Big Little Lie
Noam Tomaschoff grew up as an only child in a tight-knit family of three. At 31, he discovered that his parents had been keeping a shocking secret—and the surprises just kept coming
Noam Tomaschoff is an actor, writer and director who grew up in the Beaches and Bedford Park, the only child of Sylvie and Gideon Tomaschoff. Theirs was a tight-knit family with strong ties to Toronto’s Jewish community. Last fall, at age 31, Tomaschoff took a DNA test on a lark—and the story of his life unravelled. Now, he’s written a show about his experience, Our Little Secret: The 23&Me Musical, premiering July 6 at the Toronto Fringe Festival.
Noam: The idea of taking a 23andMe test came from a conversation on the dating app Hinge, of all places. It was August of 2022, and I had been chatting with Mary, who’s now my girlfriend, for a while, but we hadn’t met in person. She mentioned that she had taken a DNA test out of curiosity. I was aware of 23andMe, but it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about doing. I was confident that I knew everything about my background. My dad is from Israel, and my mom, who is from Montreal, is French Canadian and Italian and had converted to Judaism before she married my dad. But, after Mary mentioned it, I saw online that 23andMe was having a summer sale—a test would cost $120 instead of $150. So I ordered one. I was living in LA but was back home in Toronto, where my parents live. I figured I would do the test when I returned to LA in September.
Sylvie: We were at our cottage on Wolfe Island, near Kingston, when Noam told me he’d ordered the test. It was just Noam and me at the time—we were going for a hike on one of the Thousand Islands. I was a few steps behind him on the path, and when he told me, I felt like he had taken the pin out of a grenade and tossed it over his shoulder. I was trying to be very cool, but my brain was going a hundred miles an hour. At first, I said, “Oh, why? Do you think those things are accurate?”
Noam: I thought it was a strange reaction. I didn’t understand why she would care. To me, it was such a neutral thing. I thought it would be interesting to see our ancestry and learn about my genetic health: the test can show if you’re predisposed to develop certain conditions, like anxiety or asthma. My mom got very quiet.
Sylvie: I realized I was going to have to tell him that his father and I had been keeping a secret. I knew that broaching the topic with Noam would be stressful. Noam is even-keeled, but I didn’t know how he would react to the news. I remember thinking I couldn’t tell him that evening because he wouldn’t be able to sleep. I didn’t even tell Gideon about it. I needed some time to process the situation myself. Of course, I didn’t sleep the whole night. I worried about how Gideon would handle it too. It’s in my nature to keep the peace in our family, and it felt like I was about to cause chaos. The next morning, I got up before Noam and told Gideon about our conversation.
Gideon: My heart started racing, and I broke into a cold sweat. I knew we had no choice but to tell him the truth. We sat at the kitchen table, waiting for Noam.
Noam: I walked in and started making coffee when my mom said, “We need to tell you something.” She had this weird look on her face, like she was ashamed. My dad looked tense and short of breath, like he was in a state of distress. I sat down at the kitchen table, across from my mom and next to my dad. I don’t remember who, but one of them motioned for us all to hold hands, like it was a seance. That was something we had never done. I thought, What is going on? I thought that I was in trouble or that somebody in the family had died.
Sylvie: Gideon and I didn’t strategize about what we were going to say.
Gideon: I understood that it was up to me to speak the words. I did it in Hebrew, which is my mother tongue and something I passed on to Noam. It felt fitting to tell him in our language. I was very straightforward with him. I said, “Noam, I want you to know that I’m not your biological father.”
Noam: At first, I thought it was a joke or a prank. It just seemed ridiculous.
Gideon: Noam’s eyes went so big. He was moving around in his chair. I went on to explain that we’d had trouble conceiving and that, after some investigation, it had turned out to be me who had the problem.
Sylvie: Gideon and I first met in the 1980s, on the deck of an overnight ferry between Patras, Greece, and Brindisi, Italy. We were both students travelling through Europe.
