This Jewish-American product of the Louise Wise Services delivery system doesn’t harbor regrets.
I’ve always been relatively agnostic about being an adoptee, a Jewish-American adoptee. But in saying so, I might sound a bit cavalier and I definitely don’t want to seem that way about such a personal and defining subject. Therefore, in the interest of precision, let me rephrase: I’ve always been relatively serene and satisfied, sometimes even a bit smug, about my status as a Jewish-American adoptee in the sense that my adoptive parents loved me unconditionally and I them and that the whole process seemed, and still seems, normal to me. To that extent, I’ve never felt the need to search for or reconnect with my biological progenitors or ferret out information beyond my medical history.
I am aware that my feelings (many may dismiss them as falling into the ignorance-is-bliss category) go against a growing but grudging number of state laws unlocking adoption records (with certain intermediate safeguards), leading to once-unimaginable reunions. Some of these emotionally charged meetings exceed expectations, others end inconclusively or even badly. The internet and DNA testing, so important as conduits in facilitating these get-togethers, weren’t even glimmers on the horizon when I was adopted by Stuart and Minnie Lazarus as a 6-month-old from Louise Wise Services in 1942.
Yes, that Louise Wise Services, the one that’s been unflatteringly portrayed in recent years both onscreen and in print, the one founded by the wife of America’s most prominent Reform rabbi of the time, Stephen Wise, during the height of the last century’s progressive movement, which also saw women like Alice Chapin and Clara Spence pioneer new alternatives to a very harsh orphanage system.
To be clear and emphatic, my adoptive parents are the ones who kvelled and fretted over me, not my biological bearers. The Lazaruses are the ones who bequeathed the ethical and spiritual foundation that began to form this human being nearly 79 years ago. They also imparted a sense of achievement, of setting goals, and of working to realize them. (Sounds so old-fashioned in contrast to today’s more fluid definitions of success.) They took care of all my material needs, being careful to teach thrift, beginning with the responsibilities of an allowance. They considered higher education and hard work as twin virtues. And they made sure I received a Jewish education, a bar mitzvah, and a teen confirmation in addition to my secular studies. I attended Y camp in Pennsylvania (homesick as hell) for many seasons and summered at the Shore for many more.
Mom and Dad were tender or tough as the situation demanded. They treated my cuts and bruises with mercurochrome and soothing words and endured night-long vigils when I had bad dreams or heard something frightening on radio or TV. But Mom also had a great rejoinder for the tough, unbudgeable moments: “Jonny, you can stand on your head and spit wooden nickels, the answer is still no.” One of the tougher instances occurred when I had difficulty learning to read in elementary school. Today, I would be diagnosed as dyslexic, back then I was just labeled as slow. Minnie Adelman Lazarus, who had been a teacher before earning her master’s in social work in 1933 at Fordham University (she loved the Jesuit educational rigors) would have none of it. Mom had to push my grandfather to pay for her undergraduate tuition in an era when few women went on to higher education and she wouldn’t marry Dad until he received his pharmacy degree. So she simply couldn’t conceive of me not doing well in school. We began brutal, nightly sessions across the kitchen table using Golden Books as our primer. I don’t know if Mom tried phonics (were they even around then?), but whatever her method, punctuated by a few gentle “potches in the punim” when my concentration strayed, it worked rather effectively. The net result: I developed a lifelong love of reading and, as per mom’s instructions, became omnivorous (her word) in my choices. And like her, I kept different books on different landings in the house, resulting in a moveable literary feast. (The last time Mom tried to deliver a “potch” for some youthful indiscretion was when I towered over her. She looked up, then gave up, saying she would need a stepladder to reach the “punim,” and admonished me to just behave.)
Meanwhile, Dad continued to grow the drug manufacturing business, working long hours but always making it home for dinner in that wonderful 1950s organic family setting. We discussed politics (Ike vs. Stevenson), the Cold War (the Rosenberg case), McCarthyism, school, sports, and anything else that might have aroused my curiosity or my sister’s. My parents never talked down to us, instead acting more as moderators to try to draw us out and expand our horizons. It was rare when they chatted in Yiddish, a signal to my sister and me that the subject was hush-hush.
