Shani’s Story: Family and Faith, Blood and Being Chosen
Shani sits in my home office, in a big plush leather chair I pulled in for the occasion. I fiddle with the voice memos app on my phone. Feeling the chill from the large windows, she asks me for a blanket. We are both excited and a bit nervous. This is the first profile that I am doing for “The Layers Project,” she’s wondering how I’m going to treat the sensitive nature of the story she is about to tell me. I am wondering if I will be able to do it justice.
After all the anticipation, she begins her story, “My adoption was closed. My biological parents never met my real parents, but my Mom always told me that ‘Daddy and I couldn’t have a baby, so Hashem gave them a mitzvah lady who carried me in her belly. When I was born, the mitzvah lady gave me to Mommy and Daddy .’ This was my bedtime story.” It’s clear that this story is a foundational narrative that Shani has been able to incorporate into her healthy sense of self. “I always knew that I was adopted. My parents made me feel wanted and chosen.”
In families, adoption often is a hushed-up secret. People become afraid to disclose that they are struggling with fertility issues and concerned that the knowledge that a child wasn’t naturally born into the family may cause shame or challenges. There is also a stigma in the Jewish community about adopted children not born of a Jewish biological mother.
“Throughout my life people were always surprised that I was so ‘normal’ or well- adjusted when they learned that I was adopted. At Stern College, I took a speech course and gave a presentation on how, in my opinion, as an adopted child that you shouldn’t try to find your biological parents. I feel strongly that my adoptive parents are my parents and they are all I need. After I started having kids of my own, I realized that these children are my only blood relatives.” Reflecting on being grateful for her children and parents she added, “This is my life, my love, and I don’t need more than I have.”
Shani described imagining her future when she was a child. “ I always wanted a family, one that was bigger than the one in which I grew up. It’s just me and my sister, but I consider both of us to be only children who happened to be sisters because we are 11 ½ years apart. I grew up lonely.” Adopted from birth, Shani hoped that her parents would bring her a sibling. Around age 8 or 9, the adoption of a boy fell through at the last minute. Her discouraged parents told her that they were ready to give up trying to bring home a sibling for her. Shani wouldn’t let them give up, and several years later, Shaindee, a little sister, was welcomed into the family. Shani shared that “Shaindee felt she had three parents because I was old enough to do everything for her. Babysitting, diapers, and even in the middle of the night, I would wake up with her. She was my baby. She still is my baby.”
In her life, Shani has identified her adoptive family as the “chosen” family- a bond stronger than blood. At her wedding, the kesuba (marriage contract) was according to traditional Jewish law. This required her Hebrew name, stating that she was “Bas Avraham Avinu (a child of the Patriarch Abraham, which is a way of describing someone who has converted). When the kesuba was read aloud at the wedding, Shani’s Hebrew name and her father’s Hebrew name were read together. She was able to honor her father under the chuppah by acknowledging him in that important moment. “The Rabbi winked at me when he read the names. He knew how much it meant to me, and it made me happy to honor my father in this way.”
Shani openly imagined how different her life would have been had she not been adopted into an Orthodox Jewish family. “Maybe I would be living in South Carolina (where I was born) with a twang in my accent, eating McDonalds. I probably would have a huge obnoxious tattoo on my arm- a full sleeve of ink. Sometimes even now, I wish I could tattoo the names of my children and the dates they were born on my arm. I never would, but I would love that because I’m proud of my babies.”
Reflecting on those formative years as an only child, Shani realized that those experiences significantly impacted her parenting style. She smiled with exasperation, “Whenever my kids complain that they are bored, I always say, ‘Excuse me- you don’t know what it means to be bored. You have siblings, I gave you friends to play with! I love teaching my kids how to prank each other, blow bubbles in their milk. We put fake bugs on our pillows to scare each other.” When one of them tattles on the other, Shani reminds them, “That’s your sibling, you need to keep their secrets.” In this way, Shani is ensuring that her children have the fullest young sibling experience, an experience that she feels she missed.
She then told me about an experience that many women have suffered but few are willing to discuss. After finding out that she was pregnant again, Shani went for the six-week ultrasound test. The ultrasound tech reported that the fetus looked small and was concerned that the pregnancy might not be viable. After going to a second doctor for another opinion, Shani was told that her the pregnancy indeed was not viable and that she would need to come back to get a D&C in two days.
“When I first lost the pregnancy, I just wanted to be left alone. I was so sad, I just needed some time to myself.” Then she was able to attain another level of closeness with her mother during that challenging time. “What was really interesting, was that this was something that my Mom could really relate to. She took me to the D&C and cared for me. She knew exactly what I was going through and we connected on a new level. I felt she was right there with me. I really felt it was a bonding experience.”
Shani made me reconsider what makes people family. I realized that family is more about who we accept into that bond of closeness and love, than who solely shares our DNA.
I asked Shani what she tells herself during her “self- pep talks” throughout the day. She shared, “We are human, we mess up. Just say you’re sorry and move on. Let people feel what they feel and tell people how you feel. Be gentle to yourself and forgive yourself. Always try to do better tomorrow.”
Shani has learned from owning her struggles and has integrated them into her identity in a healthy way. For others these issues may have overwhelmed or taken over their personality and may have stifled potential, but Shani stands strong and vibrant. She has integrated the lessons from these challenges without escaping or avoiding. She is centered knowing that she is loved and loves others fiercely. She has earned her resiliency, because she has dealt with life honestly.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.