Gideon: Then we were on the only train going up north from Brindisi to Milan. The train was packed, so we were stuck beside each other for hours, and we talked the whole way.
Sylvie: We did the long-distance thing for a while. I was finishing medical school at McGill.
Gideon: I was an engineering student back in Israel. After Sylvie graduated, she moved to Israel. She was born to a Catholic family but had converted to Judaism in Montreal. The conversion took months, and I only found out late in the process. We got married in Israel in a Jewish ceremony, and we lived on the outskirts of Tel Aviv for a few years. That’s when we found out that I had fertility issues. Israel is a place where people have a lot of children and also a country where privacy is not revered, especially when it comes to family life. It’s a small, dense country, and there’s not a lot of personal space, so people are constantly in one another’s faces. People feel free to ask questions about matters that would be considered none of their business in Canada. Total strangers will ask you if you have any children, and if you don’t, they want to know why.
Sylvie: It wasn’t just social pressure. We both really wanted to have kids. I’ve always had a strong maternal urge.
Gideon: I definitely wanted to have my own children. The majority of my forefathers were annihilated during the Holocaust. My parents were excited for me to start a family. When I learned that I couldn’t have children, it was a blow. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents, because I didn’t want to upset them.
Sylvie: At the same time, I was looking for a place to do my residency. I wanted to go somewhere in North America, to be closer to my parents in Montreal. I ended up at Bridgeport Hospital, in Connecticut, so we moved to New Haven.
Gideon: We also figured that it would be a good idea to get away from the lack of privacy in Israel. Adoption is possible there, but it’s a long, difficult process. We thought that we’d pursue adoption in the US instead. But, after we moved, we learned that we couldn’t adopt in the US because we weren’t American citizens.
Sylvie: The funny thing is that I was doing my residency in obstetrics and gynecology. I saw the situation as a clinical problem that simply needed a solution. One option was to conceive through an anonymous sperm donor, which seemed practical to me. Gideon didn’t want to do that. The fertility specialist we spoke to said that most guys are hesitant.
Gideon: There was a lot of shame and stigma around male infertility. I didn’t know anybody in my situation. It was a lonely experience. I was worried that, if we used an anonymous donor, people would think the baby wasn’t mine—that they’d start asking questions. But, with time, I warmed to the idea. I thought we could pick someone who had similar physical traits so that the baby would look somewhat like me. Still, if we went ahead, it wasn’t something that I wanted to advertise.
Sylvie: They didn’t show you pictures of the donors. I went to the sperm bank, flipped through a binder and brought home three profiles of candidates. The forms listed each donor’s height, weight, eye colour, year of birth, education, profession, hobbies and marital status. We chose the one who was most similar to Gideon in height, weight and eye colour.
Gideon: In all respects, we won the lottery. We couldn’t have asked for anyone better than Noam. I thank God and the anonymous donor for that. At the time, the clinic told us that it was common practice to keep the whole thing a secret. That made sense to us—we wanted to protect our family and Noam. We didn’t want anybody questioning our relationships. But we did tell my parents and my sister.
Sylvie: And I told my parents and my brother. We also told them that we wanted to keep it a secret. It was important for Gideon to feel like he was fully the father. We didn’t want anyone to question his connection to our child. A few months after Noam was born, in 1991, I finished my residency and got a job at Credit Valley Hospital, in Mississauga, so we moved to Toronto.
Gideon: Over the years, Sylvie and I would occasionally talk about our secret, but there was never a compelling reason to tell Noam. He never asked for brothers or sisters or why he didn’t have any siblings. Had he asked, I honestly don’t know what we would have said. At that point, we might have considered telling him. Or, if there had been an issue related to his health, we would have told him. But we didn’t have any close calls.
Noam: After I heard the news, I sat in shock. How could my dad not be my dad? He was by far the dominant parent in terms of influence. I also felt like, of all the people in the world, I was the last person who would experience this kind of drama. I wasn’t angry; I was stupefied. It was disorienting. I asked why they had never told me. My dad said that it had been to protect me and our family and to avoid confusing me as a kid. Then I asked my parents if they knew anything about the donor.
