Actually the beginnings may be traced back much further. Tyldesley, a small Lancashire town replete with relics of its dead cotton milling & coal mining industries; the tiny suburb on its outskirts where I spent my first twelve years, and the Church of England school -"The Mission" which I attended in those years.
The object of the school, I think, was to produce good little Christian girls and boys with the appropriate Lancashire working class ethics thoroughly ingrained, and a reasonable amount of primary education. One of our teachers there had a profound influence on me. He instructed us in Christian morals and a wide variety of Bible stories. He was an inspiring and demanding teacher whose words I remember to this day.
When I was a child I would sometimes dream that a saw a cupboard with a curtain drawn across the front. Behind the curtain I found a wonderful book filled with great wisdom. I pored through the book, eager to learn these secrets and bring them back to waking life. I could not quite focus on the words - though I knew they were powerful, profound and marvelous. In retrospect I remember that our teacher had mentioned to us in one class the furniture of the synagogue, the tall 'cupboard' with a velvet curtain, behind which rests the scrolls of the Law. This dream haunted, inspired and lured me through the years.
I had a fondness for Israel from an early age. If I saw a map, I wanted to find Israel. I loved the word itself. It meant something special, something exalted. I also loved the name "David". (Now the name of my third child). I didn't question where these feelings came from- I thought at first everyone felt that way! Our hymns in school were often based on the New Testament, but occasionally they were older, from the psalms and the prophets. I remember vaguely a hymn about nations going up to the mountain of Zion, and that aroused a strange deep feeling of awe within me, almost a memory of the scene itself.
At the age of eight I renounced Christianity. A neighbour, a child prodigy I thought, told me I didn't have to believe everything grown-ups told me. I realized I was uncomfortable with Christianity, I could not accept the dogmas. I could not accept that a man could BE G-d, that people who did not believe in the gospels had poor chances for heaven, even if they were moral. I felt sad, in a way, to say goodbye to a faith that had enchanted me as a child, but I was not satisfied.
Thus began my years of atheism and opposition to organized religion. I immersed myself in nature, in science and philosophy. My world was rambling in the fields, searching for wildlife, my school and college text books and a tremendous search and thirst for knowledge and understanding. I spent many hours alone, contemplating the nature of the universe- and of my own mind; so intently that I tended to avoid the company of others. My first six childhood years were solitary, before my brother was born; and solitude became a pleasant, and I felt, even necessary habit for the evolution of my thoughts.
Of course, my parents influenced me powerfully. My mother gave me an open mind, the ability to explore possibilities, alternative paradigms. My father taught me to see both sides of every question, not to commit myself totally and emotionally before objective evaluation. Both gave a sense of ethics, of consideration for other people which I have always tried to emulate, and both gave me a practical approach to reality. Above all, both gave me the stability of their loving care and support in all my years of growth.
My early teenage years were also very formative. I was one of a very small and academic clique at the all-girls school which I attended. We were all equally interested in knowledge and understanding, and some of us had a taste for the more controversial, eclectic frontiers of knowledge. This was the time of the Uri Geller craze, and many normally conservative English people were claiming psychokinetic and telepathic powers.
I was sceptical but intrigued, and set to work gathering all reports of paranormal phenomena from my friends. At that time we lived in a stately, and reportedly haunted old rectory in the heart of a larger industrial borough closer to Manchester. This haunting and the other information I gathered over the years, especially in my early teens, filled and intrigued my mind. Despite this I remained open minded and sceptical, even cynical of the reports I accumulated.
In later years I felt some attraction for the "New Age" movement. The last thing I wanted to do was to throw myself into a cult at that time. I need to know much more. I particularly identified with shamanism- and that meant finding my own, personal spiritual truth. I stood on the fringes of many different groups, of all kinds of eclectic and bizarre philosophies and spent years listening to anything they had to say. I explored with my mind all the variety of paradigms I came across.
When I was fourteen my religious education teacher, a devout Christian, inspired me, and stirred my heart. Then I was ready to call myself agnostic, not committing myself but not denying belief in one deity. I was then very involved in a pantheistic philosophy- a belief that G-d IS nature; and the seeds were planted for real belief in, and return to one transcendant, and personal, G-d.
In retrospect I believe all my development was guided by the help of heaven- the people I met, the situations in which I found myself, the information which came to me. My own intellect was very short sighted- I did not realize how I was led by a divine hand in all my most objective investigations.
