“I for sure thought you were a bais yaakov girl like the rest of us!”
These words were said to me by a mother of teenage daughter who had heard me tell my story about growing up ba’al teshuva due to my father’s conversion when I was 12 years old.
No doubt, it felt good to hear those words.
On one hand, I want to slip in with the rest of the crowd. I want to people to base me on my merits here and now and not look at me any differently because of my upbringing.
On the other hand, I know that I have a story to tell that is valuable and meaningful. When I share it, it inspires people. But it also blows my cover.
Lately, I have been more vocal, writing and telling my story in venues across the Orthodox spectrum. The feedback has been the same. People are moved by stories of real-life, modern-day mesiras nefesh (sacrifice) for Judaism. The story adds dimensions of meaning to their own relationship with Orthodoxy and their own experience as a religious Jew.
And it all started with a roll of lifesavers.
Named Keir Ivor Beard, my father was born in the coastal town of Dover to Methodist family who raised their two sons on Bible stories and good values. Growing up in war-torn England in the early 1940s, my father had very little. Due to sever food rationing, he had never even tasted a candy as a young child.
One day, a large truck my father had never seen before drove down his street. In the truck were two men in uniform the likes he had never seen before, laughing and flashing white pearly smiles. The older boys ran after the truck, yelling, “They’re Yanks!” followed by “Got any gum, chum?” Not knowing what any of it meant, my father ran after the boys, too, yelling “Got any gum, chum?”
The truck stopped at the top of a hill and the two men threw a handful of candy out of their Jeeps to the boys and girls below who scrambled after it. My father didn’t know what it is, but he knew he didn’t get any. A boy had a red one with a hole in it. He broke it in half and gave one half to my father. The burst of sweet tanginess in his mouth was an experience like none other.
As the G.I.’s drove away in their army-green Jeep emblazoned with a white star on the hood, my father had a feeling that they came from a place where another version of himself – the “real him” — was waiting. From then on began his life’s journey to find him.
The American soldiers served as an icon of a people he never knew and a place he’d never been. Those G.I.’s, with their happy-go-lucky gaits, were a ray of light. In the eyes of a child, they represented the people he wanted to be with and a place he wanted to be from. From “Got any gum, chum,” my father created the vision of his future life. And it would be in America – somehow.
Before he made it to America, my father had stints as a Methodist lay preacher turned agnostic and then a back-packing soul-seeker in the Middle East in search of spirituality.
But the first step to America took place in South Africa – where he would meet his future wife.
My father’s brother, Paul, was living in South Africa at the time (now the 1970s) and convinced my father to come for a visit. One beautiful day in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, my father joined a picnic with some of his brother’s friends. He noticed a tall woman with dark black hair. As he was used to the typical fair English girl, he was rather taken by her unusual look.
A conversation ensued. As he got to know this woman named Beverly a little better, he felt a strong connection. According to Judaism, the eyes are a window to the soul, and he felt his own soul leap towards hers as he looked into her dark brown eyes.
Their friendship developed rather quickly, and before he knew it, it was time to ask her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. There was one glitch. He was a goy.
You see, my mother grew up going to a traditional Orthodox shul in Cape Town and her mother lit her own mother’s Shabbos candlesticks every Friday night, but she and her brother attended Catholic school. Despite the Shabbos rituals, they lived completely secular lives. But my mother’s father taught her one thing: never bring home a goy.
When my mother’s father met the polite and dapper British fellow she had brought home and realized he was a good person, he gave her his blessing.
My parents were married in a non-religious ceremony by a Justice of the Peace in a Cape Dutch House in South Africa, but my mother made my father promise that they would have a “proper wedding” on their 25th wedding anniversary. After a short time living in London, it was time to make my father’s dream a reality: they were moving to New York.
My father was a successful advertising art director in London and now had made it to Madison Avenue. My parents lived in apartment on the Upper East Side and were living the city life. Their first – and only – child was born in 1980, the same year John Lennon was killed on the other side of Central Park.
One day, their baby girl was sitting in a high chair in their small apartment kitchen. My father had been thinking how he wanted to raise this child. Should she be a Christian like her father’s faith or a Jew like her mother’s? Suddenly, he had an urge to look at her. He turned his head to glance and was taken by her dark brown eyes. “She’s a Jew!” he shouted.
My mother told my father that according to Judaism, the religion is passed down through the mother. “I don’t know that,” my father said, “but I do know that she is a Jew and we will have to raise her as one.”
What that actually meant would only be discovered eight years later in Atlanta, Georgia.
To be continued…