Memoir more than family history
Alison Pick (photo by Emma-Lee Photography)
Award-winning author and poet Alison Pick comes to Vancouver later this month to participate in two panels at the Vancouver Writers Fest, one of which is already sold out.
As a teenager, Pick discovered that her father’s parents were Jewish. As she tells a rabbi in the first chapter of her memoir, Between Gods (Doubleday Canada), “My grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia in 1939. They bribed a Nazi for visas, came to Canada and renounced their Judaism. They spent their lives posing as Christians…. As a kid I was forbidden from discussing it. But now I’m going back and asking questions.”
In her 30s, struggling with depression, about to be married, and writing the novel that would become Far to Go, Between Gods is about Pick’s life during this period in which she lays claim to her Jewish identity. She spoke with the Jewish Independent via email.
JI: The title of the book is Between Gods. With what vision of God did you begin your spiritual/cultural journey, and how now do you grapple with or appreciate God/Source? Did your concepts/beliefs change when you had a child?
AP: Between Gods tells the story of my conversion from Christianity to Judaism. That said, the conversion was mostly cultural for me – an attempt to reclaim my family’s hidden Judaism. My personal concept of God, ironically, is probably most Buddhist in nature: the idea that there is a presence larger than us; that is it benign or even loving. It seems to me there is something akin to an energy field, and that we can choose to ignore it or to engage with it, and that, in engaging with it, we foster our relationship with it. I like the image of two hands. One is moving, grasping, reaching, touching – that hand is the ego, or the personality. The other hand remains still – it is the witness, both personal and theological.
These concepts didn’t change when I had a child, although I am very conscious of fostering a sense of the divine for and with her. The most important part of our week is Friday evening, when we have Shabbat dinner – seeing her take that for granted (in the best kind of way) is hugely gratifying.
JI: In the acknowledgements, you note that you’ve taken artistic liberty with some of the details, but still, it must have been difficult to write about family, friends. From where came the desire to write such a book at this point in your life?
AP: It didn’t really feel like a choice. Between Gods began as a set of notes I was taking at the same time as I was writing Far to Go. At first I thought the two projects were the same book – then it became clear that they were different. By the time I had finished writing Far to Go, I had converted to Judaism. I just knew that Between Gods was the next book I had to write. As a writer, you have to trust where the artistic energy lays, and so my practice is comprised at least partially of listening to what wants to be written as opposed to what my ego wants to write.
JI: Reading the memoir, your frustration with the conversion “policy” is completely understandable. With the distance of time, how do you feel about it?
AP: I had difficulty converting to Reform Judaism in Toronto because my fiancé was not Jewish. At the time, it was hard to not take this personally, to not feel rejected. It still, in retrospect, seems odd to me that I was already half Jewish and yet encountered many more obstacles than the other women in my class who were engaged to Jewish men. That said, I do see the very clear benefits that having an entirely Jewish nuclear family offers, not just individually, of course, but collectively. My experience made me more compassionate towards others, in that way that our personal suffering always shines a light on the suffering of the world, and has influenced my decisions around how to practise Judaism with my daughter – we are involved in communities that are inclusive and progressive while at the same time honoring tradition.
JI: Why did you choose, in a memoir mainly about your becoming Jewish, to also write so openly about your struggle with depression?
AP: It seemed to me that the two were intimately related. The more I learned about my family background the more I began to think that my depression was something inherited and that, in some ways, it was the result of the legacy of the Holocaust. I’m not saying that the relationship was directly causal, but that the two things fed off each other, culminating in an existential darkness.
JI: The absence of your mother and sister in the memoir is felt, even though they are mentioned, you share that they were supportive and you address why they don’t figure more prominently. The rabbi was concerned with creating an interfaith nuclear family, but extending this concern, how has your family’s being Jewish fit in/worked with your larger family (and even friends)?
AP: It was a conscious decision to not include very much of my mother, although you’re not the first person to say they would have liked more of her. She was generally extremely supportive, as was my sister. I have heard many other conversion stories in which at least one member of the potential convert’s family was upset, or at least in which the family dynamic was fraught. I experienced none of that. My mother, my sister, and my extended family and friends have really been behind me. Of course, I had many in-depth conversations along the way, but all of them had positive outcomes.
At the Writers Fest, which takes place Oct. 21-26 on Granville Island, Alison Pick participates in two panels about writing based on personal experience, one of which – Writing Back to the Self on Oct. 24 – still had tickets for sale at press time. In addition to Pick, Jewish community members participating in the festival include Cory Doctorow, Esther Freud, Herman Koch, Christopher Levenson, Daniel Leviton and Tom Rachman. For tickets: vancouvertix.com, 604-629-8849 or the box office at 1398 Cartwright St.