Between Gods by Alison Pick

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Between Gods by Alison Pick

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: At a time of transition – preparing for her wedding and finishing her first novel, set during the Holocaust – the author decided to convert to Judaism, the faith of her father's Czech family. A sensitive and engrossing memoir.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: July 2015
Publisher: Tinder Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781472225092

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Alison Pick's paternal grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia just before the Holocaust by bribing the Nazis for visas to Canada; the rest of the family died in Auschwitz. They spent their whole lives trying to pass as Christians, and Pick's father, too, was reluctant to have anything to do with Judaism. Pick only learned he was Jewish through a conversation overheard when she was 11.

When the memoir opens in 2008, Pick, a Toronto-based poet, was in her early 30s and engaged to be married. Just at the time that she was writing a Holocaust-themed novel (the Booker-longlisted Far to Go), she was also exploring her own Jewish family history and identity. Tradition has it that Jewish lineage passes through the mother, so although she was half-Jewish, to be an 'official' Jew she would still have to convert after a set of rigorous Jewish Information classes (JIC). What's more, she had to fight to even be considered since her non-Jewish fiancé had no interest in converting and rabbis are reluctant to create intermarriage.

All this while struggling with depression, a family curse Pick refers to as 'bad blood', the same term Lorna Sage used in her memoir of that title. 'Granny was right,' Pick reports grimly. 'Life is inherently painful. And several generations of unshed tears eventually become a flood.' When she admitted to being depressed, a magazine editor told her, 'That makes you a good Jew.' Others confirmed that she had a 'Jewish soul' even if she didn't have the rabbinical approval to go with it just yet.

Ritual was Pick's way into Judaism, some of it bound up with sorrow and some of it light-hearted. For instance, she fasted for Yom Kippur and took her father to synagogue on the anniversary of her grandfather's death, but also had the fun of getting ready for a Purim costume party. She was surprised to find that in some ways her habits had already presaged her Jewish commitment: she and her fiancé had a '24 Hours Unplugged' ritual every Friday that neatly equated with Shabbat. 'Judaism used to be invisible to me. Now it's everywhere.'

At this point, though, Pick was still in an awkward middle ground between Judaism and Christianity, so when December came around she lit a menorah in preparation for Hanukkah but also went to Midnight Mass with her family on Christmas Eve. She also had trouble knowing whether to use a chuppah at their wedding ceremony; they eventually decided against it, but did a glass breaking at the reception. By the time Pick passed the JIC test, policy had changed enough to allow rabbis to appeal to a board for particular individuals. She was allowed to convert without her fiancé, and the occasion was sealed with a baptism of sorts at the mikvah, a ritual pool where women bathe every month after menstruation.

If I have one criticism of this engrossing memoir, it's that Pick is perhaps too inclusive. There are so many things going on here: depression, her family's Holocaust history, her conversion struggle, the temptation to cheat on her fiancé, wedding planning, career struggles, moving to Toronto, her relationship with her father, adjusting to marriage, and then pregnancy and motherhood following soon after – leading full circle to a time of postpartum depression. With all these issues to explore, Pick doesn't need to mention some more minor details, such as being tested for the BRCA gene because it's common among Ashkenazi Jews.

That said, this book is exactly what you want from a memoir: it vividly depicts a time of tremendous change (so much happens in less than two years), after which the subject is still somehow the same person, or perhaps more herself than ever. Pick puts it this way: 'I am not fixed or healed, but I am different, as though a part of me that had always existed as an outline has now been fully coloured in. I am a mother, and a Jew, which is to say the me who has suffered in the past is now a new me entirely.' I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys memoirs, especially ones that incorporate family history and faith struggles.

Further reading suggestion: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris is an intriguing fictional peek into Orthodox Judaism, while The Butterfly Mosque: A Young Woman's Journey to Love and Islam by G Willow Wilson is an alternative conversion memoir.

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