Gideon: The information we’d been given was basic. The profile sheet said that he’d been born in 1944. He had blue eyes, brown hair and was six foot two. His ethnic origin was English and Irish, and his profession was listed as public relations. There was also a special skills section that said, “Reading and music.” It was vague. We’d actually been keeping his profile sheet in a drawer of files in our house this whole time.
Noam: I’d definitely been in that drawer before—it has old passports, health cards and school transcripts. All this time, stuffed somewhere in there, was this xeroxed piece of paper containing the essential truth about my existence. I’d just never happened to look at it. Once the secret was out, I had to know, “Was he Jewish?”
Gideon: I said, “No—that wasn’t important to us.”
Noam: That shocked me because culturally—though not religiously—Judaism was a huge part of my upbringing. My dad spoke only Hebrew to me at home. He would refuse to answer me if I spoke in English.
Gideon: To me, it was important for Noam to speak fluent Hebrew so that he could communicate with his grandparents and first cousins in Israel. We knew that he would not have any brothers or sisters. We travelled to Israel every year, and he treated his cousins as siblings.
Noam: I didn’t participate in all the religious rituals and traditions, like I don’t keep kosher. But I did have a bar mitzvah, and we’ll have Shabbat dinner and do the high holidays. We were deeply embedded in the Jewish community in Toronto.
Gideon: Looking back, I can see that raising Noam Jewish was deliberate—since I couldn’t pass on my genes, I wanted to pass on my culture. I probably would have done it to some degree even if Noam had been my biological son, but I think I was more emphatic about it.
Sylvie: It was Noam’s request to go to a Hebrew school. He didn’t attend one until Grade 8. First he enrolled at Bialik Hebrew Day School, followed by the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.
Gideon: The principal tested his Hebrew and was so impressed knowing that Noam hadn’t gone to Hebrew school throughout elementary. I feel like we were successful in raising Noam to be Jewish.
Noam: That conversation around the kitchen table at the cottage lasted only 15 minutes or so. As it ended, my dad said, “Please don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell your friends. Everyone’s going to talk.” He was trying to get me to be in on the secret. That felt ridiculous to me. I thought, I’m not playing this game. I wanted to have my own experience with it. So I said, “No—I’m going to tell whomever I want.” My response made my dad anxious. I understand how tumultuous it was for my parents emotionally, but I had to do what made sense for me. It was my turn to take control of the narrative.
The next day, I had to drive six hours to Vermont for a friend’s wedding. I left things by telling my parents, “We’ll talk about this more when I get back. We’re not done here.” On the drive to Vermont, I called all my closest friends to tell them the news. The truth was out, and now I was going on this big campaign to tell everyone I knew.
Gideon: I think Noam attracted more attention than the bride with his story. He told everybody and became the talk of the wedding.
Sylvie: I believe that, in his eyes, the secret was the problem. He called it a deception. I think that was hard for him to take. His decision was, “There will be no more secrets.” Him telling everyone he knew was like our comeuppance.
Noam: When I came back from Vermont, I felt like my parents had to stay in the doghouse for a little while. It wasn’t going to be an eternal grudge, but they needed to be punished for keeping this secret from me. I didn’t shun them or give them the silent treatment; there wasn’t any dramatic chilling of relations. We kept discussing the topic, and my dad was still trying to get me to stay quiet about it. Then, about a week later, I hugged my parents goodbye, flew back to LA and took the 23andMe test.
Sylvie: Noam isn’t somebody who bears grudges or gets angry easily. But I was worried that this news had thrown him. He was living alone in LA. It was a pretty tense time.
Noam: The initial shock lasted for a couple of weeks. It felt kind of like I was a computer that had to reboot for an operating system update. So I shut down for a bit. It was a clear demarcation in my life, like everything would now be measured in terms of before and after.
Gideon: In those few weeks, I was very sad. We felt that Noam was down and confused. There wasn’t a lot of communication between us. It felt to me like Noam wasn’t sure who he was.