Like any late teenager and young adult I also dabbled into the philosophy of politics. At that time the Labour party fought the Tories tooth and nail and the Liberals were struggling for ascendance with incredible optimism. Everyone was pressured subtly, or not so subtly, to take sides. After a lot of dithering about, joining marches in the snow to Hyde Park, listening, reading and more listening, I came to the provisional conclusion that it doesn't matter one whit which side one takes. All political systems can be subverted and abused. One cannot hope to maintain any economic policy while ignoring the need for morality, and the development of individual qualities. So why not use the best of both- welfare and private enterprise- and focus on enhancing the value of the individual? I remained nominally a Liberal.
This speculation was all relevant for my own development, for matters of spirituality and society are inextricably intertwined. This must be, if we accept that human beings are spiritual in essence, and society can only be human. Is it realistic to expect spirituality to restrict itself to private expression?
I was now involved in a search of truth for man- an optimal lifestyle. There had to be a system- there had to be a way of life, in both public and private spheres. Deep inside me I felt that the marvelous book of wisdom behind the curtain held the answers- but I had no access to them.
My life awaited a breakthrough.
Then, after my second year of University, I was invited to spend three weeks in Bavaria. My hostess, Eva, was an interpreter my father had met on a diplomatic visit to Munich some years before. Such irony, that this woman, an antisemite and a person who denied the reality of the death camps, should be the prime agent, the catalyst of my profound change in life.
For a week and a half I wandered the hills of the Samerberg- discovering the lay of the land, absorbing the scenery like a child. Many of my walks began as an escape from Eva, from anger and conflict. We had many disagreements- a fundamental personality clash. To avoid bitter argument I fled to the forests, to sublimate my emotions. This led to intense self examination. I was struggling to understand the course of my life and the direction I must take. I felt I had to decide on some spiritual orientation.
On impulse I took a train to Schloss Neuschwannstein and climbed the glorious slopes of Tegelberg. Every turn was a wonder- majestic, dark pines and spruce ranged around the crags, and a vast silence that seemed filled, on another level, with a kind of transcendent, natural music. Whenever I allowed myself to pause on that arduous climb, I looked across to other forested slopes, castles and lakes, and down and away to a great plain fading to a far horizon, bluish and indistinct. Finally I reached the summit, but my hopes of exulting on a lonely crag were shattered. There was a beer garden, the terminal for a cable car ride, the music and chatter of a damping normalcy.
I had been filled with splendorous nature, and with physical attainment. Yet- there was something deep in my heart that still felt empty, unfulfilled. A knowledge that there was more to life than this, beyond a future husband and family and a pleasant suburban life. I needed to reach something else first. But I did feel one step closer to discovering the truth I sought.
The second week and a half of the vacation I spent in Munich. It was roughly the Nine Days before Tisha BeAv, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple- though I was not aware of that at the time. I walked the streets for hours, barefoot. I explored the streets from Marienplatz to the Olympic stadium; listening to the street musicians, drinking beer in Englische Garten, sampling the wurst & the ice cream. As I stood, looking down from the railings high in the Olympic tower I thought of the Israelis who had been killed at the Olympic games eleven years before.
I wandered into art galleries. I let my eyes just glance over the many gruesome crucifixion scenes till my eyes alighted on one most wonderful and inspiring vision. A woman stood proudly on a hill, a woman of power and beauty, and a woman who seemed to be fulfilling her destiny. Her name was Judith and her expression was radiant. I gazed for a while, lost in contemplation. Who is this heroic woman? Why does she fill me with awe?
I passed the great Magen David monument in the north of Munich and found I was profoundly moved. I wept, feeling distressed, and at the same time, amazed at my reaction.
When I was about ten years old my mother had told me about the holocaust- the loss of six million or so Jews of Europe at the hands of the Nazis. This issue seemed to have greatly influenced her, causing doubts and questions. Why does G-d allow so much suffering? Though, as far as she knew she had no Jewish ancestry, the fate of the Jews had touched her. When she was a child she had hammered on the door of the local vicar, seeking answers to her questions. He could not satisfy her. For the rest of her life she remained outside organised religion, her unanswered questions locked in her heart.
One day, during my stay in Baierbrunn, I found I had lost Eva's camera. I went back into the fields around that little village, searching, while a thunderstorm began to rage around me. Now, I have always had a terror of being struck by lightning, and was anxious to get back indoors. However, I was also anxious that the camera might be ruined. Then I did a very strange thing. I asked G-d to help me. I made a deal. (What a nerve! I thought, later) I bargained "G-d, if You are just there, if You can hear me, get me back that camera today- and I will come to the church and thank You. I will come closer to You. I don't like Eva, and I really don't care if her camera is lost, I don't even fear her anger any more. Yet, I have a duty to return a generous loan. Just let me perform this little act of morality, in this storm which I do fear, and I promise I will come back to you."
