Between 1993 and 2005 I worked as a librarian at the Makor (now Lamm) Library, which had begun a program called Write Your Story to help people write and publish their autobiographies. In 1998 when their first anthology was to be published, the library staff were asked to contribute in order to fill out its contents. I wrote the story below at that time and have not changed it since.
Cleveland, Ohio, has been home to a vibrant Jewish community since the turn of the century. In fact, by 1920 Jews represented 9% of the population; they currently number about 60,000. I grew up in the comfortable middle-class suburb of Cleveland Heights, where my siblings and I walked to the local primary school and attended the nearby Presbyterian Church. Our neighbours were Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, as far as I knew. I never questioned the absence of our father at church every Sunday; after all, he had two jobs, was studying for his MD and was hardly around anyway.
I don’t remember hearing anything about Jews until I was ten. My paternal grandparents, who lived in Montreal, had sent me a Queen Elizabeth doll on the occasion of her coronation. After writing the requisite thank-you note, I asked my mother for their first names and address. She told me that their last name was not Leonards, like ours, but Rabinovitch, which was a Jewish name. My father, she said, had changed it when he went to university because his future would be better if he didn’t have a Jewish-sounding name. I don’t remember thinking anything very much about this seemingly startling piece of information. It had no effect on my daily life and I certainly never contemplated asking my father about it.
Only years later did I learn anything more of my father’s mysterious Jewish origins. I would learn that he was the elder of two sons, always his mother’s favourite and the focus of the ambition born of her Russian immigrant experience in the Jewish area of Montreal. Although he gained entry to McGill (the premier English-speaking university) under the Jewish quota as Jacob Rabinovitch (needing to score 25% higher than non-Jews), he soon saw that he would never be accepted in the ‘right’ circles with his name. Getting his mother (clearly the decision-maker in the family) to agree was apparently not too difficult and he thus became Jack Leonards, his middle name being Leonard, with the ‘s’ added to give uniqueness.
When war broke out in 1939 he was completing undergraduate studies in science. He set his sights on a future in the United States, where research opportunities existed and the draft thus far did not. Virginia Polytechnic Institute offered him scholarship money and over the next two years he got master’s degrees in chemistry and nutrition and began dating my mother. They married in late 1941. Somehow my father kept his bride ignorant of his background and his mother unaware of his marriage. They moved to Cleveland, where my father was to gain his PhD in biochemistry and where his deception was revealed. His brother, sent by his mother, arrived on the doorstep to be greeted by his unknown sister-in-law and two nieces. I never learned of his mother’s reaction to this news.
We visited my grandparents in Montreal on several occasions in my childhood. They lived in an ‘apartment’, not in a house like us. I remember cooking smells that were unfamiliar to me, though I don’t remember what we ate. We went to a place where bagels were being made; I do remember the delights of eating the warm rolls, as we called them. Uncle Izzy had a dry goods store, where my sister and I were given new dresses. My mother later told me that my sister had overheard our grandparents speaking a different language. When she asked our father what they were speaking, his reply was ‘French’! My father’s work as a professor in biochemistry and as a research physician brought him into close contact with members of the Cleveland medical community, many of whom were Jewish. At a party one night, my mother later recounted, a friend approach them saying, ‘Come on, Jack, I’m Jewish and I know you are too. Why don’t you just say so?’ My father’s response was to grab his wife’s hand, saying, ‘Come on, Betty, we’re leaving,’ and turn his back on an astonished friend.
When I was twelve, my father had to move out of the house. He had a ‘drinking problem’ and his increasingly intolerable behaviour was making our lives miserable. His departure was a relief to us all. My own relationship with him had always been fraught with fear and discomfort. I stayed out of his way; when asked, I did what he wanted with complete compliance. I hated the corporal punishment he inflicted on my three brothers and admired the way my older sister stood up to him in support of our mother. My own cowardice was a source of shame to me. I avoided seeing my father in the ensuing years, although he made some effort to re-establish a relationship with me. I told him that I was ‘busy with my own life.’ I was not to revisit my paternal grandmother until I was close to thirty and in the process of converting to Judaism.
