I Thought I Was Catholic. Then I Discovered My Secret Jewish Past.
When I was about 8 years old, in the early 1960s, on a long car trip to see relatives in New York, we passed through St. Louis, my father’s hometown. We dropped by a home in the suburbs to visit a couple I’d never met. I was told they were my Uncle Dave and Aunt Israelda. He was a slight and gentle man with reddish hair, she an imposing woman with graying black hair swept up in a French twist.
At the end of the visit, while I waited for the grown-ups to wrap up their long goodbyes, I noticed the name on the curbside mailbox: “Tutinsky.” Uncle Dave was my dad’s big brother. Shouldn’t they have the same last name?
I don’t remember asking my father about it. Maybe I sensed that I shouldn’t. But we never saw Uncle Dave again. We continued toward our destination: New Rochelle, New York. There we’d often settle in for a month in summer, or a couple of weeks at Christmas with my mom’s extended Italian family, whom she had left when she married my dad and, with him, the nomadic Air Force life.
Unlike my parents, I can never answer that basic question: Where are you from? For me, home was wherever the Air Force sent my father, who was always the base’s resident auditor. By the time I was 12, we’d lived in Washington, D.C.; Japan; Texas; Puerto Rico, and Colorado. Our little family — Mom, Dad and I — lived in base housing: boxy and featureless one-story affairs, all identical. We had a revolving set of neighbors, friends and classmates.
So I was fascinated by those long visits to New Rochelle, a leafy suburb 20 miles north of New York City. Three generations of the family tree lived together in a three-story home built for a wealthy family and live-in servants. My Italian relatives, who came from ordinary stock, could afford it because there were so many of them to share the big white house on a hill, across the street from Thomas Paine’s Cottage.
On Christmas Eve, Uncle Joseph would take me to the open-air market on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, with its heaps of fresh fish on ice, eels in tanks and slabs of baccalà — dried salted cod — for that evening’s feast, in which you ate seven types of seafood to symbolize the seven sacraments. I’d listen to Great Aunt Jo talk about the town our people came from: Vaccarizzo, in the mountains of Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot. I slept in Aunt Jo’s room at night, comforted by the glow of the Virgin Mary statue on her dresser, lit from within. I loved all this, having roots, being Italian. By the end of each visit, I left New Rochelle feeling like I had the best family ever.
Fathers didn’t seem to have families the way mothers did. We made rare quick visits to my dad’s older siblings, but it was nothing like settling in at the big white house in New Rochelle. I was surprised to learn that my friends had four grandparents. My father didn’t have parents. He’d grown up in an orphanage. And my mother’s father had no family at all.
Religion belonged to mothers, the way family did. My devout mother went to monthly novenas, prayed the rosary and sent me to catechism the years I wasn’t in full-time Catholic school. My father exasperated my mother by making jokes as he said the grace before meals, which was his duty as head of the household. And in church, instead of singing the hymns like everyone else, he approximated the melody in a wordless drone.
While the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, which would rock the Catholic Church by modernizing its dogma and liturgy, was convening in Rome, I was in Bellmead, Texas, in St. Joseph’s parochial school, where we were far from Vatican II. I was learning that the unbaptized could not go to heaven, not even innocent newborn babies. We learned about the martyrs of the early church, like my own patron saint, Barbara, and wondered if we would be brave enough to die for our faith.
In fifth-grade catechism class, Mrs. Brennan taught us the Old Testament. For the first time, I actually enjoyed religious education. What great stories! I was intrigued by Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious angel, and by Abraham’s bargaining with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. You could really do that? Argue with God? But these people lived before Jesus Christ, so none of them was in heaven. Neither were their descendants, the Jews, who rejected Jesus, even though he was one of them.
It sounded like they lived sad lives, the Jews, but it was all theoretical.
I didn’t know what a modern Jew would be, since, as far as I knew, I’d never seen one.
When I was 11 or 12, I asked about my father’s history. With the name Tuttle, I figured Dad’s family must have been British, and I wanted nothing more than to live in London. Why had Dad’s family left England, I asked Mom as she was drying dishes one afternoon. She didn’t answer and looked irritated. I didn’t get it. What did I say wrong?
Since Mom wasn’t answering, I asked my father. “Where did your parents come from? Where in England? Do we have relatives there?”
They weren’t English at all, as it turned out. They came from Ukraine, he told me. Their names were Louis and Sarah. My father had been told that Sarah died of the flu and that Louis, a builder, had stepped on a rusty nail and died of tetanus. My father, the youngest of five, went to an orphanage, the Jewish Children’s Home, with his brothers and sisters.
Jewish. I knew a little bit about that. I knew the Jews were called the “chosen people.” I knew about the Holocaust, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and the movie “Exodus.” I knew the Jews had suffered very much and that they had a reputation for being smart and funny, like my father.