The storm tore the skies and passed as if it had never been, and still the camera was not found. But when I went to the village hall, it turned out the burgermeister's wife had found it and brought it into the office, probably within an hour after it had slipped off my hand. I had a promise to keep.
The following Sunday morning I strolled into the tiny and beautiful Catholic church in Baierbrunn. I sat at the back, hoping that such a place would give me some access to a transcendent reality. I tried to settle my troubled mind in an appropriate monotheistic meditation. Then I burst into tears. I don't know how long I was crying. I was trying to reach out to G-d, to implore Him to give me some enlightenment and some direction for the future.
When all my tears were spent, something very profound and wonderful happened in my mind. I felt as if surrounded and suffused by an aura of intense peace- and compassion. Although I have always been a very emotional person, nothing like this had ever happened to me before as far as I remember. Subjectively, it felt as if some presence were comforting me- letting me know that I would find some path in life and some answer to my prayers. I sat for a while in this sweet and wholesome state, before I finally tore myself away from my reverie and left the church.
(I have had this sensation, though to a different degree, only a couple of times since- each time while praying at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, near the site of the Holy Temple, and each time after a period of doubt and trouble.)
At the same time, Eva, my hostess, had begun a campaign of her own. She had urged me to read Arthur Koestler's "The Thirteenth Tribe" which claims that the majority of Ashkenazic Jewry descends, not from Israel but from the converted Khazars. Indeed, as a people the Khazars had probably converted for political reasons- with the Christian realm to their west and the rise of Islam to their east, but the king of the Khazars may well have been sincere in his decision. I took Koestler's arguments with a pinch of salt, though I loved his writing.
Then Eva wanted me to read "Exodus" by Leon Uris, a novel about the struggle of Jewish refugees to enter Palestine during and after the Holocaust. I finished the book in the small hours of the morning, feeling deeply stirred inside, and excited. I had to know more, I had to check this out. There was, fortunately, a book of political history right there on the shelf beside me. I found myself filled with adrenalin, intensively matching the historical details with the substance of the novel. I had been completely ignorant of the history of the Palestine Mandate. Much of the information came as a great shock to me. We had learned none of this in school.
I was impressed by the phenomenal power I felt behind the history. The saga of a people exiled, and their desire to return home. I felt a certain quality and strength in the Jewish people and I was resolved to discover its nature.
The next day I returned home from Munich. The day after that I went straight to the city library to find something basic about Judaism- and Hebrew. My motivation to learn about the Jewish people was actually beyond reasonable logic. My interest to learn Hebrew was much more passionate than intellectual curiosity. I felt driven by something beyond me to commit myself at this early stage- as if I had boarded a train- and was simply riding it, learning the geography of my destination as I travelled. No other ideas I had met in my life had given me such impetus- and sometimes the sensation was terrifying.
I remember walking along Cathedral Road in Cardiff- past the old synagogue. I asked myself, "what am I doing? To face derision, anti- Semitism, possible persecution, a very uncertain future- to break away from normal, predictable, comfortable gentile middle class life - what am I throwing away? Am I throwing anything away?" It was a sense of terrifying vertigo. Years later I felt no grief over my "sacrifices". The persecution, the adversity had no special appeal for me, or the "status in suffering". I did not let myself think about it. The attraction of the "spirit" of the Jewish people outweighed any possible future difficulties.
When, a short while later, I discovered that it was the heritage of Jewish wisdom and the Providence of G-d that sustained these people- all became clear.
The Torah appealed to me immediately on many levels. Here was a way of life which included family life and making a living in the real world. Here was also intellectual challenge, which appealed directly to my love of learning. Here was a practical way to integrate the spiritual, the mystical, with practical existence, a way to perform every simple task for the sake of heaven, to give my own actions divine significance and value. I focus on the quality of Now and direct my thoughts to heaven. It all made so much sense. Not ascetism, but appreciation of the world, establishing boundaries for right behaviour. It was that optimal lifestyle, and yet it was also familiar, pragmatic day to day life, enhanced by special standards of behaviour- modesty, honesty, wisdom.
