Hannah’s Teshuva

Hannah’s Teshuva [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“One only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows him.

According to the knowledge will be the love.”  

Moses Maimonides [2]

During the Holocaust, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry – known to be a deeply compassionate scholar of Jewish law — was considered the spiritual leader of the Kovno ghetto. In this role, he tried to help the members of this community, subjected to horrific conditions, to maintain a semblance of Jewish life. He endeavored to answer many difficult questions of Jewish law for the troubled ghetto Jews. Oshry’s genius was his creative ability to find a way to say “yes” instead of a blanket “no.”

But this is not a story about Rabbi Oshry’s genius. It is the story of my friend, Hannah (not her real name), who was still bedeviled by her Jewish identity at the late age of 82. Like the many people who wrote to Rabbi Oshry during and after WWII, individuals trying their best to live up to the standards of Jewish law – to remain good human beings in the eyes of God despite their behavior in appalling circumstances – I am asking a question on behalf of Hannah’s soul as, unknowingly, she prepares to meet her Maker.

Hannah was spared the horrors of Hitler’s Germany by the actions of her father in gaining a Christian identity, intended to protect her from anticipated harm. Yet caught in a web of ambivalence, she was not spared the suffering of her soul. So here is the question (the she’ela) – the many questions, in fact – that, as a rabbi, I am asking for her because she cannot ask them for herself. Perhaps there is no answer.

The Questions:  

Can someone born into Judaism, but forced into Catholicism from early teenage by parents anxious to protect her, return to Judaism on a part-time basis? Can she move back and forth between the two religions – and their two communities – and still be considered a Jew? Can she still be a Jew if she marries a Catholic and brings up her children as Catholics – even though she is no longer a practicing Catholic herself? Is she a Jew or a Christian if she is involved in leadership positions in the Jewish community? Is she a Jew or a Christian if she reverts to Catholicism for fear of losing her soul and going to eternal hell fire as the approach of the end of life draws near?

The Back Story:

Hannah was born into a wealthy educated, and cultured Jewish family in Holland (her father was a diamond dealer). She remembered that they lived as Jews and had Jewish friends. But as Hitler came to power in Germany and began to make aggressive moves against the Jewish communities, her father realized that the Dutch Jews would soon be in danger in Holland (where there were already rumblings against the Jews), and he began to make plans to protect his family. Since his livelihood was a portable one, he took his wife and three young daughters to Paris, where, far from their usual associations, they submerged themselves in a secular world.

They hurriedly studied French while he made the necessary arrangements to take them to Montreal in Quebec, Canada, but both parents were aware that they still counted as Jews (even if they claimed they were secular), rapidly being characterized by Nazi elements as the vermin of Europe.

It was toward the end of 1938 when they finally arrived in Montreal. As the news from Europe grew worse (Canada entered the war in 1939, well before the U.S. did), Hannah’s father quickly took his three daughters to a convent with beautiful facilities and excellent educational reputation in Montreal. At the time, neither this city’s Catholic majority nor its Anglo minority could be considered fond of Jews, but although slurs against Jews certainly occurred on the part of individuals in this time of economic depression, there was no official anti-Semitism, as there was in many parts of Europe. Hannah’s father instructed the nuns to educate his blonde, blue-eyed girls as Catholics. In the event that Hitler’s reach would (God forbid!) extend to Canada, he made a gift of a considerable sum of money to the convent. “If anything happens, protect my children,” he said.

That is how it happened that Hannah, born a Jew, was educated to be a Catholic. At this early age – she was fourteen and still a minor following her parent’s bidding – she did not understand all her father’s reasoning, but she came to truly love the pageantry and rituals of the Catholic service, particularly Mass, and was intrigued by the lives of the Saints.

She dimly remembered that her parents continued to have Jewish friends and to live their lives, although largely secular, as Jewish people. Protected by the convent, however, the three daughters were trained to be Catholics. Later in life, two of the daughters, younger than Hannah, refused to admit that they had ever been Jewish, born of Jewish parents. But Hannah knew.

After the war, she was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, and her Francophile identity was both reinforced and welcomed when she returned to Montreal. She did not have an identity problem then; she was a French-speaking Catholic. Point final. She sang Canada’s national anthem (with Quebec nationalistic fervor) in French. With her love of Catholic pageantry, she was attracted to the theatre, where she met the charismatic actor who was to become her husband. He was Catholic, and in due course, they had two children, both brought up a Catholics.

Eventually Hollywood’s artistic top echelon called on her husband’s talents, and that’s where her identity problem resurfaced. In Los Angeles, far from the circles she frequented in Montreal, Hannah was drawn to the Jewish community, and, as time went on, involved in its leadership. Then, as her children grew and moved back to Montreal, she became increasingly active in the L.A. Jewish community and contributed generously to many Jewish charities.

