Alma Sheppard-Matsuo
Alma Sheppard-Matsuo
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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.

Alison Pick
December 23, 2013
Alma Sheppard-Matsuo
Alma Sheppard-Matsuo

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.

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.

“Degan is … ” I pause. Didn’t I already say this? I repeat it, just in case. “Degan is incredibly supportive.”

“Is he interested in raising a Jewish family?” the rabbi asks.

I stare blankly, but she persists. “Is he interested in being Jewish?”

This is like asking if our postman is interested in becoming the Queen of England.

I continue to stare, but no help is forthcoming. And then it dawns on me. She makes me say it myself. “I can’t convert unless Degan does, too?”

“Right,” Rabbi Klein exhales, relieved I have finally figured it out. “We want to make sure you are on the same path. Together.”

I leave her office in a daze. Biking down Bathurst Street I almost get run over by a delivery truck; it whizzes past me, horn blaring. There has been a mistake. I didn’t make myself clear. My family died in Auschwitz. My father is Jewish. Who are they to tell me I’m not wanted?

Like a film on fast forward, the spring rushes by. I edit my novel and feel pleased with my progress. Despite the rabbi’s warning, Degan and I do end up enrolling in the JIC, and we enjoy it. We plan for our wedding and get married, and soon I am pregnant. I want, more than anything, for my daughter to be born a Jew. Then one day I get a phone call from Rabbi Klein. The board has reconvened and changed its decision; now, as long as a rabbi advocates on my behalf, I can convert. If I want to.

I go in front of the beit din, which is easier than I’d imagined. They ask four or five questions, and give me the stamp of approval. The only thing remaining is to immerse in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath where women’s life passages are marked. By now I am seven months pregnant. On the morning of the mikveh I wake early, edit a little, feel the baby moving around like a Mexican jumping bean. I review the blessings I will need to recite. I set to work taking off my toenail polish, which proves to be a big task as I lean over my even bigger belly. But the Torah is clear: The body must be completely unadorned.

When we arrive at the mikveh, Degan kisses me goodbye: He will be waiting in the small adjacent room. I take a slow breath and look at myself in the changing-room mirror, thinking of my great-grandmother Ruzenka, fasting quietly, secretly on Yom Kippur. I think of my grandparents and the weight they must have lived with. I think of the relatives before them, with names like Isaac and Israel.

I know I will miss certain things about Christianity. I wonder how the holidays will look, how I will balance Hanukkah with the Christmas festivities still important to my parents. I worry I’m making a decision that will set me apart from them. Today, though, I feel ready and excited. Conversion, I have come to feel, is what is required for me to step fully into the empty spaces where my father’s ancestors were erased. It would at one point have seemed excessive, but now it feels perfectly right. It isn’t just about God, it’s about history and family. Which, I’m starting to think, are all bound up in the same ball of string.

As a writer I believe in the power of words, but there are moments in life that words can’t do justice, and for me the mikveh is one of them. Rabbi Klein shows me into the pool. I’ve been picturing something exotic, made from shimmering green tiles, perhaps canopied by lush tangled vines, but this looks more like a large square whirlpool at a health club. Nevertheless. I take my first steps in; the water feels silky and warm. It rises up over me. Once I am standing up to my shoulders the rabbi begins to speak.

The water in the mikveh, she says, is fitting for this particular day. For me. The flow of a river, continuity, my father’s family far behind me, and the life growing within my belly, flowing forward to the future.

As though she, too, can hear the rabbi’s words, my daughter turns a somersault. From the outside I look still, but inside me everything is moving.

Rabbi Klein reads a beautiful passage from the Torah. Then it is time for the dunks. She tells me to spread my fingers and toes so the water will touch every part of me. I have heard so much about immersion having to be “kosher,” about not a strand of hair being allowed on the surface, about dunks being annulled because a big toe touched the bottom, but Rabbi Klein is very casual. “Make sure you are immersed,” she says, “but don’t stay under too long!”

But once I am under I want to remain there as long as I can, to make the moment count. I churn my arms. I picture the baby inside me, fully formed. The water holding me, my water holding her.

When I finally come up, the rabbi recites the blessing concerning immersion: I repeat it back. Then it is time for the third and final dunk. When I emerge from the bath I will be a Jew.

On Aug. 23, 2009, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She weighed 7 lbs., 2 oz., and was pink-cheeked, wide-eyed, and alert. In Jewish tradition, we gave her a middle name that honors her great-great grandmother Ruzenka, who, against all odds, practiced her Judaism all her life.

I haven’t yet told my daughter about the Holocaust; she doesn’t know the history she comes from. She knows only the joy of singing—loud and off-key, like my father—at the children’s service at synagogue. And when she covers her small eyes as we light the candles on Friday night, I think of Ruzenka, the secret lodged within her, and of the bridge we have slowly, painstakingly built from trauma and grief back to new life.

Alison Pick‘s forthcoming memoir is titled Between Gods.