Discovering my family's secret Jewish roots
Essay in Canadian Jewish News
August 29, 2019
Though I’ve never lived in Montreal, it feels like home whenever I visit because it was a constant in my nomadic childhood. Both of my parents were raised in Montreal so we travelled there often to see relatives, a diverse, memorable cast that included my mother’s aunt and uncle, Nucia and Sasha, ensconced in their smoky apartment on Cote-de-Neiges. I dreaded Sasha’s rattled voice, permanently altered from a battle with throat cancer, while Nucia fascinated me with her eyebrows, drawn in thin swirls, and the graceful way she held a cigarette, long, red nails gleaming. She argued the way others breathed and her voice, with its Russian accent that turned Ws into Vs and THs into Zs, reminded me of my grandmother, Rachel (Shelly), Nucia’s younger sister, who died when I was 13.
I wouldn’t find out that Shelly, Nucia, and Sasha were Jewish until I was 18, a disclosure that stunned and upset me. Instead of being raised without religion, embarrassingly ignorant about the Bible, I could have been exposed to Judaism. I could have questioned my grandmother while she was alive.
After my first child was born, I felt a pressing need to know more, to be able to tell my daughter about her Jewish roots. That’s when I asked Nucia about my grandmother’s nebulous childhood.
In a cagey voice, Nucia told me how their family narrowly escaped a Russian pogrom and fled to Shanghai, how my grandmother met my Canadian grandfather, about Shelly’s loneliness in Montreal, where my grandfather began his advertising career.
My mother, Ann, recalls with clarity how Shelly sat at the kitchen table, in her housecoat, playing Solitaire as she left for school. Shelly, equipped with a business degree, four languages, and the fortitude it must have taken, to leave her family in Shanghai, would still be playing Solitaire, still in her housecoat, when my mother came home. Perhaps she wondered about the fate of her aunts, uncles, and cousins, in Riga after losing contact during the war. Maybe, depression, a disease that has claimed almost every woman descending from that branch of our family tree, had taken root in her soul.
Shelly’s mother, Sonia Talan, emigrated to Montreal from Shanghai after the war, which she’d endured with Shelly’s brother and sister in a Jewish ghetto controlled by the Japanese. A widow for years, Sonia lived in an apartment above a bakery in Mount Royal, a few blocks from Shelly’s family. My mother, who used to visit Sonia after school, says Sonia tried, in vain, to teach her Russian, and that she looked like a witch with grey hair in a braid that went down past her waist and somber, black clothing. She never smiled.
Sonia died in 1956, yet Ann and her younger sister, Gayle, weren’t allowed to attend the funeral or burial in Baron De Hirsch Cemetery, because Shelly didn’t want them knowing Sonia was Jewish. Four years later, after my mother married my father, they accidentally discovered their Jewish roots during dinner with Nucia and Sasha. Gayle told an anti-Semitic joke at the dinner table and the adults went silent. The colour drained from Shelly’s face.
“Are we Jewish?” Gayle, brash and curious, blurted out.
Shelly acknowledged her Judaism, but refused to talk about her faith and childhood, and never mentioned her Latvian relatives to Ann and Gayle. It was as if she wanted to shelve her tumultuous past, keep it separate from her children, her future.
On a tour of Jewish Montreal recently, I wonder how my narrative might have been different had I known about my roots. I feel a twinge of envy for people grounded in old world traditions that have connected Jews in Canada for generations, traditions that have been lost in our family.
When the tour ends, I visit Sonia’s grave and put a stone on top. I picture Shelly and Nucia, standing here 63 years ago, and feel more connected to them, Montreal, and Judaism. Then, I go home and tell my family what I’ve learned.
In an artful way throughout this absorbing, chilling tale, characters wonder what can stop the tragedy of hatred from overcoming community.
Booklist Starred Review
Adeptly conveys the history, from Mikhail Rybachenko's real name to the bitter bigotry and
bloodbath...Critical for its underexplored subject.
Rachel's Secret effectively uses the historical record to create a compelling image of this troubled period,
making meaningful points about the role of hatred and hope in society--and how young people can break
free from the shakles of tradition.
iTunes, Book of the Week
A poignantly realistic portrayal of young Jewish woman's struggle towards independence
in early 20th C San Francisco, trying to embrace the new world while grappling with her ties to tradition.
The Jury, Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature (Rachel's Hope shortlisted, 2016)