Noam: My sense of self was shaken, and I was eager to learn more about who my biological father was. In September of 2022, a few weeks after I returned from Toronto and sent in the DNA test, the results came back. My heart was beating so hard. I was excited to learn more. I thought, This story doesn’t end here.
I logged in to 23andMe and was taken to the ancestry section. I discovered that I’m 62 per cent Irish, which was from the donor. Next, I was 30 per cent Italian, which came from my mother’s side. Then, of course, there was zero Jewish in me at all. But that doesn’t negate the way I grew up. I found it easy to separate culture, which is something you participate in, and ethnicity, which is something you’re born with. So I didn’t dwell on my lack of Jewish ancestry.
The next section was the “friends and family” tab. These are your DNA relatives who’ve already taken the test. The first thing I saw was that there were 15 close relatives who had between 20 and 30 per cent shared DNA with me, which meant they were my half-siblings. Next to that was a list of names.
Gideon: Noam called us right after he got his results. I could tell that he was excited to make these discoveries.
Sylvie: This was a turning point in our relationship. It felt like things were going to be okay.
Noam: It was exhilarating to see this many people I was related to. I’d always wondered what it would be like to have a sibling. Immediately, my imagination ran wild. I thought, What do you look like? What are you like? Will we get along? Do we share traits? Some had pictures on their profiles, but they were really small.
I picked a half-sister whose profile said she’d recently been active on 23andMe. Her name was Leslie Hicks. My message said, “Hello. I just found out we have the same biological father. I’m sure you’ve seen this. But there are 13 others like us on the platform. You’re the first one I’m reaching out to. What’s your experience been like? I’m still very new to this.” She replied pretty quickly and said, “Hi Noam, welcome to the tribe. There are at least 35 of us.” She invited me to a Facebook group they had created with all the half-siblings that they knew of. She said she knew who the biological father was and that I even looked like him.
Gideon: We were floored when we found out he had 35 half-siblings. I sensed a new energy in Noam’s voice. He was more upbeat.
Noam: Leslie welcomed me into the Facebook group with a message: “We’ve got a new one. Everybody say hello!” There are about 25 active members, and most of them have been there since 2018, when 23andMe was in its heyday and a lot of people were taking tests. The group had met up six months earlier, in Chicago, and they had come from all over: Florida, the Midwest, LA, West Virginia. At 31, I was one of the youngest donor-conceived half-siblings, and the oldest was in his early 40s.
Leslie: I was not surprised to hear from Noam at this point. I took my test in 2019 and quickly began discovering new siblings. The list just kept growing, but Noam was the first person to reach out to me directly about his discovery.
Noam: I learned more about the donor from Leslie. His name was Jack, and he had two sons by marriage. One of the sons, Ward, was in the Facebook group. Ward is now in his 60s. He was a teenager when his dad started donating.
Ward: At the time, our family lived on Long Island. My dad used to take the train to Manhattan to donate. The clinic was in the Empire State Building. He would get $20 for his efforts. We knew he was doing this, but I forgot all about it until decades later, when the first half-sibling reached out to me. I took one look at her photo and knew it was a done deal. She looked just like my sister. Our family has very distinctive eyes from my father’s side.
Noam: Jack was actually seven years older than the age he’d listed on his profile, which meant he was 12 years older than my dad. And he wasn’t in PR, as my parents had been told—he was a commercial pilot for Pan-Am, back in the glitzy jet age of the 1960s and ’70s. So he’d fibbed about his profession too. I think he was being intentionally vague so that people wouldn’t find out who he was.
Sylvie: Hearing that Jack hadn’t been honest on his profile didn’t change how we felt about him as a donor. I can honestly say that I’d never fantasized about what this donor was like. I had very few thoughts about him. So learning more about him didn’t make a difference to me
Gideon: He certainly didn’t fit the profile of the typical donor at the time. Noam told us that it was usually young medical students who were in need of some extra cash. Unlike in Canada, sperm donors are paid in the US.