However, she never attended synagogue services. Never. Nor, as a non-practicing Catholic, did she attend Catholic, or indeed, any kind of religious services. She was vocal, though, against Israel’s “policies,” and thus relieved her guilt and ambivalence towards her Jewish antecedence by her attitude towards Israel (which she eventually visited with a church group). But, despite her anti-religious, anti-Israel posture, there was no doubt about it: she was magnetically drawn to the Jewish community. It was there that she felt most at home.

Yet there was another side to the coin. Whenever she returned to Montreal for a visit with her children and friends, she immediately reverted to her French Catholic past life and associations, although she did not attend Catholic services there either. But she always felt guilty – wherever she was. She felt guilty in Montreal because she was hiding her Jewishness, and she felt guilty in Los Angeles because she was hiding her Catholicism.

* * * *

A Double Life:

When I met Hannah in Los Angeles some twenty years ago, she was a widow. No more Catholic husband to complicate things. Her children were far away. I assumed that she was Jewish because of her activities in Jewish organizations, but, as our friendship grew, she confided to me how tortured she felt about her identity.

“I feel like such a hypocrite,” she said. “When I am in Los Angeles, I lead a Jewish life. I have Jewish friends. I belong – and lead – Jewish organizations. But when I am in Montreal with my children and grandchildren, I live as a Catholic.”

She was leading a double life – a tale of two religions, two cultures – in terms of her identity, yet she denied being “religious.” She was secular, she would insist. So her religious orientation didn’t matter. Nor she did not follow Jewish religious practice in secret, as the Marranos (victims of the Spanish inquisition in the late 1400s and 1500s) once did.

“There are many paths to God, “I would suggest, not as a rabbi but as a friend. “For you, there was a fork in the road, and the path you took was chosen for you by someone else. Since you travel both paths, why not enjoy the best of each of them and learn from each of them. But you know, Hannah, eventually you will have to decide for yourself, to make a choice.”

Still, as she grew older, Hannah became increasingly uneasy about her identity, secular though she proclaimed it to be. “Sometimes I miss the rituals and pageantry of the Catholic Mass,” she would say wistfully. “Sometimes I dream about them. My grandchildren are Catholic.” Yet she still resisted going to services of any kind. Not Jewish, not Catholic.

When she decided to move from her apartment to an Assisted Living facility, she gave away many of her possessions to charitable organizations, and she also gave some lovely things to her children and friends, including me. Wanting to reciprocate, I thought long and hard before I decided what I could give to her in return, something small that she could take with her to her new home. She already had everything material anyone could want. What didn’t she have? Peace of mind.

When I lived in Canada, I owned an art and antique gallery for a number of years, and among the antique jewelry I had retained when I closed the gallery was a beautiful, large, antique cross, dating from the 1850s. Silver on gold (as was often done in those days) and ornamented with little diamonds, it hung from a silver chain.

I had already donated the Jewish ritual items I owned to a local Judaica museum, but the curator didn’t want the cross. Now, many years later, I decided to gift it to Hannah, who was already well settled in the Assisted Living facility but still breathing at night with the help of an oxygen tank. “This is for you Hannah,” I said. “Your father wanted you to be protected. When you wear it, you’ll be doing what your father wanted.”

“There is always anti-Semitism,” she replied, tears welling up in her eyes. “It never goes away.” Immediately, she put the cross around her neck and smiled joyfully. She has been wearing it underneath her clothing ever since.

“Now you have decided for yourself,” I said. “There is comfort in that. God’s world is for everyone.”

With a failing heart, in fear, she had chosen her path, like the hidden Jews who still live in New Mexico and elsewhere as Catholics, secreting their true Jewish identity 500 years after the Spanish Inquisition in fear of a persecution-to-come. But in Hannah’s case, it was a cross, not a Jewish star, that she wore under her clothing, next to the heart.

In Hebrew, the word for heart is “lev.” The heart’s beating is connected to the pulse of our being. And to our minds. The heart always knows.

“What the heart is to the body, the Jewish people are to the world,” wrote the famous poet Judah Halevi [4]. It is a heart that has continued beating for thousands of years.

* * * *

[1] Teshuva refers to Repentance. In order to completely repent, you must first make restitution to the injured party or parties, and then sufficiently repent so that when a similar circumstance occurs, you act differently.

[2] Mishna Torah, Bk. 1., Ch. 10:6. In Isadore Twersky, ed. A Maimonides Reader, 85.

[3] “Highly regarded as a scholar, he was presented with many questions about Jewish law amidst the hardships of ghetto life. Rabbi Oshry wrote the questions and answers on scraps of paper torn from sacks of concrete, placed these notes in tin cans, and then buried them. These questions reflect the dilemmas faced by Jews in the Holocaust and serve as an historic record of how the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto were determined to live by Jewish law despite the inhuman, horrifying conditions. After the liberation of Kovno in August, 1944, Rabbi Oshry retrieved the hidden archive and published five volumes of responsa.”

http://www.ou.org/jewish_action/04/2013/responsa_from_the_holocaust, March 31, 2014).

[4] www.rabbiwein.com/Kuzari.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.