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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.

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As everyone knows, forbidding something only makes it more compelling. I wrote those poems. I told myself I would keep them private, but they made their way into my first book, published in 2003. As it would happen, my grandmother had passed away several years earlier and didn’t get to read it. Although she was the one who insisted our family secret be kept, I sometimes wonder what she would have thought of the book.

In the years following my grandmother’s death, the atmosphere in our family changed dramatically. I was especially surprised by the change in my father. He seemed, if not eager, then at least newly open to discussing our history. I learned more about the people my ancestors had been. I learned that although my grandmother’s family really had been secular, my grandfather’s family had been observant. Ruzekna, my grandfather’s mother, who escaped the Nazis but died before I was born, continued to practice in secret. While her son and grandchildren pretended to be Christian, she lit candles on Shabbat and fasted on Yom Kippur for her whole life.

This new information was itching my fingertips. I knew it needed to find a way onto the page, onto a bigger canvas than poems offered. I let myself imagine—vaguely, briefly—a novel. But I didn’t know how to write a novel, let alone one that transgressed my family’s expectation of silence. The seed of the idea lay dormant for years, buried in black earth, building up its courage to bud.

I published three books before I finally started the research for my novel Far to Go in 2007. A series of residencies in France, Germany, and the Czech Republic let me absorb the languages and the landscape of Europe and gave me some solitude in which to begin writing. I decided early on that the book would not be autobiographical and wouldn’t tell my grandparents’ story explicitly. I wanted the freedom to write the best book possible, and my allegiance would be to character, tension, and plot. Still, the book was a way for me to imagine what it meant to be a Jew in the place and historical moment in which my grandparents had lived.

When I was back from my residencies, my fiancé Degan and I moved from St. John’s, Newfoundland, which had only a handful of Jewish families, to Toronto, the city with the biggest Jewish population in Canada. I signed up for a six-week, basic course on Judaism. Doing Jewish, it was called. And in that class I made a discovery that changed my life.

On the evening of our second Doing Jewish class, the teacher was 15 minutes late. She bustled in with papers flying. There was a dry-erase board at the front of the class. In a bold black marker, she wrote the question: WHAT IS JUDAISM?

The class was silent, eight or 10 strangers avoiding each other’s eyes.

“Is it a race?” the teacher asked.

A tall woman with enormous green eyes put up her hand. “It’s a religion.”

“Like any other?”

“It’s harder to join.”

Titters from my classmates.

“And why is it harder to join?” the teacher asked, straight-faced.

“The Jews are the chosen people. You can’t choose to be chosen.”

The conversation quickly progressed to conversion, which was, I learned, the reason everyone else was there. To officially become Jewish in Toronto is a complex process. You have to take a yearlong, intensive class called the JIC, or Jewish Information Course. To take that course, you have to be sponsored by a rabbi. Our class was full of engaged couples—one partner Jewish, the other hoping to sign up before they got hitched—whose rabbis had suggested they take Doing Jewish first, as a trial run.

The whole process was news to me. I had always assumed Judaism was the same as Christianity: welcoming of anyone, arms open. That I could reclaim it when I wanted, like a lost suitcase at an airport security desk.

We went around the table and introduced ourselves properly. One by one the other students talked about their desire to become Jewish. And what about me? Could I ever be Jewish? Was I Jewish?

A few years earlier, at a writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, an older Jewish writer I admire told me that I had no choice. I was. Because my family died in Auschwitz. Because it’s in my blood. But when I explained my background to my teacher, her reaction was more staid.

“You’re Jewish,” she said. “Sort of. But to really be accepted you would need to go through—” She cleared her throat. “A process.”

***

On a whim, I decide to go talk with a rabbi, Rachel Klein. She is beautiful, like a woman on the cover of a potboiler: creamy skin, long black curls, dimples. I’m shown into her office, and she shows me where to sit.

“I think I want to convert,” I hear myself say.

I pause. Is this true? The word “conversion” makes me think of thunderbolts, of door-to-door salesmen peddling salvation and of women with their eyes rolled back in their heads.

I hedge: “At least, I’d like to explore my options.”

The rabbi smiles. “Do you have a husband?”

“A fiancé.”

“And he’s Jewish? Not Jewish?”

“Not Jewish,” I say.

A little frown wrinkles her forehead. “How does he feel about all this?”

“He’s supportive,” I say. Which he is.

“He wants me to be happy,” I say. Which he does.

The rabbi smiles a Botticelli smile. “He sounds wonderful.”

I continue. “I was thinking I might take the JIC this winter. That it might clarify things. I wanted to ask … ” I swallow, my throat all at once dry. “I wanted to ask if you’d sponsor me.”

This, too, is a surprise from my own mouth. The JIC is a long and exhaustive class, and I’m busy trying to finish writing my novel. But something else has taken over, an instinctual part of me I know to defer to, so I submit and wait for the rabbi’s reply.

“Yes,” she says, quickly. “I’d be happy to sponsor you.”

OK, good. Fantastic.

But I see from her face there’s something else.

“They probably haven’t told you this,” she says.

I wait for it.

“No beit din … ” she starts, but stops again, realizing I don’t know the term. “Beit din: literally, ‘house of judgment.’ It’s a panel of rabbis.”

I nod, and she continues. “No beit din here in Toronto would agree to create an intermarriage.”

I exhale, relieved. “I’m not married,” I remind her.

“No,” she replies, “but you will be.”

I pause, not understanding.

“We don’t want Judaism to be a wedge between you and your fiancé,” she says.

I am silent, blinking. How would it be a wedge between us?

From down the hall comes the sound of a door slamming closed.

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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.