The Human Spirit: The ultimate family holiday

You begin to wonder where you got your blue eyes, your dancing ability, and the little wrinkles when you smile

On Monday afternoon, after setting her long Seder table in Efrat, Naomi Elazar Yakir will make an important phone call to Minnesota. She'll describe the symbolic Seder plate, the stack of handmade matza, and even how her husband Avi has prepared biblical riddles to challenge their four sons and their hassidic cousins from Safed. Listening with interest 16,000 kilometers away will be her biological parents, who gave her up at birth. "I was adopted, like Moses," says the blonde, blue-eyed Yakir, a former classical ballet teacher who now heads project development in a medical center. Her parents, Harriet and the late Daniel Elazar, told Naomi she was adopted when she was four. When they moved to Israel three years later, they advised her not to mention it to her friends. "So of course, that's exactly what I did," says Yakir. "It made me feel powerful and special." Although no scientific knowledge confirms that adopting children helps couples overcome infertility, her parents indeed had two sons here. In the lively, loving family, they waved away questions about her adoption. They'd always adored her; what did it matter? "But it always does," said Yakir, who frequently speaks and writes about adoption. "You begin to wonder where you got your blue eyes, your dancing ability, and the little wrinkles when you smile. I often dreamed of my birth mother. Was she a prima ballerina or a criminal? I never thought of anything in between." Questions loomed even larger after Naomi married her childhood sweetheart Avi Yakir and gave birth to their sons. Routine questions about her family's medical history made her feel hollow and panicky. Avi, a psychiatrist, encouraged her to pursue her quest for identity. The trail began with her childhood rabbi and led to a Jewish adoption agency in Minnesota. Once-sealed records could now be opened. IN ISRAEL, Naomi's beloved dad was diagnosed with a fatal disease. She gave up her job as a ballet instructor to take care of him. Friends and colleagues of the esteemed Jewish scholar arrived from all over the world. He entrusted her with the gathering of his papers and his library. While she cared for him in his final days, the phone rang, its slight delay signaling that the call was initiated abroad. A social worker named Mary introduced herself. "I've found your mother," she said. Naomi's head was swimming. It was what she'd wanted for so long, but all she could think of was her father's dire condition. After they sat shiva, the Elazars went to the US for a memorial ceremony. In the hardest conversation of her life, Naomi told her mother about her search. "My mother had lost her beloved husband, and at 33, I was going to meet my birth mother." The Minnesota adoption agency maintains a parlor for such reunions. The social worker made small talk until a handsome couple arrived. Suddenly, a woman was hugging Naomi. My mother, Naomi realized, but a stranger. They sat across from her and talked. Naomi was startled to recognize her own features: the large blue eyes, the high forehead, the straight nose, the touch of whimsy in her expression. Naomi's birth mother, a petite, shy teenager from a Jewish home, had developed a crush on the school basketball star whose family origins were in Norway. She was only 15, and she became pregnant. Her devastated parents sent her to an isolated home for unwed mothers where babies were quietly given up for adoption. After high school, Naomi's birth mother and father married. They were still together, living in a beautiful home on a lake. Naomi had a younger sister. Meeting her sister was like looking in a mirror, even to the gesture of pushing her blonde hair behind her right ear. But after leaving home, Naomi's birth mother had jettisoned her Judaism. Her sister had grown up as a Christian. "It was a time of intense highs and lows, getting acquainted, sharing memories and dreams," said Yakir. Only when Naomi and her birth mother visited the Dickensian institution where they were long ago parted did they weep in each other's arms and overcome the gap between them. "Before I left, I conveyed a message from my mother thanking my birth mother for giving birth to me and giving me up. And I carried back a message from my birth mother thanking my mother for the love she'd lavished on me." Naomi cried all the way home, for all the losses and "what ifs" of her life. Back at home, her loving family was waiting to help dry her tears. She visits her birth family once a year, and when her sister had her first child, Naomi flew over to help. Although her American family doesn't observe Jewish holidays, Naomi always phones them. "Pessah is the ultimate family holiday," she says. "Moses lived with the tension between the worlds of his birth mother Yocheved and adoptive mother - Pharaoh's daughter - Batya." When we all sit down at the Pessah table with our families, we bring with us the complex influences which have molded our own lives and those of our diverse family members. Nothing is simple or complete, nor should it be. Maybe that's why we needed someone who was adopted to lead us out of Egypt.