Noam: I’d actually signed up to be a sperm donor when I was studying at NYU. I remember seeing signs for this company, California Cryobank, that would pay something like $1,500 for sperm donation. I applied and got accepted, but I didn’t end up going through with it. I thought, Do I really want millions of kids running around? I learned that Jack’s motivations had been altruistic. He was an only child, and his mom had wished that she could have more kids, but she couldn’t. As a pilot, he met a lot of women in their 30s who were stressed about having kids before it was too late. He wanted to give women better reproductive options. He must have fudged his age so that he could continue donating. Judging by the age differences between my half-siblings, either he continued to donate for over a decade or the clinic continued to use his sperm for that long.
Gideon: It was a nice explanation to get. But, ultimately, the specifics didn’t really matter to us. Noam was the greatest gift we could have received.
Noam: Jack was from New York, but he retired in the Boston area. That’s somewhere I’d spent a lot of time because it’s where my ex-girlfriend’s family lived. I must have been there 20 times. He was a big Red Sox fan. I wondered if we’d ever been at Fenway Park at the same time. Unfortunately, Jack passed away in 2020, when he was 83. It’s kind of a shame that I didn’t get to meet him, but since I never knew him, it’s not like I can miss him. There was a video on the Facebook group of him meeting some of my half-siblings. It’s very short. Someone’s pointing a camera at him and telling him that the video would go up on the group’s page. He’s talking to the camera, saying hello and that he’s happy to know us all. He’s very nice and gracious about it.
Sylvie: Noam showed us photos of Jack from as far back as the ’50s. It was shocking. There are pictures of Jack in his 20s where he looks almost exactly like Noam. They have very similar eyes and eyebrows. And their stature is the same—they’re both tall. Noam is six foot two, just like Jack.
Noam: It was amazing to learn all these things about Jack and my half-siblings, and it was surreal to see all these faces—I wouldn’t say they looked exactly like me, but there were definitely similarities, especially the eyebrows. I felt fortunate, because people who are conceived by sperm donation often don’t find any half-siblings, or they never learn the identities of their biological fathers. This was the opposite. It was a deluge of information, and Jack’s family was so open and accommodating.
Sylvie: I still felt like Noam was an only child. It was very exciting for him to start meeting his half-siblings, but I wasn’t sure if he’d consider them family.
Noam: My next step was to meet up with one of my half-siblings, a half-sister who also lived in LA. I messaged her, and we met at a coffee shop a few weeks later. Her name is Emily, and she’s in her late 30s. We actually showed up wearing the same outfit: white bottoms, black tops and a necklace, which I don’t wear often. Was it because we’re brother and sister? Who knows.
It was great meeting up with Emily. Since she’s older than me, there was a big sister–little brother dynamic, like, “Oh, you’re so cute.” She had a real affinity toward me. She manages a couple of French restaurants in LA that we later went to when another half-sibling was in town. He lives in Florida but was in LA for work. I found out that he has kids, and right away, I thought, I have nieces and nephews. Later, in New York, I met up with another half-brother, Brad. We actually had a mutual friend on Facebook: they went to theatre school together, and Brad is now an actor. We met up at a classic Scottish bar. It was funny to learn that, just like me, he was in theatre. I also got to meet Leslie, the first half-sibling I reached out to, and Ward, Jack’s son from marriage. I flew out to Florida, where they both live.
Ward: Noam was bright, engaging and intelligent, like Jack, and he looked just like him too. It was fun to meet the half-siblings. They’re all so outgoing and adventurous. I thought it was exciting to get to know these people who are related to me. They call me “brother dad” because I’m from a different generation. I’m 61, so I’m old enough to be their father, but I’m also their brother.
Leslie: I knew what Noam was going through because, before I met him, I was on that same journey, gathering information from others and trying to understand what had happened as best I could. Now I was in the position of introducing someone new to the situation. Meeting my half-siblings has been a mix of experiences and emotions. We are essentially strangers who sort of look alike.
