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When we aren’t who we think we are

83a61e759284e01c80d632c4d8b7143c-20a0g4sFor the second time in one year, two men in Canada have discovered that they were switched at birth four decades ago.  Just last week, DNA testing confirmed that Leon Swanson and David Tait, Jr., were swapped in the government-run Norway House Hospital in 1975.

Close to tears at a press conference, Mr Tait said he felt “distraught, confused and angry”. He said: “I want answers so bad. It’s going to affect us one way or the other, I know that. It’s going to be a long journey.”

Eric Robinson, a former cabinet minister in Manitoba province, told reporters:  “What happened to them is criminal. Lives were stolen. You can’t describe it as anything less than that.”

A similar case was reported in Oregon back in 2009.  Here are my thoughts from then, originally published in Jewish World Review.


It sounds like a movie. Nurses bring a newborn daughter back to her mother after bathing. The mother insists that she’s been given the wrong baby. The nurses, who clearly know better, dismiss her concerns.

But 56 years later, DNA testing proves that Marjorie Angell, the real mother in this real story, was right.

Kay Rene Reed and DeeAnn Angell were both born on the third of May, 1953 in eastern Oregon’s Pioneer Memorial Hospital. As babies they were switched, presumably while being given baths, and grew up to become wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Less than a year ago Kay Rene’s brother discovered an old photograph of Kay Rene in middle school. Except that it wasn’t a picture of Kay Rene; rather, the schoolgirl who could have been her twin was in fact the sister of DeeAnn.

Subsequent DNA testing proved what had already become obvious. Kay Rene wasn’t a Reed, and DeeAnn wasn’t an Angell.

“I cried,” said Kay Rene. “My life wasn’t my life.”


flat,800x800,070,fImagine waking up one morning and discovering that you were someone else. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. You have the same friends, the same family, the same job. But you also have another family and another past — a whole different identity about which you know nothing. A careless moment over which you had no control and an innocent mistake outside your knowledge conspired to leave you wondering how your whole life might have unfolded if not for that momentary twist of fate.

What would you do? What would you think? How would you feel?

If you have lived a happy and well-adjusted life, you’d probably wrestle with some inner confusion and then return to your friends and family. But if your life had been difficult, if you had endured an existence of hardships and traumas that had left you broken and bitter, how might you cry out against the cruelty of chance that had snatched away the happy life you might have had.

And what if, somehow, it had actually been your own fault?


The Sages of the Talmud teach that when a soul departs from this world, it lets out a scream that can be heard from one end of the universe to the other. Contemporary scholars have explained their meaning as follows:

Once freed from the bonds of physical existence, every soul ascends to the next world and comes before the Heavenly tribunal for judgment. Upon our arrival, each of us will witness a reenactment of his entire life on earth, as if projected upon a giant screen, with all of our good deeds and accomplishments, but also with all our carelessness and self-absorption. Recognizing the futility of either excuses or apologies, we will feel the shame and remorse of a life poorly lived, with no further chance of redemption.

Simultaneously, as if on a split-screen, a different story plays out. Here we will behold the life of a tzaddik, a truly pious individual whose every thought and deed is for others and whose efforts are directed entirely toward moral and spiritual self-perfection. The contrast between the two images will be astonishing.

As the painful exercise concludes, each of us will pose a question to the court: “I recognize my own life, but who is this tzaddik that lived so perfect a life, and why was his story projected next to mine?”

“That tzaddik,” the court replies, “is the person you could have been.”

Will sudden clarity, the ascendant soul will understand the consequences of a life lived in pursuit of physical pleasure and material goals. Perceiving that there had resided within him the potential to become someone else altogether and, realizing that it is too late to go back and relive his life, the unfortunate soul will emit a scream that can be heard from one end of the universe to the other.


04As long as we remain alive in this world, however, there is time to go back. What’s past is not necessarily past, for the Creator has programmed into his universe the extraordinary capability to go back in time and reshape what has already been done. This is teshuva — repentance or, literally, return.

The Jewish concept of repentance is not mere chest-clopping and confession.Teshuva is a process of self-transformation, of changing ourselves into the kinds of individuals incapable of ever again committing our earlier transgressions and indiscretions. Through sincere self-reflection, our genuine remorse will catapult us to new levels of spiritual and moral sensitivity. By returning to the straight path the Creator laid out before us from the moment we were born, we literally re-create ourselves and severe all connection to the errors of the past.

What’s done is now undone, and we have nothing to fear from the ultimate Day of Judgment. It is no longer our past that defines us. It is what we have made of ourselves, and what we do from this point forward, that will define our future.

The two women switched at birth have gotten on with their lives, and they have even become friends. Kay Rene introduces DeeAnn as her “swister.”

“I’m trying to move forward and look at the positive,” DeeAnn said. “You can’t look back. It just drives you crazy.”

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