The Filmmaker, the Jazz Musician, and the Little Girl: An Unlikely Israeli Adoption Story

Back in the 1960s, German-born filmmaker Helga Keller and American jazz musician Mel Keller adopted the five-year-old Liora, and hid her Moroccan roots. Helga captured the intimate ups and downs of the adoption in a memoir that was never completed.

Liora Keller

It is Israel, 1964. Renowned filmmaker and educator Helga Keller and her husband, United States-born jazz musician Mel Keller, are on their way to meet the little girl who may become their daughter. In the car, they make strained conversation. She is terrified that she will be found wanting as a mother.

They desperately want to adopt a child, but Helga is worried that they will be turned down as adoptive parents: They are in their 40s, only married for two years, and both – heaven forbid – are artists.

But they did adopt that little girl, Liora. Helga captured the intimate ups and downs of the adoption, along with other important events in her life, in a memoir that was never completed. The story of the adoption is a fascinating slice of Israeli social history.

“I knew that my mother always wanted to do something with the story,” says 56-year-old Liora Keller, who moved back to her mother’s Herzliya home after her death, after over 20 years living in America as a consultant in Silicon Valley. “It was always important for her to write the story of her own experience as an adopter.”

Helga, who died in 2013, first sent Liora what she refers to as her mother’s “stories” around six years ago. Helga had published a memoir, in German, about her youth under Hitler. The chapters of this unfinished autobiography, written in English, also detailed her life in Berlin, before Helga’s family fled to London in 1939. It described her first job editing a film by none other than Laurence Olivier, and recalled Helga’s pride at penning a pioneering Hebrew text book on cinema after she immigrated to Israel.

And, in moving detail, this memoir described what it was like to fall in love with Liora, who was five when they adopted her from her rural foster home in Moshav Avichail.

Liora, right, and Helga, left, on a skiing holiday in 1971 (Courtesy of Liora Keller)

After agonizing months waiting for the Welfare (now Social Affairs) Ministry to approve their application, Helga vividly recalled their first meeting with their future daughter. “And there she is, Liora, the little girl we have come to see in her red shorts, shouting with the others and running toward us,” she wrote of that first visit to the moshav.

“Could I grow to like this little girl? Or even love her?” Helga remembered wondering after that first meeting. Driving back in silence, “Mel and I exchange looks,” she wrote. “Yes, we would like to see Liora again.”

From then on, until they finally adopted her months later during Hanukkah that year, Helga and Mel tried to visit Liora every other day.

The Kellers knew little about Liora’s past. The ministry told them she was born to an unmarried teenager from a family of Moroccan immigrants. They also knew she had spent her short life in a series of foster homes and institutions.

According to the ministry, Helga wrote, “The [biological] mother was stunningly beautiful, the identity of the father was unknown. The mother had abandoned her and it took the Ministry of Welfare five years to persuade her to agree to having the child adopted.”

In the 1960s, it was far more common for Israeli children to go into institutional care than it is today, says Professor Eliezer David Jaffe of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on child welfare in Israel. “One of the reasons was that people believed that new immigrants coming in from other cultures could be made into real sabras [native Israelis] by living in sabra-run institutions. There was a big push by a lot of people to do that.”

Israel’s Ashkenazi Jewish leadership wanted to imbue immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa with their culture “for the good of the child,” he explains. In fact, Israel’s early adoption history is overshadowed by dark allegations that, from 1948 to the mid-1950s, babies of mostly Yemenite immigrants were taken from transit camps and adopted by wealthy Ashkenazi families.

There was major social division between Jews of European origin and Jews of Middle-Eastern and North African origin in Israel. Liora has always had honey-colored hair and light skin. Though she knew she was adopted from the get-go, her parents kept her heritage hidden.

“In view of the fact that Liora had this very white skin and dark blond hair,” Helga wrote, “I decided that her origins were nobody’s business but our own, and I would  keep silent on this issue, for both our sakes, because prejudice against North African Jews was rife.”

It was only in her late 20s, when Liora opened her adoption file, that she found out about her roots. It would be an understatement to say that she was shocked. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know I was Moroccan,” she says. “[The woman at the Welfare Ministry] said, ‘are you sitting down?’ She said, ‘do you know what background you are from, did your parents tells you?’ I said I always assumed I was Ashkenazi, and she said ‘no, your mother was born in Morocco.’”

The house in Herzliya where Liora grew up, in 1964, the year that she was adopted (Courtesy of Liora Keller)

Helga didn’t say anything at the time, only admitting she had known about Liora’s heritage some 25 years later. Liora says she wasn’t angry with Helga, who she loved dearly, for keeping those roots a secret.

She made contact with her biological mother only after the second time she opened the adoption file, in 1997, when she was 38. That meeting was “very emotional, extremely emotional,” Liora says.

Last year, almost 20 years later, she opened her adoption file a third time and got in touch with the foster family in Moshav Avichail, too. Despite the changes the house had undergone over the years, “When I first came here last year with the social worker, when I saw the kitchen, I said that’s it, I’m home,” she says.

Liora, right, and her foster brother, Israel Cherches, at her former foster home. (Nimrod Glickman)

Liora doesn’t remember any of those first meetings with her adoptive parents. She doesn’t remember Helga’s uncertainty or longing, or her fear that Liora would never accept her as a mother.

Her earliest memory, she says, is of being plunged into a home where, with a German-born mom and American dad, Hebrew was not the lingua franca. Helga and Mel – who died in 1998 – separated when Liora was in her late teens. “Right at the beginning they taught me English, they taught me to read and write in English even before I knew how to in Hebrew,” Liora says.

After the adoption, life changed dramatically in other ways, too. Aside from newfound stability, her adoptive parents took her on trips to places like Britain and Italy, where she met glamorous friends like Olivier himself. At home she was surrounded by music, art and literature. And she had a new older sister – her father’s daughter from a previous marriage, who lived in New York.

Yes, it was different, but she adjusted well, Helga observed. And Liora concurs: “I had no reservations going with her, I know that for sure. Maybe because I was used to moving from one place to another.”

Still, Helga noted how those unstable first years had taken their toll on the little girl. She noticed, for instance, that Liora would not let herself cry until the day Helga told her it was okay to shed a tear. “Somebody must have told her that people don’t like children who cry,” she wrote.

And for months after moving in, tentative about her new family, Liora insisted on referring to her former foster mother as Ima (Hebrew for mother) Hava.

One, day just after Purim in March, “like a thunderbolt out of the blue” Liora asked to visit the foster family. She had a reason, but Helga only understood it in retrospect: “She had to go back to the village and Ima Hava to convince herself that Ima Hava was not her mother. Because from that day on Liora started to call me ‘Ima,’ from that day she fully adopted me as her mother.”

Liora aged around five or six, after she was adopted in 1964 (Courtesy of Liora Keller)