Noam: As an artist, I knew that I wanted to do something creative with this new experience. The lottery for participating in the Toronto Fringe Festival, which is open to anyone who wants to put on a show or a stage production, was in October—just a month after I got my DNA test results back. I applied with my story and ended up getting an hour-long slot for this summer’s festival. Instead of feeling confused and betrayed by my parents, I started to feel lucky. But my parents freaked out when I told them I’d got a spot at Toronto Fringe and that I was going to make a musical about our story.
Gideon: It felt like he’d dropped a bomb on us. It took a split second for me to realize that it meant we’d have to “come out” with this secret to our family and friends.
Noam: My dad said something like, “I know you’re going to do a show; just do it somewhere else. Everyone is going to know about it.” But I didn’t back down. Doing it at Toronto Fringe just made sense. The festival was part of my creative upbringing. My parents were going to have to accept it. If they wanted their friends to hear about it from them before the show, they’d have to start telling them.
Sylvie: Telling our friends was difficult. We did it one by one, couple by couple, friend by friend, mostly face to face. At some point, we started to do it by phone. It was super awkward and emotional at first. But almost everyone’s reaction was “Oh, that’s an interesting story,” and then they moved on. And pretty soon it became a lot easier. It was like therapy for us just to say it out loud to people. It gave the whole thing a sense of normality.
Noam: Writing this story as a musical felt natural to me, as I had written some with my best friends during high school. When it came time to write this show, those same best friends—Ryan Peters, Russell Citron and Ben Deverett—came together to help me bring it to life. I took the main story and emotional beats of this journey and made each one into its own song. One is called “We Need to Tell You Something.” It’s a moment-by-moment retelling of that morning at the cottage. Another song was based on meeting Brad at the Scottish bar. It’s a Celtic, Great Big Sea–style retelling of what it was like to meet my half-sibling.
Sylvie: We had no say in the show. It was all Noam.
Noam: I had to be in total charge of this story. Having my parents’ creative input would have been chaotic and distracting. They just had to accept it and trust that everything was going to be okay.
Gideon: Like any parent, I want our son to be successful, and I wanted the play to do well, but I was a little anxious.
Sylvie: I told him, jokingly, “You had better do something good with this. A lot is on the line.”
Gideon: Once the play was materializing and Noam gave us dates for the show, we wanted to help him fill the seats. We went from carefully guarding our secret to actively looking for new people to share our story with. I would encourage our friends to tell their friends—people we didn’t know or hardly knew. We didn’t want him to perform for an empty theatre.
Noam: My dad was promoting the show to everyone he knew, and he helped sell a ton of tickets.
Sylvie: I feel this sense of relief being able to tell everyone the truth. Gideon and I are going to be at every one of Noam’s shows. A good chunk of the audience will be people we know.
Noam: The process of writing the show— which is called Our Little Secret: The 23&Me Musical—was cathartic. It’s been a great way to make sense of this past year. It gives my experience form and tone and arranges it into a narrative, which is useful because identity is a narrative. Learning all this new information could have been debilitaing if I hadn’t been able to weave it into a story. Now I feel like I can make sense of everything that happened to me.
Gideon: I think that we, as a family, are stronger today.
Sylvie: It was lucky, in a way, that Noam uncovered this when he did. I’m grateful that he decided to tell us about the test ahead of time instead of finding out himself.
Noam: I feel like, fundamentally, I know my parents better. I’m able to appreciate them as individuals on a much more honest level. It would have been nice to meet Jack, but I honestly don’t wish I’d found out earlier. Thirty-one was a good age—old enough to have the maturity to deal with it but not too old, when everything in your character is set. Since I joined “the tribe,” one more half-sibling has been discovered through 23andMe.
Gideon: They’re like a train engine with a bunch of passenger cars. Every couple of months or years, another few join the train. Who knows if or when there will be more.
Noam: The more, the merrier. I’d be happy to mentor anyone else who shows up, as Leslie did for me. My life is richer for knowing the truth.
Our Little Secret: The 23&Me Musical runs July 6 to 15 at the Toronto Fringe Festival.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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