How Christmas Helped Me Discover—and Eventually Reclaim—My Jewish Roots
When I was a child, my family’s history was hidden from me. Now I’ve made sure that my own child will always know where she came from.
I was born in the shadow of a secret.
My family was Christian. As a small girl, I loved to go into the cool church basement and make crosses out of Popsicle sticks and glue. I loved to hear my father in the pew beside me, loud and off key: Sons of God, here is Holy Word … He sang with more fervor than the rest of us, like he really believed. Or maybe like he had something to prove.
Like every Christian child, I especially loved—surprise!—Christmas. It wasn’t just the mountain of presents under the tree. I also thrilled to the more spiritual side of the season: the molten glow of Christmas lights under a soft dusting of snow; the tapestry of song weaved by the voices of the carolers who came to our front door. On Christmas Eve we bundled in our wood-paneled station wagon and went to midnight Mass. It was hours later than I was usually allowed to stay up, and I remember the long snowy drive through the darkness, my breath smoking in the cold, and the sense of anticipation, that something monumental was about to happen. In the morning I raced to the window to see my mother’s parents turning into the driveway, then teetering up our walk, their arms overburdened with packages. Less frequently, my father’s parents came. They spoke in thick European accents, and we treated them like royalty, bringing them breakfast in bed, tiptoeing around the house when they slept. They loved seeing my sister and me, but I knew that they didn’t love Christmas.
I couldn’t imagine why.
Ironically, I first stumbled on our family secret at Christmas. I was 8 or 9 years old. We were celebrating with Dad’s family that year: a shaggy pine tree in the corner bent under the weight of lights and candy canes. My Auntie Sheila was speaking to my mother, telling her something about a couple they both knew, the husband Jewish, the wife a gentile.
And me? I was cruising a plate of Black Magic chocolates, trying to guess which one would have a pink center.
Above me, I heard Auntie Sheila say, “So, their daughter isn’t Jewish. Because Judaism always comes from the mother.”
I bit into a chocolate and screwed up my face: marzipan.
Mum: “So, our girls aren’t … ?”
“Our girls aren’t Jewish, either,” Auntie Sheila said. “Family secret or no family secret.”
“Even though their fathers … ”
“Right. Because we aren’t,” my aunt said.
I remember this moment like they show it in cartoons, a little light bulb appearing in the air above my head, and the sound effect, the clear ting of a bell. My brain was working fast, trying to process this information. Who did Auntie Sheila mean by “our girls”? She meant my cousins, and my sister. And me.
I put my half-eaten marzipan back on the plate.
I was not Jewish because my mother was not Jewish. But my father, the implication seemed to be …
My father, who loves to sing hymns at church, found out he is Jewish by accident in his early twenties. He was touring Europe with some college friends; at the cemetery in Prague the tour guide pulled him aside. “Don’t you know that Pick is a Jewish name?”
I can see it so clearly. Dad pauses, his eyes on one of the granite tombstones. His heart is suddenly pounding. He feels that he is being told both something ridiculously implausible and something that makes his whole life make sense. He looks around for his friends who have conveniently disappeared; he can see them over by the iron gates rolling cigarettes. “I’m not Jewish,” Dad says.
The tour guide shrugs. “Your name is.”
“Well, I’m not.”
The guide shrugs again. “Suit yourself.”
From somewhere far away, outside the cemetery walls, comes the sad low whistle of a passenger train.
Back home in Canada, it took Dad not weeks, not months, but years to work up the nerve to ask whether what the guide said was true. When he finally approached his mother in the kitchen, she got a look in her eye—part fear, part relief—and called upstairs to my grandfather, “He knows!”
There was a single conversation. Dad asked, and his parents didn’t lie. They told him about their relatives who died in Auschwitz and about their decision to renounce their past. Decades passed before anyone in our family spoke of it again.
I try to imagine what this revelation must have been like for Dad. What it would be like to spend your whole life thinking you were one thing, only to find out you are something else entirely. That everything you thought you knew—your church, your school, the food your family ate—was a carefully constructed fabrication designed to mislead even the most casual observer. Implicit in this charade, unspoken and therefore all the more terrible, was the knowledge that the truth had killed your family.
Dad was born in 1944, when his young parents were newcomers in Canada from Czeochoslovakia. He was an infant when the news of the concentration camps was released, when those infamous lists were being published. His maternal grandparents, the aunts he’d never known, the flesh of his flesh among those names.
When I was 10 years old, a friend approached me at the bottom of the red slide on the playground. “Your Dad is Jewish,” he said.
I remembered the conversation between my mother and aunt, but I still said, automatically, “No, he’s not.”
“Yes, he is. My mom says.”
“No, he’s not.”
“Yes, he is.”
It wasn’t a complex conversation—but it scared me. I knew that I could not go home and ask my father.
Then, in high school, we studied the Holocaust. I sat in a dark room that smelled of peanut butter and gym shoes while the footage of the liberation of Auschwitz flickered on a huge screen in front of me. I was horrified—of course!—but my own connection was still murky. I didn’t feel I had any special relationship to what I was seeing. The image of the skeletons piled up in the mass graves seemed abstract, as though it might have been staged.
Still, though, the clues were beginning to add up. Something wasn’t right in our family. Something was lurking, biding its time. It seemed to be pulling at me, a hand on my ankle, a persistent tugging I could no longer resist.
Eventually, I did come to understand the truth. I don’t remember the exact moment, only suddenly knowing, as though it had always been that way. Dad’s parents were Jewish, which meant Dad himself was, too. My grandmother’s parents died in concentration camps. They had exit visas and all the paperwork required to leave Czechoslovakia, but they loved their homeland passionately and refused to believe they were in danger until it was too late.
My grandparents escaped and came to Canada where they saw a club that had a sign on the door: No Dogs or Jews Allowed. They had never practiced their faith—at least that’s the story I always heard—and so renouncing it was easy. They never imagined that, 70 years later, their granddaughter would get caught in their web of lies.
I wasn’t a child who wanted to be a writer. In university, I studied psychology. It wasn’t until the final year of my undergraduate degree, when I took a creative writing class as a lark, that I understood what I would do with my life. Happily, though—and luckily—once I’d made this discovery, things happened quickly. I had an incredible teacher who encouraged me to send out my poems, and presto! They got published. I still can’t understand how.
If the poems themselves were amateurish, the enthusiasm was real. I stayed up past midnight, dreaming up similes and metaphors. I sharpened my pencils. I was in love, and I got dumped, and I wrote poems about my poor broken heart, and poems about Nature with a capital N, and a series of still lives about fruit. Still, I knew instinctively that these weren’t the real poems I wanted to write. Over the years I’d learned more about my grandmother and her life after the Holocaust, and those were the poems that came tugging at me in the early morning hours, their little fists reaching up to me like children.
There was only one problem: We were still forbidden from discussing this part of our past.
I found a memento from my bar mitzvah in my parents’ house. Was it finally time to let go of the past, or was it worth keeping?