I return, now, to my path towards conversion. Just one week after my return, I broke my right arm in a parachuting accident. I spent the next painful month immersed in Judaism- reading every word of the Old Testament, teaching myself Hebrew, reading relevant material from the city library. It was an exhilirating time. I kept myself back from meeting Jews because I simply did not feel prepared, or worthy. How I longed to meet the children of Israel in that month! On the first day of the Jewish New Year (though I didn't know beforehand) I went to visit a local Jewish family. I was only a little acquainted with them as one of the boys had gone to school with my brother. I asked them, full of shyness & trepidation, if I could go to synagogue with them next time they went.
You can imagine they were totally amazed. They had just finished their festive meal and were not expecting me to appear like this at all! I told them I was interested, trying not to appear over enthusiastic, though I was determined that something should come of this. The daughter agreed to take me to the nearest Orthodox synagogue. I was elated.
I watched the service but did not really follow it, as I was being interrogated by my brother's friend's sister, and I was happy to share my feelings. I beheld the beautiful prayer shawls, pure white and decorated with silver. I heard the shofar, the rams horn which is blown on the New Year- a call to repentance and Return to G-d. Such an exalted, ethereal mood permeated the shul that day, I could barely grasp its essence.
Afterwards my young friend persuaded me to attend the synagogue of the Reform Movement, So I did. There I met many new friends including an acquaintancee in my zoology class in University, who was understandably amazed to see me, and the rabbi with whom I have kept contact ever since. G-d sends many agents to direct our path- and we can learn wisdom from all men. As long as we always direct ourselves for the sake of heaven, for the fulfilment of G-d's will, and of our potentials, which are divine gifts.
Of course, I joined the Jewish Society in the University, partly to expand my contacts, to become integrated in Jewish Society, and because I would be taking my degree finals the coming year, I didn't have much time to visit the Jewish neighbourhood across town. The Jewish Society people were warm and receptive and I spent many hours in the Hillel house learning for exams and talking with my new acquaintances, enjoying the beautiful spirit of family they all seemed to share. I took classes with the Reform Rabbi and made progress.
Sometimes the young people at Hillel house used to upset me, unintentionally. It took my a while to realize that every Jew has a different perception of what being Jewish is all about! It took me longer to realize just how healthy that can be. Sometimes I felt so distressed by the divergence of opinions I was very close to doing a little bible bashing. I was reassured that when it really counts, Jews are together. Jews are family. And always, whether as individuals, or as a brotherhood, I had glimpses of the amazing, brilliant qualities of the Jewish people.
But I still was very ignorant. Ironically, it was a secular Israeli, a postgraduate student, who advised me to go to Israel and convert there, according to Orthodox law. He persuaded me easily, as I had already intended to go to Israel as soon as I had finished my finals.
As soon as this was done, my parents bought me, to my inexpressible delight, a one-way ticket to Israel. I had told them I was going to spend six months on a kibbutz with a view to conversion, and I didn't know exactly when I'd be coming back. The secular Israeli actually ran a campaign of his own to persuade the Kibbutz Representatives in London to take me on a religious kibbutz and on a conversion programme. I walked in.
I loved the kibbutz. I loved everything about it, the work, the people, the tours around the country organized by the Hebrew learning programme, every sight, sound and smell of Beerot Yitshak became ingrained in my memory. They were warm, fond memories. Everything went well. I had no problem with the language, I delighted in it. I lived there, amongst cotton fields, baby turkeys, aromatic eucalyptus and the cries of giant kingfishers, for a year and a half, and did nothing but benefit.
I was told I had to be in Israel a year before I could start the Ulpan giur, the conversion programme. Fine- I wasn't going anywhere. The cycle of Hebrew classes and work, new friends, especially my Australian roommate, Ada Heisler, who instilled some degree of domesticity in me, a remarkable achievement; singing to the guitar on the roof of the clubhouse at midnight; learning Bible with Katy Levi from Shanghai, an elderly woman of great wisdom, and in many ways my model, mentor and my adviser in times of trial- all these are infinitely precious memories. Yes, I was in love with the Holy land - I had no desire to leave.
Still- I was ignorant of many laws and didn't know which questions to ask- but in retrospect I feel it was better that way. I realise it would not have been healthy to take on everything at once. I was drawn gently, gradually into my new life- the ignorance was actually for my benefit. I am still learning now, of course!
I seriously considered settling on a kibbutz, such a wonderful place for children. First, I had to find a husband, work and learning. I needed a city, for its range, people, opportunities. Jerusalem began to call me.
