I’m the result of a secret sperm concoction

By | January 13, 2019

In the late 1960s, 6-year-old Dani Shapiro was at an Orthodox Jewish gathering in her hometown of Hillside, NJ, when her arm was gripped by a woman named Mrs. Kushner. The Holocaust survivor — who was the future grandmother of Jared Kushner — fixed the girl with a stare.

“We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie,” the woman said. “You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

Fair-haired Dani told The Post she “stuck out like a sore thumb” in her community of mostly Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. She lost count of the number of times she was told by strangers she couldn’t possibly be Jewish. Some people even joked she was the fruit of her dark-haired mom’s ­“affair with a Swedish milkman.”

It wasn’t until 2016, 13 years after the death of her mother, Irene, that Dani discovered the real reason she looked unlike her family. By then an accomplished novelist and memoirist, Dani did a DNA test from Ancestry.com just for kicks. But the results could not have been more serious: The man who raised her was not her biological father.

“It upended my world,” said Dani, now 56 and the author of the just-published “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” (Knopf).

Until then, she had assumed her father was Paul Shapiro, a Wall Street stockbroker. (He died in a car accident in 1986.)

Irene had told Dani years ago of seeing a specialist after having trouble getting pregnant. But it was only after Dani got her DNA results and researched her history that she discovered she was the product of a shocking reproductive technique.

At the now-defunct Farris Institute for Parenthood in Philadelphia, Paul’s sperm was mixed with that of an anonymous donor and used to inseminate Irene. The idea was that nobody would know which sperm created the embryo.

“It was to protect the presumably fragile ego of the intended ­father because infertility was seen as a weakness,” said Dani. “The parents were told: ‘Don’t tell anyone, not even the doctor who delivers your child.’ ”

Ironically, the term for the practice was “confused artificial insemination.”

Dani’s relationship with Paul was the most important of her childhood. “It was very warm and loving,” said Dani, who loved spending time with him at their synagogue. “His devotion to his religion was such an important part of his life.”

The writer, who now lives in Litchfield County, Conn., had thoroughly documented the history of her paternal family and was proud they had founded prominent Orthodox Jewish institutions both in New York and Israel. She considered it a major part of her identity.

The first sign that something was off was when her Ancestry.com DNA test showed she is 52 percent Eastern-European Ashkenazi Jewish but also has French, Irish, English and German origins.

The data revealed that Dani’s older half-sister, Suzie, who is Paul’s daughter from an earlier marriage, was not related to her in any away. The data also linked Dani to a first cousin she’d never heard of, and who had no connection to anyone else in her family.

Knowing all this, there was no way Paul could be Dani’s father.

“I was numb and dizzy, and my mind was racing,” she said. “Your parents are your foundation.”

With the help of her journalist husband, Michael, Dani found this mysterious first cousin on Facebook, but chose not to reach out to him. Still, that led to the discovery of an online obituary for the cousin’s mother, which mentioned the woman’s brother — a retired physician in Portland, Ore. He had to be her biological father.

Dani with the father who raised her, Paul Shapiro, circa 1965.
Dani with the man who raised her, Paul Shapiro, in a photo from around 1965.

In her book, Dani recalls watching a video of this doctor delivering a lecture on YouTube.

“He held both his hands in front of him as if bracketing the air in parentheses — a gesture that I suddenly recognized as my own,” she writes. “I was seeing the truth — the answer to the unanswerable questions I had been exploring all my life.”

At first, the father-of-three was cautious about Dani’s attempts to contact him via e-mail. But after two months, he decided to embrace her. He revealed that he had been a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania and donated sperm to the Farris Institute for Parenthood in 1961.

In October 2016, the two met for lunch in New Jersey. As Dani writes in her memoir, “It was bewildering to look at him — to see my features reflected back at me.”

The pair talked about their families, careers and accomplishments. Her biological father even FaceTimed with her son, Jacob, then 17.

Today, they speak regularly and have what Dani calls a “warm relationship.” She has met two of his three other children and is especially close to his daughter. But her biological father asked not to be involved in Dani’s book, which does not reveal his real name.

She is haunted by the realization she could so easily have never have learned the truth. “The [DNA test] kits hung around the kitchen for weeks until we finally opened them,” she recalled. “That’s how casual the whole thing was.”

Although Dani is glad she did the test and tracked down her biological dad, she still regards Paul as her true father.

“I am enormously grateful to have found this missing part of my identity, but my father [Paul] raised me. He is the person who loved me into being.”

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