One day, when I was about 15, I was perusing the bookshelves in my father’s home office. I found his yearbook, The Bwana, from Roosevelt High School in St. Louis. I scanned the senior photos, looking for my dad. There, in the class of 1936, I recognized the face of my father with black wavy hair he’d long ago lost. Class president. Captain of the football team. Joe Tutinsky.
It snapped into focus: the memory of a mailbox. When my father got home from work, I told him I’d looked at his yearbook. “Is that you?” I asked. “Why did you have a different name?” He told me a story about his brother, the one he idolized. The man I knew as Uncle Tut, who died in a plane crash in 1960. He wanted to marry an Irish Catholic girl whose father refused to have his daughter take on a Russian Jewish name. So my uncle, Nathan Tutinsky, legally became John Tuttle. He suggested that my father, who had just graduated from college, change his last name, too.
“It wasn’t easy growing up Jewish in St. Louis right before World War II,” my father told me. St. Louis has a large German population; the orphanage was in a German neighborhood, and the Bund, the American organization of Nazi supporters, had a strong following. My father got harassed for being Jewish and for being an orphan. “When I was little, I got called ‘crybaby,’” he said. “I had to learn to be tough.” I looked at my father, whom I’d always known as strong, confident, popular, and felt sad for him.
“All religions come down to the same thing,” my father said. “What’s important is that you give thanks for what you’ve got. I decided I’d take on the religion of whoever I married.” In fact, when he walked into the Air Force Reserves office in Manhattan as a young man, he assumed the attractive receptionist was Jewish because of the nameplate on her desk: Gloria Shapiro. My mother.
As it turned out, Shapiro wasn’t an Italian name. My mother’s mild-mannered father, George Shapiro, from Brooklyn, had done something surprisingly rebellious for the year 1928. He married Teresa DiBuono, his co-worker at a powder-puff factory. His family had sat shiva, mourning him as dead.
The lost heritage of my three Jewish grandparents was of little interest to my mom and dad. They were of the generation that wanted to be fully American. Who wanted to be reminded of poverty, pogroms, prejudice and the painful experience of navigating a strange new world?
“Don’t tell anyone else about my being Jewish,” my father said. “It’s nobody else’s business.” After his retirement from the Air Force, he’d started a new career and quickly established himself as a successful and well-regarded stockbroker. “If people find out, they’ll say, ‘That’s why he’s so good at business.’”
Now I was even more confused. Whatever he was talking about, it was something old, deep and frightening. I knew about anti-Semitism. But was it really a concern in 1970, in our world?
So I quietly tucked aside that knowledge. I was intrigued, even proud of it, but it had no outlet. I didn’t know anyone Jewish in Colorado Springs.
I was an earnest teenager caught up in the social justice movements of the era, and my religious inclinations turned toward the new brand of Catholicism that had little to do with Latin and rosaries and dogma. Vatican II had happened, and Mass was in English, often with guitars. Priests and nuns were fighting for farm workers’ rights and pouring blood on draft records to protest the war in Vietnam.
When I got my driver’s license, I stopped attending mass with my parents at Holy Trinity, our parish church, which felt sterile and suburban, and drove our spare car, the Volkswagen Bug, to St. Mary’s, downtown. Tears filled my eyes as I watched the line of parishioners, which included the poor, the elderly and Latinos, at Communion, the breaking and sharing of bread, the congregation singing the hymn that began, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.”
Still, a budding Jewish consciousness had lodged itself within me. The Jews: the tiny tribe at the center of history. But if I wanted to honor my father’s wishes, I couldn’t talk about my ancestry the way my friends did. Our family was supposedly just Italian, but with a name like Tuttle? It felt ridiculous. As for this heritage I carried in my DNA, how could it not matter at all?
I was 22 years old, living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and a student at New York University, the latest stop in my peripatetic young life. In a burned-out, confused period of my life, my aunt offered me harbor at her apartment. Her love of New York City rubbed off on me, and I stayed. Beyond the opportunity to explore the richness of the city, Aunt Ann’s invitation held the promise of getting to know those roots I’d never known as an Air Force brat. Here the two ethnicities and religions of my ancestry converged. Here were the Italian relatives, and simply living in New York City is to be steeped in Jewish life.
Throughout my six years in New York City, I took the train to New Rochelle once a month to spend the weekend with Grandma and Aunt Jo. They told me more stories of the Old Country, of Calabria, of how their mother hadn’t wanted to leave and vowed to return, though she never did. Once, after a weekend in New Rochelle, I felt something metallic on the inside of the pocket of my favorite flowered red shirt. It was a tiny “miraculous medal,” a Catholic medal of the Blessed Virgin, a talisman of protection. Undoubtedly sewn in, secretly, by Aunt Jo.
My best friend, Laura, invited me to my first Rosh Hashanah dinners and Passover Seders at her parents’ place in Queens. Laura’s mother was warm and welcoming, and after my cobbled-together single-gal meals of omelets and frozen dinners, I took it all in gratefully: the lighting of the candles, the roast chicken with apricots and prunes, and at Passover the reading of the Haggadah. I loved that we were told that we should read the story as if we personally had been brought forth from Egypt. I thought of my father and my three-fourths Jewishness. Did this, could this, belong to me?
