Between Gods: A Memoir
By Alison Pick
In Between Gods: A Memoir, Canadian novelist and poet Alison Pick tells us what it’s like to be a Jew who reclaims her Jewish identity out of the rubble of her family history.
“I am Jewish,” says Pick to a rabbi, early on in her Jewish journey, “my family died in Auschwitz!”
“Yes,” says the Rabbi, “sort of. But your mother is Christian.”
And that’s the least of it. Pick’s paternal grandparents were Czech Jews. Through sheer coincidence, they managed to make it out of Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazis. Everybody else was murdered, with the exception of a second cousin who survived Auschwitz only to spend the rest of her days mourning her two lost children.
When Pick’s grandparents arrived in Canada, it seems the first thing they did was to repudiate their Judaism. Even her father, born here, did not learn the family secret until he was a young man when a Czech tour guide offhandedly told him that Pick is a Jewish name. It’s a secret that he, too, chose to keep.
So Pick spent her childhood and adolescence piecing this hidden past together, decoding whispered conversations at family gatherings. Her middle school crush, a Jewish kid, seemed to get it. One day, he put an arm across her shoulders in the schoolyard and affectionately renamed her Rosie because it sounds “more Jewish.” Pick’s fiancé discovered a broken Chanukah menorah, gathering dust in a closet in her parents’ house. Finally, she can no longer suppress the “persistent tugging” she has felt all her life. She realizes that, to be true to herself, and to her past, she must declare herself publicly as a Jew. She must convert.
Pick’s conversion story is a good read, by turns poignant and funny. She and her fiancé, who is also not Jewish, earnestly try to create a Jewish life, “unplugging” for Shabbat, making the blessings, observing the Holy Days. As her connection with the community deepens, she finds safety in her Jewish friendships: she is among Jews and no longer needs to hide. But there is resentment too. Her Jewish friends get to “be” Jewish. Before she gets to “be” Jewish, she has to go through a long process the outcome of which is by no means certain.
But what sets this book apart from other accounts of conversion is that the narrative of Pick’s Jewish journey is interwoven with a parallel narrative of her struggle with depression. Real depression – not the blues, not sadness, but the kind of illness in which even the most mundane aspects of everyday life, like getting out of bed and brushing her teeth, is an odyssey of soul-crushing anguish. Somehow, though, “The more my life falls apart, the stronger my longing for Judaism becomes.” A red flag for a potential convert? Perhaps. But the American scholar Eric Wilson observes that “melancholy connects us to our fundamental self.”
For a prospective convert to Judaism, just as for an artist – and Pick is both – emotional trauma can reveal deep veins of awareness and perception.
Pick’s sensibility is finely tuned to the nuances of Jewish history and of Jewish loss.
In the North American experience, abandoning Judaism has most often been associated with getting ahead in a new world, or with coping with ambient anti-Semitism. But, reflecting on her grandparents, and the magnitude of what they lost, Pick sees something much deeper: denial of Judaism acts to “halt trauma in its tracks … to ease the existence of pain itself … if you weren’t Jewish, there was nothing to mourn.” For Pick, her journey to reclaim her lost identity is also a process of mourning for those who have nobody left to mourn for them.
People come to Judaism for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes, it’s love. They are marrying Jews and want to create Jewish homes and Jewish families. Sometimes, they are true seekers, drawn to Judaism by its deep foundations in ethical monotheism, in law and in temporal justice. Some are what a friend of mine calls “tire-kickers,” people who dabble in various faiths, mixing and matching elements that suit them at any given time. And some are converting away from something, seeking redemption, or safety, in a new faith.
And then there are the ones like Alison Pick, those who long ago stood at Sinai, but then somehow lost their way. For those converts, it is time to come home.
Ironically, it is the lost Jews who are often least able to articulate why they want to convert. Sometimes, like Pick, all they can do is sit in a rabbi’s study and cry. We need to hold these ones especially close. We need to welcome them home.