And this always was achieved against the backdrop of a stable physical home environment, no matter where the location. My first five years as a member of the Lazarus clan were spent in Flushing, Queens, in a one-family home my parents purchased new in 1937. We then moved to Newark’s fabled Jewish enclave, the Weequahic section, in 1947, when Dad bought a factory in the city. Our classic three-story was perfect: We occupied the first floor, Grandpa the second, and my aunt and uncle the third, and my sister and I had free run of the place. In 1957 we decamped to the wilds of West Orange, moving into a new tri-level that my wife and I occupy to this day. So I’ve experienced living at the fringes of New York City, the heart of Newark, and the exurban boundaries of West Orange.
Dad, although older than most of my friends’ fathers, still managed to find time to play catch with me, take me to ball games (Ebbets Field for his beloved Dodgers and the Polo Grounds for the Giants), to the park playground with my sister, and to his drug plant for father-and-son workdays. He occasionally would tell me about his sports participation (handball and pool, so 1920-ish) and shocked me many years later by taking me to an ice-skating rink, putting on the skates, and gliding effortlessly while I struggled to stay afloat.
Dad was proudly old school in certain ways, forced to go to work when he was 9, after his father abandoned the household. He rarely mentioned the paternal side of his family, and I only met a few of his relatives once, at my bar mitzvah. Always the dutiful son, he would visit his mother periodically in California to check on her health, sometimes taking me along, with the irony that he predeceased Grandma Eva and she lived to 100.
I think his own childhood hardships made Dad want to be the best father he could be when he got the chance. And he did, in my estimation. From his nickname for me, Schnuckel Fuzzle (two nonsensical, wonderful words), to his telling me how proud he was of my newspaper career after initially being skeptical, Dad touched all the bases. He wasn’t a man of many words, but he made them count. All he said after helping me unpack at Rutgers for my freshman year was “Be a man about this.” He turned and left. Lest you think he wasn’t spontaneous or a bit aloof, he completely surprised me with a new car after my acceptance into an honors program during my junior year. This gift must have been a leap of faith for him, since I had involved several of the family vehicles in accidents during my late teens.
When I think back on it, there were essentially three things my parents forced me to do, and all resulted in happy outcomes. The first was piano lessons. I had absolutely no aptitude or coordination for the instrument. Poor Mr. Saslow, rumpled suit and all, had to endure my feeble attempts for years. At the end of each season, he would present me with a small bust of a composer and candidly tell Mom that I was a big bust as a student. In my one year in high school orchestra, I was relegated to fifth pianist and told I was limited to striking the triangle. Yet from this underachieving, I developed a lifelong love of classical music and jazz, which Mr. Saslow refused to teach me when I begged him. The same with tennis lessons and Latin class. I was the bane of Mr. Wickel on the court and Ms. Rummer in the classroom, yet I harbor a love and appreciation of both sports and language from these two forced feedings.
One thing my parents couldn’t pass on to me were their physical characteristics. Mom and Dad were both short and I’m 6-3. Dad was well on his way to baldness by 40 while I’ve been lucky enough to hold on to a thick thatch of once-black hair into my seventies. Dad and I were truly a Mutt and Jeff pair when we went to get haircuts together. Somehow, those gifted barbers worked it so that we both spent the same amount of time in the chairs. (That required lots of snipping at invisible hairs and the use of a hand-held scalp massager.)
Mom has been gone 46 years, and Dad, 41. Mom was just 70 and Dad 76. Ironically, they were the oldest parents in my peer group and the youngest to pass. Both died from conditions that could be treated a lot more effectively today. During the following decades, I went through the various stages of grief and mourning, moving to what I call a constant state of sweet remembrance. That doesn’t mean my parents were without flaws. Who among us is? But Mom and Dad persevered through World War I, the pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and beyond with a certain constancy and resilience. They were lifelong progressives politically and professionally, Dad as a pharmacist and drug manufacturer, Mom as a social worker who became a housewife when I was adopted. Three years later we added my non-biological sister, Janet (later changed to Janeen), to the mix, also through Louise Wise Services. Mom’s social worker training never came through more clearly as when she said the perfect family size was 1.7 kids. I always wondered how you got to the 0.7 and what they would look like.
