Sukkot reading: Memoir delves into meaning of identity, biology and love

Dani Shapiro’s latest book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

(photo credit: Courtesy)
I don’t usually finish a book only to start it again once I’m done, but that’s what I did after completing Dani Shapiro’s latest book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. And while my second read was less suspenseful, it wasn’t any less enjoyable. Most memoirs are of the flash-in-the-pan genre. The author appears out of nowhere to tell his or her remarkable life story and then disappears. But not Shapiro.
She has somehow managed to mine her nearly six decades on the planet to craft five memorable and bestselling memoirs. I have read and enjoyed them all but Inheritance is my favorite.
That’s because Inheritance is so much more than a memoir. In telling the story of her paternity – the book is about the shocking discovery that she was conceived from a sperm donation – Shapiro combines elements of a mystery with a philosophical inquiry into the deepest nature of identity. Interestingly, she stumbled into this plot. Indeed, until her husband, filmmaker Michael Marren – who was researching his own roots – casually invited her to join him by taking a home DNA test, Shapiro had no questions about who she was.
“I am the tenth and youngest grandchild of Joseph Shapiro, self-made industrialist, philanthropist, a leader of Modern Orthodoxy, chairman of the presidium of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, treasurer of Torah Umesorah, vice president of the Lubavitcher Yeshiva, member of the national board of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. I am the tenth and youngest grandchild of Beatrice Shapiro, his beautiful, gracious wife... I am the daughter of their oldest son, Paul. Everything I am, everything I knew to be true begins with these facts,” she writes.
When the DNA report revealed that Shapiro was only 52% Ashkenazi Jew and the other 48% a mixture of French, Irish, English and German, rather than 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, she was in shock.
“Maybe they just got it wrong,” she tells her husband. But after her half-sister takes the same test and gets startlingly different results, Shapiro realizes something is amiss.
As shocking as this is, Shapiro isn’t completely surprised. She describes herself as a young child staring into the mirror and wondering why she doesn’t resemble her half-sister or her beloved dad. What Shapiro has are quintessential shiksa looks, so strikingly non-Jewish that Rose Kushner, a family friend and Holocaust survivor (who was also the grandmother of Jared Kushner) tells her, “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten bread from the Nazis.”
Through some clever Internet sleuthing, Shapiro finds her donor. He’s a retired doctor who earned cash during his student days by selling his seed to a rogue fertility institute, to which her desperate parents had turned. As odd as this might sound, Shapiro’s situation is far from uncommon. While no one keeps official records, a 2019 New York Times article estimated that the number of children born annually via sperm donation in the US alone may be as high as 60,000. Until very recently, donor-conceived children could not reunite with their fathers. But with the development of cheap and easily accessible genetic testing, that is no longer true.
Shapiro is one of the lucky ones. Not only does she find her biological father, but he is even willing to meet and befriend her. Many donors are not. To Shapiro, meeting her biological father is like “finding the country where I was from.” Shapiro and her biological dad not only look alike, they enjoy the same books. They even conduct post-lecture Q&A sessions in the same style. Shapiro is besotted, but her newfound knowledge leaves her in a quandary.
If this stranger is her father, then what is her relationship to Paul Shapiro, the man she deeply loved, the man who lavished his most tender affections on her from the moment she entered the world until the moment he died? And what is her relationship to her father’s surviving sister, Shirley Feuerstein, whom Shapiro knows as Aunt Shirl?
Aunt Shirl also plays a supporting role in Devotion: A Memoir, Shapiro’s earlier book about her search for spirituality. In that earlier memoir, Shapiro describes Aunt Shirl leading her children and grandchildren in dancing a hora around her husband’s wheelchair at a family wedding that was livestreamed to them via Skype.
In Inheritance, Shirl is older and no longer dancing, but still full of life, faith and wisdom. “I’m not giving up on you – and you’d better not be giving me up,” she tells her niece. “You’re not an accident of history, Dani,” she says. “Between you and Paul there was paternity, ownership, kinship.”
Though Shapiro accepts this, a shadow of ambivalence lingers. She tattoos a bird on her shoulder in commemoration of her story. She bakes Christmas cookies to honor her biological father’s legacy and makes friends with her biological father’s daughter, her new half-sister. She also breaks off connections with her other half-sister, Paul Shapiro’s daughter from an earlier marriage.
And yet she still sees herself as Paul Shapiro’s daughter. The abundant love she received from her “social” father’s family proves itself thicker than blood – or sperm.
By Dani Shapiro
272 pages; $24.95