LYNN – Last Christmas, Miriam Mendez logged onto Facetime. Her hands were trembling and her skin was covered in goosebumps. A few seconds later, she was staring at a certain form of reflection: a man with her pointy ears, a woman with her gray-blue eyes. Mendez called it an “out of body experience.”
This couple, John and Teresa Callicoat of Galloway, Ohio, were her birth parents, and it was the first time she had ever seen or spoken to them.
You can’t put that under a tree. “My [birth] father told me it was the best Christmas gift they’d ever gotten,” said Mendez.
For Mendez, 44, it was a Hanukkah miracle. At just three days old, she was adopted by Rabbi Martin Twersky, the longtime associate rabbi at the former Congregation Ahabat Sholom in Lynn and the mashgiach (kosher supervisor) of The Butcherie in Brookline, and his wife, Bella. They brought Mendez up in a house near the old shul where everyone – Martin, Bella, and Mendez’s husband, Benjamin, and their five children – still live today.
Mendez was raised Orthodox, and in her early years, she loved going to shul every Saturday to see her father and his uncle, the esteemed Rabbi Samuel Zaitchik, lead the congregation in prayer.
“We were there all the time,” she said. “There was something very homey about growing up at Ahabat Sholom and having my uncle Rabbi Zaitchik [as the leader]. If someone could go back in time and copy what he was doing, life would be [Jewish] back in Lynn.”
When Mendez wasn’t at Ahabat Sholom, she was somewhere in the back at The Butcherie. “I used to watch them cutting up the meat and I learned so much that I could probably be a mashgiach, blindfolded,” she said. “I watched how they cut the arteries and how they soak and salt it seven times, and I sat there and watched it many, many times, and it was very cool to see those secret workings.”
Still, Mendez had been told when she was very young that she was adopted, and she felt different from all of her peers attending Orthodox schools. “I didn’t fit in with them characteristic-wise,” she said. “In my family, I can’t say that I felt apart, but there were times where I didn’t feel comfortable. You know they’re trying to include you, but as an adoptee, you always feel those weird feelings, like, ‘Do they really accept me as part of the family?’”
These feelings grew more acute as she got older and Orthodox tradition dictated strict gender divisions and modesty requirements that she found suffocating. Because she grew up in a community without many other observant families, she was aware of how different her family’s traditions were from those of everyone else, even more secular Jews.
“I thought there was a lot extra that didn’t need to be extra,” she said. “I’ll never forget the time we went to a wedding and my cousin I grew up with, playing as children – I went to go give him a hug, and he leaned back and said ‘shomer negiah’ [the Halacha prohibiting physical contact between men and women who aren’t married].”
Her identity crisis deepened throughout her adolescence, and she moved around to different Orthodox schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Florida. She began asking her parents more and more questions about her adoption, but she found it hard to get straight answers, and her parents told her no documents were available.
“I would ask a million questions, and my mother would be like, ‘I don’t know,’” said Mendez. “I would always ask, ‘Where are my adoption papers? What hospital was I born at?’ Even though it was a closed adoption, you would know the basics. They’re not just going to hand you off a baby with no documents.”
Mendez hit a brick wall, but the desire to know her true origins never stopped burning. Once DNA testing kits became widely available, she jumped at the chance. At first, she learned that she was of mainly British and Irish descent, but couldn’t find any DNA matches that led her to her birth parents.
Then in October of last year, Mendez messaged the two closest matches with her birth date and asked if they knew of anyone who gave their baby up for adoption at around that time.
One of them eventually messaged back that her uncle’s wife had gotten pregnant at 14 and given her baby up at that time. “She tells me ‘Your mother’s name is Teresa, your father’s name is John, you fit the exact description of what they know of your birthdate, and you have a sister, and she has five kids just like you,” said Mendez. “There was talk about a Jewish organization being involved in the adoption. In this whole dialogue with her I never mentioned Judaism, or being raised Jewish, once. I’m sitting across the table from my husband, my eyes are filling with tears, I’m pretty much bawling my eyes out, I almost fell off the chair I was sitting on. It was like ‘pinch me’ – it was so surreal.”
Mendez later learned that Teresa’s family sent her to Philadelphia from her native Ohio to stay with a Jewish woman until she gave birth. When Mendez was born, Teresa told the nurses she wanted to hold her baby one last time. “She said that was the hardest thing she ever had to do,” said Mendez.
Teresa got to hold her again on Valentine’s Day, when Mendez took her family to meet her newly discovered one. She speaks to Mama and Poppy – Bella and Martin Twersky are still Mom and Dad – and her adoptive parents have supported her throughout her journey, every day.
“My oldest daughter hears me tell my birth parents ‘I love you’ every time we talk, and they say ‘I love you’ back,” said Mendez. “I do truly love them. I can’t explain how or why, but that empty feeling I’ve had my whole life – I don’t have it anymore.”