A stressed-out law student, Laura took breaks by going to Israeli dancing at Columbia University. She invited me along. The music and the Hebrew stirred something in me, so much that I wondered if there was such a thing as genetic memory. Many of the words to the songs, I learned, were biblical poetry. These people must really love their scriptures, I thought, to beautify them with these melodies.
I began attending Shabbat services at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, next door to NYU, and became friends with a rabbinical student, Devorah, who organized the Friday night programs. I could ask her anything.
I fell in love with Judaism, heart and mind, for all the reasons there are: Judaism was about doing, not believing. It was about enjoying and sanctifying the beauty of this world, the one we know. To hold a service, you just needed a minyan: community, not clergy. And just as I’d seen in the Hebrew Bible stories I’d learned in fifth grade, you could argue with God. I was floored that the very name Israel means “to struggle with God.” I loved the reverence for learning. This was a faith so self-confident that it not only tolerated but also encouraged questions.
How could my father have let this go? How could he have let the tradition end with him?
And then there was the important question Devorah had for me: “Why don’t you become Jewish?”
I hadn’t grown up in a world of Seders, bar mitzvahs and gefilte fish. Could I ever feel I belonged? Would I have to extricate my past from my soul? When I imagined converting, I felt joy and pride. But, ever the cautious person, I tabled the matter as I had before, and tucked away my Jewish identity.
In early autumn many years later, in Minneapolis, I felt my annual stirring, the urge to be in synagogue for the High Holidays. This time I paid attention. I registered for Introduction to Judaism class at my neighborhood Reform synagogue. I lived for years as a sort of adjunct Jew, attending services and scholar-in-residence weekends and taking joy in observing a modified version of Shabbat and kashrut. Occasionally, I dropped in at the radical Catholic parish with the anti-war signs in the windows.
I could have done that forever, but I never escaped the relentless tugging. After my father died, I asked my mother more questions about his past. Did he feel sad at all about leaving Judaism? Had it mattered to him? “I don’t think so. He never said anything about it,” she said. This was not the answer I wanted. I didn’t want to believe he’d tossed away his Judaism so easily. But I suppose it didn’t matter much, anyway. The question was, what was right for me?
I felt relieved to finally admit that that was Judaism. After all these decades, it couldn’t be reasoned away. I’d tried. And I felt impelled to recover some of what had been lost.
After immersing in the mikveh in March 2011, I wondered what had taken me so long. Judaism was perfect for me. Given my frustratingly circuitous path through life, I took heart from its stories: Abraham and Sarah starting a new life and a new people in their 80s. Jews taking 40 years to cross a desert that should have taken them a couple of weeks. They still made it to the Promised Land, carrying the traveling presence of God, the mishkan – related linguistically to Shekhina, the divine feminine who follows us into exile. Not so different perhaps from the Blessed Virgin who comforts traditional Catholic women like my mother and Aunt Jo.
Finally, I realized I wasn’t required to hate where I’d come from. And somehow that freed me to embrace who I’d become. As for those Italian relatives in the big house in New Rochelle, it’s a bygone world, but the food and the warmth are still sustenance at my core.
My birth name, I used to think, meant so little. “Barbara” is a Greek name meaning “foreigner,” “stranger” –- or, more prejudicially, a barbarian. Now I find it appropriate, since I am a _ger___, one who has crossed worlds, who has migrated. It’s an important reminder. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says it’s the command reiterated more than any other in the Torah, 36 times: to love the stranger, for we were once strangers. Tuttle, a white-washed name meant to erase origins, now paradoxically causes me awkwardness at the synagogue. But why change it back to a name representing the Pale of Settlement?
Then there’s the Hebrew name I took, Tamar Shlomit, a whisper at my core. Tamar: the date palm, age-old sustainer of life in the Middle East, standing tall. And Shlomit for peace.
In autumn 2013 I joined a class of 11 adults beginning studies to become b’nai mitzvah on Thanksgiving weekend 2015. I was thrilled when I learned what our parsha would be: Vayishlach, Jacob wrestling. We divided it among ourselves, classmates who bonded as a two-year havurah. My very Catholic mother, who has never understood my conversion, was proud of me nonetheless and flew out for the occasion. My father had died years before, but I carried his presence that day, and Louis and Sarah’s, too. When the Torah scroll was unrolled, we took our turns, each of us moving Jacob three verses forward to his meeting with Esau, and on to the nighttime struggle from which he emerged with the name Israel. We passed down the story in a stream of chanting voices, and I knew I was where I was meant to be, part of the ancient chain of wrestlers.
Barbara J. Tuttle writes, works and teaches in Minneapolis. Her features and essays have appeared in the Star Tribune, the Denver Post, MinnPost.com and other publications.