Free of the anxiety of my father’s presence, I launched into a very successful high school career. Cleveland Heights High School gathered students from four junior high schools, three of which had very high percentages of Jewish students. I came from the one that had none (that I knew of, anyway). At Heights, everyone got along very well – we just didn’t socialise outside school hours; interfaith dating was uncommon. In my senior year I briefly went out with a Jewish boy, but his parents pressured him into returning to his Jewish girlfriend.
After graduating, I was awarded a four-year scholarship to a small liberal arts college in Ohio. My freshman class boasted one black and one Jew! My Jewish friend from high school wrote letters from Harvard, so when I finished up in Boston after graduating, he looked me up. We were married a year later. At his parents’ request, we went to see a rabbi, who might have agreed to marry us if only I hadn’t burst into tears at the suggestion. I could not contemplate the hurt it would inflict on my mother and on her four maiden aunts who had nurtured us all after the ‘dreadful’ way things with my father had turned out.
We lived a kind of non-aligned university life, my husband and I. The only taste of Jewish life I experienced was our yearly trip to Cleveland for Passover. I don’t remember a Haggadah being opened, though we may have spilled a few drops of wine. What I’ve never forgotten are the verbal exchanges, their volume and animation, which I would have called serious fighting but which my in-laws somehow treated as perfectly normal. In my home such behaviour would have been considered disrespectful and impolite. Yet I could see that this family shared an open affection and acceptance that I greatly admired. Nonetheless, five years later I walked out of that marriage and into the arms of my second Jewish man.
This time the question of converting was my own initiative. I remember my thinking centring around the importance of finding a sense of community for myself, as I was approaching the age of thirty. I also believed that my attraction to Jewish men pointed towards a need to establish a link with my father through his past, as I was not very interested in him in the present. I also sensed the importance of making the commitment to Judaism for my future parents-in-law, both survivors of Russian work camps during the Holocaust. The mechanics of the process in Toronto were expeditious and painless: weekly classes (with a written exam at the end), a connection with a Jewish family (cousins of my partner) and immersion in the mikvah.
Before leaving for Australia in 1974, I visited my father to say farewell and to discover his reaction to my becoming Jewish. When I told him, he looked away, telling me that he’d been to Australia for medical conferences, where he found the telephone service total inadequate and where he couldn’t even book a plane ticket after 5 pm. I never saw my father again. He died five years later, aged 59, never having achieved his lifelong ambition of winning a Nobel Prize. At the memorial service we held at his home, colleagues told us they believe he could have, if only …
Converting to Judaism took six months; becoming Jewish took at least ten years. In 1985, on a visit to the U.S., I realised that everything about my mother’s home and lifestyle seemed foreign (goyish is what I really thought) to me. What took another ten years to learn was that I could not turn my back on the first 30 years of my life, on the American Protestant values that persisted despite my best efforts to ignore them. I had not denied my origins, as my father had; instead I denigrated or dismissed most aspects of my background. The process of learning to accept and integrate my past has been not only a challenge but also full of ironies. In 1991 I returned to Cleveland for the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. I felt immediately at home, as the predominantly Jewish gathering could have been a wedding or bar mitzvah in Melbourne. I even danced with my first husband. A few years ago I began going to shul on Shabbat, which in my marriage we had never done, but which I see as akin to my attending church as a child – only the day and venue have changed.
My father’s self-imposed exile, despite its tragic side, also had its ironies. After his death the Cleveland Jewish News ran his obituary! He might have denied his being Jewish, but the community claimed him. His daughter in Australia can say Kaddish for him. Surely we never fully understand the paths our lives take, but I have come to believe that my parents’ choice of my name was more than a simple coincidence.