Life & Culture

Meet the Jewish man with 37 children

Until his daughter Rachel tracked him down in 2017, Peter Ellenstein had barely thought about the sperm bank donations of his youth. Now his 37 children are his world


Family matters: (top row, from left) a photo taken in 2017 of (back row) Peter’s brother David and sister Jan; (middle row) Peter (centre) with (from left) children Rachel, Courtney, Margaret and Alana; and (front row) Peter’s mother Lois

Six and a half years ago, Peter Ellenstein — a Jewish theatre director and producer from LA discovered he was a father. At the age of 56, that would have been news enough. But over the following years Ellenstein was to find out that the daughter who’d tracked him down had been doing some extra detective work, looking for her half-siblings.

At the last count, there were 36 of them.

Ellenstein, now 62, is the father of three football teams and a handful of subs and these are just the ones he knows about all by virtue of sperm he donated in the late 1980s and 1990s. “In the process of discovering my children, I also rediscovered my Jewish identity,” says Ellenstein.

It was a 23-year-old Jewish woman called Rachel White who started the process. At 10.55am on 6 October, 2017, he was sitting in the cafe of the Ritz hotel in San Francisco when his mobile buzzed. “Hi Peter,” said the text. “I am messaging you under very strange circumstances. This is a very sensitive subject... but to give you a bit of my background, I was born in 1994 due to in-vitro fertilisation. The reason I am messaging you is that I believe you may have been the donor.”

Amid the shock, Ellenstein’s first reaction was pleasure that the message was grammatically correct. “To be honest, I didn’t know whether this was a good or a bad thing,” he says. “I freaked out, rushed back to my room and copied the message to my sister. Could it be a scam?”

But even in this early panic, he suspected Rachel was right. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, while trying to make it in California as a theatre director and producer, Ellenstein had been a frequent visitor to two LA sperm banks.

Genesis 1:28, said of the Jews: “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.” But Ellenstein had no biblical compunction to people the Earth. “It was more because of my landlord’s religious insistence that I pay rent,” he says. “It was purely mercenary.”

And he made a packet at least $45 per donation, up to five times a week. “Over five or six years, my hundreds of donations allowed me the income to follow my dream and start a theatre company,” says Ellenstein.

The clinic told him that the donations were anonymous. “So I went away and mostly forgot about it,” he says. “New acquaintances would ask: ‘Do you have any children?’ Not that I know of, I would joke. But apart from that, I barely thought about what had happened to my sperm.”

Over the following years, Ellenstein criss-crossed the country, working as an actor, producer and director, spending more than a dozen years running a theatre company in Kansas.

There was no particular pressure from his parents to settle down and have a family.

“I grew up in a secular Jewish family,” he says. “My great-grandparents came over from eastern Europe in the 1880s and my grandfather was the first Jewish mayor of a major American city, Newark. My grandparents were raised as a mix of Orthodox and Reform, and my parents were both raised Reform, though my mother was an atheist. Their philosophy was that they didn’t mind what religion we were, or whether we had kids, as long as we were nice people.”

He didn’t have a bar mitzvah, “but we celebrated everything: from a fun comedic version of Passover to Chanukah. On the other hand, we also had a Christmas tree, but it was only allowed to have blue and white lights.”

As Ellenstein entered his twenties and thirties, his mother was interested in his love life. “But only in a supportive way, she didn’t nag,” he says. “She just wanted me to be happy.” Ellenstein had an older brother and a sister: his sister married a Jewish man. Both have two children.

Eventually, at the age of 48, Ellenstein met a woman and married —​ a union that lasted eight and a half years. But they didn’t have any children together. “When we met my ex-wife already had a daughter with whom I became close: we had a ready-made family,” he says. “Sadly, in 2017, my marriage started to fail, just around the time that Rachel contacted me.”

Rachel, 23, was the daughter of a single mother. She told Ellenstein she had been trying to find him since she was eight years old. “Immediately after Rachel’s message arrived, I rang the sperm bank who confirmed they had not revealed my identity to anyone,” he says. “But other details about me were readily available: my date of birth, height, weight, my career in the performing arts. Rachel had undertaken a mammoth detective task, putting various pieces together and eventually tracking me down via a film industry website.”

Over a day of texts back and forth, Rachel and I discovered some weird coincidences. “Like me, Rachel had graduated early from high school, chosen not to go to college and to pursue an artist’s life she was a guitarist who also worked in music production,” he says.

Ellenstein suggested a video chat. “From the minute I locked eyes with Rachel — eyes which were the same as mine — I was not able to think of anything else. I wanted to know her: she opened a different part of my heart and brain that had not existed before, a way of being in the world that I’d never previously contemplated.”

