Searching for Alma
Rony Epstein knew very little about his birth mother, an American woman who put him up for adoption when he was one month old. As an adult, he began scouring the phone book and hired a private investigator, until he finally found the decisive evidence - on Google.
Late one night in June 2001, slightly after midnight, Rony Epstein called his wife Dafna from his office at the Sadna Internet Branding Agency. Dafna was at home in Ramat Aviv with the couple's son Shai. "I told her, 'I googled my mother,'" he recalls. And that's how after two years, the search of his life came to an end. At age 40, Epstein finally found his mother online, by entering her first name and year and place of birth into the search engine.
Epstein was born on September 21 in the Ashkelon hospital. His mother, Alma Schwartz, was 20 years old. A new immigrant from the United States, she had fled to Kibbutz Zikim in an advanced state of pregnancy, planning to stay there until the birth of her son, whom she intended to put up for adoption. He was born during the first rain of the season, known in Hebrew as the yoreh. Friends of his mother from the kibbutz, who came to visit her, suggested that she name him Yoray, and she did.
Two days later, her father Edward arrived in Israel and tried to persuade her not to put the infant up for adoption. There, without telling his daughter, he changed the baby's name on the birth certificate to David. When David Schwartz was a month old, he was adopted by Yosef and Shimona (Mona) Epstein, who were then living in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem. They decided to name him Ron. After hearing from the adoption official about the biological mother - a story Mona found moving - they decided to keep the name David as the boy's middle name.
The adoption order issued by the court half a year later stated that "Dr. Yosef Alexander Epstein and Shimona Epstein shall adopt the minor David Schwartz as a son, as though he were their son from birth." The document added, "The applicants are authorized to change David's name to Ron David Epstein."
Epstein collected all the documents related to the search for his biological mother in a book he called "Looking for Alma," which he distributed to friends and family. In addition to a photocopy of the adoption order, the book also contains the only other document he found in adoption file no. 153.62 - a handwritten item stating that the infant was born at 9:40 P.M. and weighed 3.2 kilograms, that his maternal grandfather arrived for the birth, that the mother immigrated to Israel five months pregnant, and that the father was a Christian German who denied his paternity and the mother does not know where he is.
Before deciding to adopt, the Epsteins had tried several times to have a baby of their own. "After a series of miscarriages, our gynecologist, Prof. Sadovsky, said he had found no physiological problems," Yosef Epstein notes. "He thought it was something psychological and suggested that we adopt. Afterward, we had two daughters of our own, Gili and Zohar."
The official in charge of the adoption service, Ella Nelkan, was a friend of the Epsteins. She was familiar with the story from the moment Alma Schwartz decided to put her son up for adoption, and because of this they learned a few details about the biological mother that they otherwise would not have known.
"I was the last to know," Rony Epstein says. "Everyone knew that I was adopted and that my father was a German before I did. There was no mistaking my physical appearance. The difference between me, a blond blue-eyed kid, and my parents and sisters, all of whom are dark, was very obvious, and my parents were always being asked where they got such a blond child. My father is a chemist, so mom would say, 'Yosef mixed genes in the lab and this is what came out.'
"Besides that," Epstein continues, "there was this neighbor who would curse at the kids for making noise when she was trying to nap, but for me she had special curses. One time she even called me a Nazi. I went to ask her why she used that word and she was embarrassed and told me to ask my mother. I just forgot to ask.
"When I was 6, on the day before my first day of school, my mother decided to tell me I was adopted, because she knew that in school I would meet new children who didn't know me and that my unusual looks would arouse questions. We had just come back from the pool, and after the shower she sat down next to me on the bed and told me that she had not given birth to me, even though I was completely her child. She had not given birth to me because she had been unable to give birth for many years, and the person who gave birth to me was a very young woman who was not from Israel who knew she would not be able to raise me. She never said that someone had decided to give me away. She said 'We received you.' 'Received' is a very nice word. Everything she told me went in one ear and out the other. I knew I was adopted, but it wasn't an issue."
Epstein has blue eyes and light blonde hair, as well as a bronze tan from his sporting activities. Epstein, who is in training for a triathlon, rides mountain bikes and is very active in competitive yachting. He owns his own yacht, which is docked in the Tel Aviv marina.