Mom said she and Dad first broke the news to me that I was adopted when I was 5. They couched it in terms of me being special, adorable, definitely Jewish, and that they had chosen me. Mom would joke later that at 6 months, I had just about reached the expiration date on my “cute” stage. Of course, I would learn much later that this was the normal boarding-out period in the process. Mom added that the agency sponsoring the procedure, Louise Wise Services, investigated them thoroughly before the adoption and conducted two years of follow-ups in the home. Apparently, Mom had surgery during the 1920s that robbed her of the ability to conceive. She undoubtedly first heard of Louise Wise through her professional network as a social worker with the Bureau of Child Guidance of the New York City Board of Education.
Although I became a newspaper reporter after college, I never really focused my natural curiosity on the adoption. From my viewpoint, it had worked out very well. Perhaps I was being subconsciously self-protective, but that gets into speculative areas beyond my expertise. As the decades unfolded, I married into a ready-made family — my grade-school sweetheart, Gail, and my two stepsons, Steven and Michael — and enjoyed career advancements at the Newark Star-Ledger. When I turned 50, however, I began to think about my own health. I had stopped smoking and quit drinking and was forced to find a new doctor after my GP retired. I knew about the increasing importance of genetics and family history, so I wrote to Louise Wise Services and asked for my health records only.
That was in 1993. The agency responded with a two-page, single-spaced letter detailing my pre-placement yichus, although it included no names. “As I explained when we talked, New York State adoption statutes permit the release of only non-identifying, descriptive background information to adoptees,” it began.
“Our records indicate that your birth mother was a 21-year-old, single, American-born Jewess,” the letter continued. “She is described as 5’-7” tall, with black hair, brown eyes and an oval-shaped face. The agency staff found her attractive and of better than average intelligence. She was somewhat musical and had a flair for style and sewing. After graduation from high school, she supported herself as a milliner’s assistant and at office work. She was in excellent health.”
The report confirms that my birth mother’s parents were Jewish, the man Russian-born, the woman from Romania, and that both of their parents apparently had been killed in a pogrom. When my birth mother’s mom died at 40 from cancer, her father remarried. Apparently, this caused friction in the household. “Indeed, [my birth mother] was always uncertain of her father’s love and felt she was the least favored child in the family” of two other brothers.
“Your birth father was a 29-year-old single American-born Jewish man. He was 6’-1’’ tall, with black, curly hair and hazel eyes,” the report continues. “He was a high school graduate employed in a factory. He had been in the U.S. Army, but he was discharged when he developed ulcers. He was said to be musically gifted, played the piano, and had a good singing voice. He and your birth mother had known one another for some time. Apparently, she sought acceptance and affection from him, which she missed from her family.
“Unfortunately, he refused to accept responsibility when informed of her pregnancy. We have few details about his family except that his parents were alive and well.”
In 1942, the options for unmarried pregnant women were practically non-existent: No pill, no legal abortion, no sex education, no open adoptions with co-parenting — nothing except the stern rebuke of society and often shunning by the family. In such circumstances “your birth mother spent the latter months of her pregnancy in a residence for birth parents in Staten Island,” the report says. “There she received prenatal care and made constructive use of casework counseling.” I only recently learned the name of the Louise Wise facility. It was called Lakeview and boarded mothers-to-be in a dormitory setting. The women, from all parts of the country, split chores and did busy work, often knitting tiny caps and socks for their babies. Visits were made to a physician in Manhattan as due dates neared.