Three-quarters of the way through the conversation, Rachel said: “You should probably know there are more of us.” Peter was overwhelmed and said he’d rather wait a while until discovering more.

Father and daughter met the following day. “Rachel told me she knew immediately I was her father, because I bumped into the table on the way in, and this clumsiness was clearly genetic given her mother was a dancer,” says Ellenstein. “We laughed and hugged and cried in amazement, and kept stopping to stare at one another. I finally felt ready to ask about the other children. ‘I know about the twins,’ said Rachel. ‘They’re great.’ Twins! Then I found out about the triplets.”

Over the next couple of weeks, Rachel read me descriptions of the other 11 kids she currently knew about, who had all connected on the website 360DNA. These included Michael, a sailor in the Navy, lawyer Melanie, and Tyee, who was studying environmental science in Ecuador.

While he didn’t yet feel ready to meet the others, he figured he soon would “so I started investigating what each child may be looking for, from a simple medical and biological history all the way up to developing a paternal relationship,” he says. “I decided I would remain open to whatever each of the kids wanted and would try to take their lead.”

Ellenstein’s children became the most important thing in my life and he travelled the country meeting them: from St Louis to Maine to Oregon. He even made a trip to China. “Otherwise, I would pay for them to come to LA. They ranged in age from Jamison, now 35, to Sidney, who was 17 when I met him and is now 23. The twins and Alex were born four days apart. There are two Brittanys.”

Of the 37 children Peter knows about, 14 of them “identify as” Jewish.

“The children come from various backgrounds,” says Peter. “Some are ‘only’ children, some have siblings from other donors. A few have two moms. Others are from nuclear families, but the father has often left the picture. “Many of the moms specifically looked for Jewish donors, so their kids would be fully Jewish,” he says. “They wanted their children to physically resemble their other family members. And maybe they wanted their kids to inherit that love of education for their kids that many Jews have. Speaking personally, I’ve always loved the openness of the religion, which encourages questioning, not obedience.”

Their Judaism is “all over the map”, he says. “At least three of them David, Sarah and Davina Shapiro, who now live in Brooklyn, are Orthodox. David has completed yeshiva.”

For others, finding the identity of their father has solved a life-long puzzle. “Jeremy, who’s an animated stand-up comedian, was always puzzled why friends asked whether he was Jewish, when his mother was from Catholic Greek extraction,” says Ellenstein. “He tells me he was the most Jewy kid you could ever imagine.”

Indeed, says Ellenstein, many of the kids share what he describes as Jewish traits: dogged determination, a love of literature, open-minded values. “We move the same way, have similar intonation when we speak, and a tendency to wave our arms around when we get excited.”

Over the years, he’s connected deeply with his new family: hosting parties, introducing them to business contacts, taking them on holidays, and having them to stay in times of need. His 97-year old mother adores her new brood and has been to several gatherings.

“They call me Pops, Old Man, “my biological father”, he says. “Of the 37 children I now know about, I have met 34. The last one is very unwell: we haven’t spoken and it doesn’t feel appropriate to make contact, but I follow her progress online and would be there to help in a heartbeat.”

He says that these new relationships have made him reflect deeply. “Until this point in my life, I had never thought about my mortality,” he says. “Now I have started to think: what do I leave in the world? What kind of example am I as a father?

Some people get upset about the nomenclature, he says. “They wonder if I really deserve the epithet ‘father’. It never leaves my mind that I didn’t raise these individuals. That’s why I don’t consider myself a ‘parent’. But they are still my kids. Many biological fathers treat their children appallingly. Others found by their kids later in life have sent ‘cease and desist’ letters. But in our case, these relationships have overwhelmingly become a positive force for all of us.”

The children have made Ellenstein challenge what he calls his “internal biases”. He says: “Almost all them were brought up with liberal values. But one of my daughters was raised Catholic. I had always dismissed pro-life people as dumb, or uneducated. But one day, my daughter and I had a conversation about birth control. I didn’t agree with her views, but I did listen. At the end of the day, we parted as friends, saying: ‘There’s everything else in the world we can connect on: just not this.’”

There have also been discussions about Israel-Palestine. “Several of the kids are from the progressive left, and I have been educating them about that,” he says. “One of them is very anti-Israel, and sees everything in black and white. I tell her there are multiple truths in the area, that lots of people are in the right. I’m trying to educate her and push back on these ridiculous, uniformed views.” But ultimately, the reunited family has been a positive experience for all. “They are all fascinated to know our shared history and an understanding of where our family has come from,” he says. “This has reignited a passion in me. I feel a real sense of legacy. A notion of history being passed on.”

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