He was always an outdoors child, an athlete who turned the house into "a total zoo, with birds and snakes and of course cats and dogs." When he was in eighth grade he wanted to give practical expression to his attraction to nature, and at his request moved to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, which was taking in children from established families. "It was an amazing period. I always called it paradise," he says. Moshe and Ilana Shlomker, "who to this day feel they are my parents in every respect," were his adoptive family at the kibbutz.
It was then that he began to take an interest in sailing and joined the elite group from Kibbutz Sdot Yam, near Caesarea. This led him straight to the Navy. After his military service he worked in the graphics department of the now-defunct daily Hadashot, and in 1988 he established a branding agency called Sadna - the first, he says, to work online. His projects include Bank Hapoalim's Web site as well as work for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Regba Kitchens, Microsoft, the brokerage firm Psagot Ofek and others.
When he was 30 and doing reserve service, he met Dafna, who was then 18. "Dafna was very intrigued by my story. She was very close to my father and asked him all kinds of questions about my adoption. One day, in 1999, she said, 'I think you should look for Alma - she is no longer young.'"
He had just conceived the idea of setting up an Israeli phone book online ("Today it's taken for granted, but then it was considered innovative"), so he began going through the American listings. "Just to understand how the technology works, I typed in 'Alma Schwartz' and got a few dozen addresses and phone numbers throughout the United States." Every evening for half a year "I would wait until the last of my employees left, take a deep breath and try one of the numbers. If the voice was too young, I would say 'Sorry, wrong number.' In other cases I would only ask 'Were you born in Boston?' None of the dozens of women I spoke to were born in Boston, and I also discovered that people are not very nice when you call them by mistake.
"At the same time, I continued to promote my idea for a phone book. I wanted to develop a site called Sulamit, a database for mobile phone owners, who could register, list information with the site, and make calls, send e-mails and text messages through it. In the end, we wanted to have a site that would be called 'the million faces of Israel.'
"To advance the project, I tried to understand how people can find one another online, and through the Web I reached a detective agency owned by a person named Tim Lampron, who specializes in locating family members. I started to correspond with him about the Sulamit idea, and he informed me that in the United States it's very easy to locate people via the Population Registry database, which people like him can access with a federal permit."
Epstein gradually came around to the idea of using Lampron's services to locate Alma Schwartz, though he did not tell the investigator who she was. On May 7, 2001, Lampron wrote him that the only Alma who was born in Massachusetts in 1941 was Alma Gail Schwartz, who was born on February 23 to Edward and Lena Schwartz. Her father was a 30-year-old salesman, her mother a 29-year-old housewife.
A week later, the investigator informed him that he thought Alma Schwartz was living in Maine under the name Alma Yoray, "the name I was given at birth." He said he had her address and phone number but that the phone had been disconnected.
At this stage, Epstein decided that "I had enough faith in Tim to tell him that the woman was my mother. He was very moved by this and said, 'If so, I want you to pay me for expenses only.' Lampron went to Maine and started to question the neighbors in Alma's building. They referred him to a friend of hers named Sylvia Lang, who lived next to Alma's dance studio. Thus, Lampron learned that Epstein's mother was a dancer.
"Tim started to ask her all kinds of questions. She asked him why he was interested, and he told her that his mother, who was born in Boston in 1941 and had gone to high school with Alma, was dying and wanted to renew the connection. She then told him that Alma had been in Israel and when she returned had changed her name to Yoray, and that she had returned to Israel a few years earlier.
"Afterward I learned that in 1996, Alma had come to Israel to look for me and had even left a letter to be put in the adoption file in case I looked for her. But she didn't find me and went back to Maine, and since then had been spending most of her time in Poland." Sylvia Lang also told the investigator that Alma had never married and had no children.
Epstein's searches for Alma Yoray via Google proved fruitless. "I started to think about what I had to do in order to get a certain address in the search results. Google has a form you can fill out for this purpose. I created a kind of profile for Alma, as though she were a Web site, entered all the information I already had about her from Tim - Boston, dance, Israel, Poland, Maine - and registered her as though she were a site I wanted to promote. A while later I entered Google again and typed in her name. I received 10 results. The last item led to a list of all the Buddhist centers in Poland, and I found her name listed as the contact at a center in a village called Przesieka. Friends of mine at the Polish embassy confirmed that she was active in the village and was helping refugee children. At this stage I understood that there was no point in continuing the virtual search, and that the time had come to launch the real search."
