he worked on adoptions in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Guatemala, and Mexico. “In the 1980s and 90s, every poor country in the world had children available for adoption, because of poverty, lack of birth control, and regulation of abortion,” he said. “There always were young women giving birth to children they couldn’t take care of. It was embarrassing for them to take them home — it was a shonda for the neighbors for them to come home with a baby.
“Most of these countries were Roman Catholic. You couldn’t get an abortion, so what could you do? The kids ended up in orphanages.” From there, if prospective parents were willing to deal with the massive amounts of necessary paperwork, they could be adopted.
“That’s where I came in,” Robert said.
“In fact, it even led to me marrying my wife, Rosa, whom I met in a contested adoption in the Dominican Republic,” he said; Rosa is a lawyer who was on the other side of a case. “She won the case, and I won her heart. Now she is a transplanted U.S. citizen. They have a daughter, Athena, “who graduated from Harvard, class of 2019,” he said with evident pride.
“Now we move forward to 1989,” he continued. That’s the year that the dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena, were deposed and then killed. “The Ceaucescus did all sorts of terrible stuff,” Robert said. “Much of it was vis-à-vis the Jews. They used to hold Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel hostage, charge them $10,000 to $25,000 for an exit visa, much of which went right into their own pockets”
The Ceaucescus “had no affinity for the notion of nuclear families,” Robert continued. “The wanted everybody in Romania to be the same. They wanted to be the spiritual if not the almost real parents of everybody there.
“When thousands and thousands and thousands of kids ended up in Romanian orphanages, they said it was wonderful. ‘All these kids will grow up knowing that we are their parents,’ they said.”
The Ceaucescus demolished their country’s economy. “In 1990, the country was one of the poorest on the face of the earth, because for 20 years the Ceaucescus had exported almost everything Romanians grew or manufactured, so there would be no foreign debt,” Robert said. Even though ostensibly it was an Iron Curtain country, the Ceaucescus did not want to be beholden to Moscow, so in a way it was the most independent of the Iron Curtain countries — but they did it by starving all the Romanians.” Except themselves, of course. The Ceaucescus lived quite well.
“They were overthrown on Christmas Eve, 1989, and within two months the entire world saw that there were more than 100,000 kids in Romanian orphanages,” Robert said. “The orphanages had no money, and a percentage of the children had AIDS. It was a capital offense for doctors to perform abortions in Romania, and it also was a capital offense to admit that there was AIDS in the country.
“I found out about the tragedy of the children in Romanian orphanages at the same time everyone else did.” The story made international headlines once the Ceaucescus were dead and their country opened to the rest of the world. “But the difference between me and every other American who felt compassion for the children was that I was an adoption professional.
“So I flew to Romania at the end of February 1990, I bought myself a 20-year-old Mercedes, and I spent the next month driving around the country, visiting orphanages, making friends, and learning Romanian. By the time I left the country, a month later, I had started the first program for adoption there, and I feel that it was one of the best, because it was predicated on everything being done for the client by us, rather than through baby brokers overseas. We took out the middle men.
“I had my own staff, I brought them to the United States periodically, I trained them. We had our own physicians in Romania. I ended up owning three apartments in Romania, so my clients had a place to stay, and my staff had a place to work. I would fly there once a month. We had an incredibly close relationship with the head of the agency in Arad, and it was through him that I was introduced to the postal worker who put me in touch with Yael’s birth family.”
Yael’s adoption was a private placement; Robert did private placements and he also worked with maternity hospitals and orphanages. “We did several hundred adoptions,” he said. “The older the kid, the more screwed up the kid.”
In 2008, Robert closed his agency. He was fighting prostate cancer — how is he? “I’m still alive,” he said curtly — “but also the world of international adoption was changing so radically that I didn’t see any point in staying in the game.”
He feels strongly that it is a good thing to post the information that helps the adoptees whose parents were his clients find their birth parents, but that, too, is changing. Part of that change is driven by the internet and the genetic testing made accessible by such companies as 23 & Me and Ancestry.com, and part of it comes from a change in the climate surrounding adoption.
“In the United States we have the notion of something called a closed adoption,” he said. “That’s primarily from pressure from the Roman Catholic church, which designed the closed adoption so that a young Catholic woman who got knocked up wouldn’t have to worry about a knock on her door 19 years later, when her 19-year-old found her. That would be an embarrassment for her, particularly if she hadn’t told her husband.
“The Catholic church always has been a proponent of closed adoption,” he continued. “In most of the world, and in most of the countries whose legal systems stem from the Napoleonic Code, there is no such thing as a closed adoption. There simply is a legal mechanism by which a child assumes new parents. It has nothing to do with the embarrassment of being a single pregnant woman.”
Not that he has anything at all against the Catholic church, Robert added. “I love the current pope, and my wife, Rosa, is Catholic.”
23 & Me wouldn’t have helped Yael find her birth family, he said; it only works when relatives have sent their bottled spit to the company so it can post the results of its analysis online. Not many Romani have done that, at least not yet. Had she done the test, “Yael could find out only that her DNA had connections to India and eastern Europe.” That would be enough for her to know that she most likely was Romani by birth, but nothing else.
“Yael is a smart cookie and she has a yiddische kopf,” Robert said. “The Romani should be proud of her, and the Jews should be proud of her. I think she’s great.”
And why does he do the work that connected Yael with her birth family? “It’s a mitzvah!” Robert Braun said.