I had visited Jerusalem many times during my kibbutz stay, sometimes spending the Sabbath at a girl's religious hostel, or attending fascinating classes at a seminary. Very soon, my heart was set on learning at that school. However, I was told it was their policy not to allow prospective converts to study there, though I was welcome as soon as I had my certificate. I swallowed my pain. Everything has its time.
(I later did learn at this seminary for a wonderful year and a half, before meeting my husband, Akiva Atwood, also a convert from Ohio.)
Finally, in January, just seven months after the start of the conversion course, we faced the final oral examination. I remember the day, pacing Tel Aviv beach in the cold wind- brooding, anxious and antisocial, collecting my nerve. My whole future might depend on my performance. I had enjoyed the course: the rambling instruction of the Rav, always stimulating, always provoking my questions and thought, and the sheer privilege I felt to be there. When I had first thought about becoming Jewish, I had no idea there would be such facilities, that others would also be following this path, that it could be this possible.
The oral was childishly easy. I felt physically sick from the anticlimax.
Directly afterwards I left the kibbutz for Jerusalem. I was admitted to another seminary while I awaited the summons to the Jewish Court. What a cold, wet and miserable transfer that was! My suitcase split open in the street, in the rain and in front of a helpful rabbinical student- how embarassing! The accommodations were cold, noisy, my bed was in the salon with three others and not a square inch of shelf or cupboard space. I did what I always do when I feel lousy. I took a long, brisk walk. I was used to the situation within two days! I made many friends in that short three weeks, both students and families in the neighbourhood. We learned under the Pine trees on sunny winter days, precious and productive days.
(You will notice many times in this account I say "I made many friends". This may sound glib, but it is in fact both achievement and blessing. I am actually quite a shy and introverted person, not overly confident. Though I have worked on the problem for years, I am far from being the life and soul of the party! When I say "friends" I don't just mean acquaintances, though of course, I am unable to invest as much time as I would like in all the people I love.)
Then I was summoned to the Jewish Court. Such excitement! So soon? For me, everything was privilege, the stuff of exalted aspirations and dreams. I travelled with a few companions to a small settlement where the court would sit and examine us. Three elderly Rabbis of wisdom and learning, gathered to decide my future.
Again, I was pacing the sunlit lawn, gathering my thoughts, the words I would speak to these Rabbis. What impression would I give? I knew all the classic answers, I was confident with my Hebrew but I had to put something of myself into this. I had to show them my sincerity.
I remember the quiet spacious room, dark after the bright sun outside, the faces of the rabbis, inscrutable, their questions, rapid and searching. I gave my answers earnestly, words falling over one another. I satisfied them.
When they told me that the Rebbetsin, the wife of the Rabbi of that settlement, would show me to the special pool for ritual immersion, my heart soared. I had no words.
The immersion was the final gate. There, I felt the profound significance of my words, of my blessing on the immersion. If it's possible to hear words reverberate in higher spheres, the awe in my heart, I sensed all this to the extent that I could perceive. There- it is done. This is the real thing now. Now, I am a child of Israel.
We walked back along the long lane between fields of flowers, to the highway. I was so elated, I was beyond singing. There was no way I could physically express my joy. Did I feel different, changed? Definitely. If it were possible to say it- I felt a new dimension had been added to my being- or had revealed itself from within. A greatness, a sensitivity- a feeling of "more so"- and it stayed, after the elation of the day had gone.
Thank G-d- for making my journey so positive- for paving my way, bringing me the right people at the right times. Help from heaven. For making me the way I am- a good mind to balance my emotions and the joy of those emotions. The joy of the world, its wonders, its design. The joy of learning, understanding. The joy of friendships, of family, intimate and extended. Jewish and Gentile- all are gifts from above. The gift of the Torah, Jewish law, and lore - meaning and purpose, eternal value and life itself. The daily struggle to come closer to G-d, to transcend the sufferings of this world, to perceive the exquisite beauty of the universe.
My parents were always wonderful. They accepted my decisions with great understanding- though they didn't understand the laws I later wanted to follow. They were open and trusting enough to allow me to embark on a new way of life. They just wanted me to be happy, whatever that meant for me. I was anxious that they might feel alienated, rejected. I never wanted them to feel that, and I hope they never did. My parents came to visit me many times in Israel, though I have only been able to travel to Britain three times in the last nine years, and these visits become increasingly more difficult as my family grows. I would love to bring all my children to Great Britain, to meet all their gentile relations and to see something of England and Wales.
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