On September 30 of that year, my birth mother delivered a “7-pound 5-ounce, full-term baby. As was customary,” the report states, “you were discharged from the hospital back to the residence nursery where you remained for about a month. During that time your birth mother participated in your care. At the end of the month you were transferred to one of our carefully supervised infant boarding homes where you remained until placement with your adoptive parents on May 14, 1943. Although a somewhat tense, cranky baby, you ate well and made steady gains and were alert and responsive. By the time of your adoptive placement, you were a friendly baby who made the transition to your permanent home rather easily. Your adoptive parents were overjoyed with you.”
The letter ends with a paragraph in perfect institutional pitch: “Your birth mother’s decision to relinquish you was a carefully thought out one. She realized that she had little to offer in the way of security and stability of family living. She was keenly aware of some of the deprivations of her own childhood and wanted you to have more than she could provide. We have not heard from her in the intervening years. Contrary to publicity, we find that most people are reluctant to reopen painful periods of their lives.”
What do I draw from this synopsis of my lineage? Yes, I have the birth father’s height, hazel eyes, and curly black hair (now gray). I have none of his musicality but a deep musical appreciation. No ulcers, ever, and generally great health, until recently when I was diagnosed with cancer. There is one reference in the letter to the maternal grandmother having cancer. As customary with my closed adoption, the original birth certificate was sealed and a new one was issued when Stuart and Minnie Lazarus became my parents. The birth document in my possession shows that I was born on September 30, 1942, that the document was filed on October 8, and that it was officially certified by the NYC Department of Health on April 25, 1944.
My sister Janeen and I have differed on many subjects during our lifetimes, but one area where there is no daylight between us is in accepting the completeness and finality of our adoptions and the closure it provides. Both of us were shaken by revelations in the award-winning 2018 documentary “Three Identical Strangers” — its title referred to triplets that Louise Wise Services placed in three different homes of varying income levels. The agency routinely split up twins and the occasional triplets during the 1950s and ’60s, with adoptive parents not being told their chosen ones had siblings or that they themselves were subjects of pseudo-scientific studies, since discredited, in the “nature vs. nurture” debate. The three brothers serendipitously discovered one another when they were 19 and enjoyed a period of notoriety (TV shows, opening a restaurant together) and camaraderie before relationships began to fray and mental issue confronted all three. One took his life in 1995. Home-movie footage from their early years, videoclips after their reunion, and actor recreations of the trio and their adoptive parents provide compelling viewing for adoptees and non-adoptees alike.
Just months ago, investigative reporter Gabrielle Glaser added another chapter to the dark side of the infant bartering business with publication of “American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption.” Her dogged research and narrative skills highlight the decades-long struggle by a teenage single mom, Margaret Erle, to find the son taken from her at birth by Louise Wise Services. The boy, named David by his adoptive parents, experiences a troubled young adulthood and spends time in Israel before harnessing his natural vocal talents and becoming a cantor, just like his adoptive father. David’s reunion with Margaret occurs months before he loses a long struggle with cancer. Once again, Louise Wise Services and the questionable practices of the postwar baby-scoop era are front and center.
Louise Wise Services no longer exists. After relocating its offices uptown and moving into trans-racial and trans-religious adoptions during its final years, the organization, started by its namesake with such noble goals, was absorbed in 2004 into the Spence-Chapin Agency, which remains the repository of its records today. Societal and medical changes and shifts in cultural and parenting norms simply made it expendable. But for my parents, Stuart and Minnie Lazarus, it was a godsend.
I sympathize with aggrieved victims, whether adoptees, birth mothers (now sometimes called first mothers or natural mothers), or adoptive couples who were deceived in matters both large and small. Single pregnant women were subjected to incredible pressures to waive their maternal rights, especially as the baby boom crested. Janeen and I apparently were fortunate enough to have escaped these callous improprieties by just a few years. To those who were victims of the process, I offer heartfelt understanding and endorse your efforts to pursue more information or reconnect with biological forbears. Many resource, support, and legal groups are available to aid in these pursuits. But for my sister and me, the case has long been closed, and happily so.
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired Star-Ledger editor and a contributor to the Jewish Standard.