Elisabeth Tinkham, 41, was raised as a Protestant by her adoptive parents, but always felt a connection to Judaism.
Her most vivid childhood memory of the United Church of Christ involves a Passover Seder, which a rabbi demonstrated for the congregation.
“I really liked the symbolism of the foods,” she said. “And when the rabbi opened the door for Elijah, I knew in my little heart that he would walk in. I was opening doors for days.”
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Two years ago, Tinkham discovered the roots of that connection.
Like many adoptees, Tinkham decided to look into her birth family history for possible medical issues. She contacted the agency that handled her adoption and learned there was a letter from her birth mother. (Adoption agencies often will not share letters from birth parents until the adoptee requests to see their file.)
“She wanted to tell me that she thought about me and she was sorry for leaving me,” Tinkham said. “She had a lot of guilt about abandoning me.”
Tinkham’s birth mother did not want to be contacted. So the adoption agency had redacted much of the letter to protect her privacy. But reading between the lines, Tinkham made a startling discovery.
“She wrote that she had been under the wedding canopy, and she left the ‘o’ out of ‘God,’” Tinkham said. “I realized that she must be Jewish. And if she’s Jewish, then I’m Jewish.”
Deeply curious about her origins, Tinkham wrangled a meeting. Her hunch was confirmed: Tinkham’s birth mother was raised as a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn. Pregnant at age 16, she fled her community. “She left in the middle of the night,” Tinkham explained. “She had me and gave me up. She married a Conservative Jew.”
Tinkham equates learning that she was Jewish to “spending an hour looking for your glasses and realizing they’re on top of your head. The biggest feeling was ‘I knew that, but I didn’t know that.’”
Now, she keeps kosher and spends the Sabbath studying Hebrew. But Tinkham lives in a small Pennsylvania city with no synagogues. She may move to nearby Baltimore to be a part of its Jewish community.
Tinkham is enthusiastic about Judaism. But the transition has been difficult. “I’m looking to find where I fit in terms of my hashkafah, my perspective,” she said. “For example, I really like keeping the Sabbath, but I’m also thinking, ‘I can’t turn on the light? Really?’
“It’s a little bit like falling in love. You have your first fight and figure out how it fits in long-term. But I know I’m a lot happier now. There’s this empty thing that’s been filled.”
Doorways to the past
Changes in laws and regulations surrounding adoption records, and advances in DNA testing, make it easier for people born as Jews but adopted into another faith to discover their identities.
Cultural attitudes toward adoption are changing, as well. Adam Pertman is the author of “Adoption Nation” and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a not-for-profit organization devoted to improving adoption policy and practice. He said there used to be more of a stigma attached to adoption and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.