On July 25, 2001, he bought a plane ticket for Wroclaw and from there drove 10 hours in a rented car to Przesieka. "I thought I would go to the center of the village and simply ask where Alma Yoray lives. But when I got there, it turned out to be a place the size of Ramat Gan. I started to bother people on roads and in alleys, and in the end I got to a forest. I decided to park the car and walk, like Hansel and Gretel, to the nearest house. Just as I got out of the car, a man with a black dog passed by. I asked him where Alma Yoray lived and where the Buddhist center was. He asked me if I was a guest of the center. I told him I was and he told me he was a staff member and asked me to accompany him. We arrived. It's a beautiful place, surrounded by a h uge area of natural growth with apple trees and organic crops. He told me it was suppertime and that Alma was in the guest house dining with the guests. I straightened myself up a little, the way they do in American movies before a romantic rendezvous. I entered the dining room and asked who Alma was. They pointed her out to me, and she herself was sitting at the end of the table and raised a hand, like in school. I told her in English, 'I am a special guest from Israel.'
"That didn't make much of an impression on her, and I later learned that she had already had guests from Israel who had not impressed her at all. Because who comes for Vipassana meditation from Israel? Usually all kinds of bored women from Ramat Hasharon. I told her, 'I am bringing very important information.' I asked her to step outside with me. We started to stroll by the veranda, and I said, 'We know each other and don't know each other.' The penny didn't drop. I said, 'I am your son, David Schwartz.' She didn't understand who David was, as she had named me Yoray. Then she looked hard at me, and to dissipate the tension said, 'If you are my son, where did those ears come from?' Then, with surprising coolness, she said, 'This could be the most moving moment in the world, but before I start to cry I have to ask you a few questions.' Then I told her when and where I was born, and she said, 'What a fateful day.' From that moment she called me Ron-San."
For two days they didn't sleep or eat; all they did was talk. "I brought her a great many pictures and she was very moved by the fact that in one fell swoop she had become not only a mother again but also a mother-in-law and a grandmother. I also showed her a letter I had written in advance in case I didn't find her."
The letter, which is also included in the book, says: "From the day I was first told I have two mothers, I found myself thinking about you a great deal, trying to imagine what you look like. When my first child, Shai, was born, I was sorry I couldn't learn more about the person from whom we received our special genes.
"I found you two weeks after our second son, Yoav, was born ... To come to Poland is like closing a circle for me, an opportunity to learn, finally, more about myself and discover whether I could be in touch with you."
Alma had no previous experience in motherhood. "She said, 'Tell me how to host a son.' I told her she had to see to it that I had a room - not in the guesthouse, but in her house - and a bed. Naturally, I immediately called my father and Dafna, and she spoke with them, too. When I left, after four days, she cried for the first time. She also gave me letters for my father and for Dafna."
In the letter to Epstein's father she thanked him for raising "Rony, whom I call Yoray, a very special person." To Dafna she wrote, "What a surprise to find out you are there - to become all at once a mother, mother-in-law and grandmother."
Is she a mother to you?
"First of all, she is the end of some sort of incredible adventure. She is not mother, because Mona is my mother, both because she raised me and because of my love, and also because of the heroic way she fought her illness and death. But Alma is very close to me. I remember that the first time I embraced her I had the feeling that her scent was familiar, as though I had known her for many years."
During the visit, Epstein also learned his mother's story. She was born to affluent parents and has an older sister with whom she speaks occasionally. She was an outstanding dancer from childhood, but then her father fell on hard times. The plans to send her to Juilliard to study dance fell through, and she was to attend a local college instead. In 1960, when a friend told her that Martha Graham had returned to Germany to open a school there, the two decided to go to Berlin without telling their parents. In Berlin, Schwartz took odd jobs to finance her studies.
When her friend was compelled to return home, Schwartz looked for someone to share her apartment. The concierge recommended a German history student named Kurt Metzger. They moved in together and eventually became lovers, and she became pregnant. Metzger denied his paternity; she refused to consider an abortion. Returning from school a few days after that quarrel, she saw police taking Metzger away in a van. He had been arrested on suspicion of spying for East Germany. The concierge told her that she, too, was wanted for questioning.
Instead of going to the police, Schwartz went to the American embassy. Officials there discovered that the suspicions against Metzger were well-grounded and that she was liable to become entangled as well, as he had used their apartment as a base to send messages to the other side. The embassy offered to help get her out of Germany, and she started traveling through Europe by train, bouncing between friends and relatives. Her parents knew nothing about her pregnancy or what had befallen her. Along the way she met a group of Israelis heading to Rome as Jewish Agency emissaries. One of them heard about her distress and suggested she immigrate to Israel. She mentioned that she wanted to put the child up for adoption, and the Jewish Agency emissary introduced her to Ella Nelkan, the friend of the Epsteins who would arrange the adoption a few months later. Nelkan suggested she stay on Kibbutz Zikim, south of Ashkelon, until the birth.
Epstein says he understands his mother: "At that time, it was very difficult to be an unwed mother in the United States, and I would have had a difficult starting point in life. She had harsh memories of her childhood, and she decided, rightly, that I would be better off with the opportunity to grow up in a good family. Zoology has a concept called imprinting, when the young animal learns to identify an adult as its mother. That's what happened to me. With me the imprinting was geared to Mona. So, when Alma told me how she insisted on forgoing me, maybe my heart gave a little twinge, but I didn't feel that my mother had given me up, because my mother was always Mona. Alma paid a high price for leaving me. She never married, never had more children - it must have been a traumatic and formative event in her life."
After recovering from the birth, Alma remained in Israel for another six months and then decided to return to the United States and change her name to Yoray. She moved to New York, where she studied and taught dance. In the early 1980s, she and a group of artists moved to a coastal town in Maine, where she opened a dance studio. Later, when she was invited to be the choreographer for a Polish dance troupe, she moved to Poland, where she became acquainted with Buddhism and Vipassana, which were then making inroads in the country. Schwartz, who had tried yoga and meditation in the 1960s and 1970s, decided to devote herself to this sphere, and in 1999 she arrived at the Buddhist center in Przesieka. When she was about to leave, she learned the center was in financial straits and was for sale, and she decided to buy it. Since then she has devoted herself entirely to Vipassana meditation and to running the center.
In 1996, when she came to Israel to look for her son, she approached the Children's Service. Through friends and connections here she reached a young man named Yoray, but he insisted he had nothing to do with her. "At first, she thought he was her son and was taking revenge on her," Rony says. The letter she wanted to have placed in the adoption file was apparently lost. She returned to Poland.
Since being located by her son, Alma Schwartz has visited Israel three times. Epstein, Dafna and their two children went to meet her a few months after Epstein returned from his first meeting with her. "The children fell in love with her at first sight, and afterward Dafna and the kids went to visit her a few more times. We also all went on a heritage trip to America. She took us to Boston and showed us where she grew up and went to school, and then we went to New York and saw where she lived and studied and performed, and of course we went to Maine. She came to Israel to visit us for the first time in 2002 and stayed with us for a few weeks, and immediately became great friends with my father, with Dafna's mother and even with [my children's nanny] Barbara and my sisters."
Two years ago, after returning from a lengthy meditation retreat in Nepal, a growth the size of a tennis ball was discovered in one of her lungs. She decided to return to the United States and treat herself holistically. "She has a special diet and does special meditations. Now, for instance, she has gone to spend a month meditating like that. She is of course unwilling to hear anything about chemical treatments or radiation."
Do you see any resemblances between Alma and you?
"I am apparently perfect proof that man is a product of both genes and the environment. We are very similar in our need for nature. When I come to a natural setting, my senses awaken. That's why I love the sea so much. She is the same. Both of us have a fear of stupid people. Both of us have a great appreciation for solitude. I achieve my solitude when I sail around the world or when I ride a bike, and Alma does it through her meditation and her ascetic way of life. I, too, am inwardly ascetic, even though I am surrounded by gadgets and live well materially. But I can make do with very little. The first time I came to Alma's center, in the heart of that wonderful place of nature and quiet, I felt that this was exactly how I would like to live. Strange, isn't it? After all, I live in the heart of technology, but what really appeals to me is life without a phone or a computer." W
For more information about Rony Epstein's search for his mother and his life story, see www.igooglemymother.com (in Hebrew).