A Refugee’s Daughter Returns Home

And it feels like the middle of nowhere.

My father’s hometown is nestled among the hills near the Slovakian border.

As we wound our way through the countryside, I felt like we were heading into the middle of nowhere. Even in this age of the Internet and globalization, I still felt so far away from everything else. As we inched closer to the Czech town of Brumov-Bylnice, I couldn’t help but think, “How the hell did my dad get the idea to leave this little corner of the world?” Even Prague was five hours away by train.

Escape from Czechoslovakia

My father left Czechoslovakia in 1966 when he was 19 years old. This was two years before travel restrictions would be temporarily relaxed during Prague Spring, so he had to think of another way to get out of the communist country. Though border controls were strict at the time, he managed to get on a tourist bus to neighbouring Austria with the promise he would return, of course. But when that time came, he was nowhere to be found and the others had no choice but to make the return journey without him.

Knowing the bus was long gone, he walked into the local police station and requested political asylum.

That was just the start of a journey that would take him to the Traiskirchen refugee camp, then to Vienna and finally to Canada. With the Iron Curtain still firmly shut on Eastern Europe, it would be another two decades before my father would return to Czechoslovakia. In the meantime, he met and married my mother, a Japanese woman who was also in Vancouver to satisfy an adventurous spirit.

Enter JapaCzech

This is where his story takes a pause and mine begins. My parents raised me to be proud of my multicultural heritage, and I was raised with a mishmash of both my parents’ traditions. I spoke Japanese with my mother, and while my Czech never really moved past the basic listening comprehension stage, I enthusiastically sang along to the my father’s old world lullabies. In the kitchen, we were doing fusion long before it was cool – eating goulash and dumplings with a side of homemade sushi rolls. As much as they could, my parents tried to cultivate our family ties, though it was much easier for us to travel to Japan than to Czechoslovakia at that time.

In the late ‘80s the political climate had thawed enough for us to comfortably travel there as a family. Even as a child, I was well aware of the differences between my home and this Eastern Bloc country still stuck in time. My parents had stocked up on gifts of items that were not yet available locally, and I got a kick out of my dad handing out Hubba Bubba gum, AC/DC cassette tapes and branded t-shirts to all the neighbourhood kids from the trunk of our rental car like some New York City hawker. I would find out years later from a family friend that my dad had also mailed them treats like a Bruce Springsteen tape and Walkman, which they had to keep under wraps from their friends at school to avoid seeming subversive.

In the years following that first visit, I travelled back with my family two more times during which communism fell and the country split into two. Then… nothing. Life happened, as it does to everyone in their twenties, and thoughts of the Czech Republic were inadvertently pushed from my mind. I was busy with university, travel to other far-flung places and then with the start of my first real job. It wasn’t until getting married that I felt the pull of my ancestral homeland once again.

A Visit After 20 Years

As we arrived in Brumov-Bylnice in the car driven by my friend (and recipient of the aforementioned tape and Walkman), I was on high alert for the only landmark I could remember: my babicka’s house. For 20 years, I had kept the memory of my father’s childhood home and surroundings alive in my mind. I was certain I could find my cousin’s home, which was built right beside it. Although the colour of the house had changed from a teracotta yellow to a matte cherry red, I was able to point it out right away. We knocked on the door and, after the initial shock of not having seen each other for two decades, were welcomed in and celebrated with round upon round of slivovice.

The rest of the day was a jet lag-induced blur of reuniting with more family members, going on a walking tour of the quaint town and seeing my grandparents’ graves at the cemetery beside the church on the hill. I was just so happy to be walking arm-in-arm with the uncle I never really got to know before. At his and my aunt’s insistence, we spent the night at their apartment, despite them not speaking any English and us not speaking any Czech. But this slight inconvenience was mitigated by body gestures, Google translate, more plum brandy and knowing that it didn’t really matter anyway. After all, we were together and I had returned home.

So You Wanna Convert? 8 Steps to Becoming Jewish

It’s as easy as one, two… eight!

I was gifted this beautiful challah cover upon my conversion.

As a new-ish JBC (Jew By Choice), my mikvah is still fresh in my mind. The warmth of the water as I walked the seven steps down. The accomplishment I felt after my final immersion. The excitement of everyone singing Siman Tov (it really gets going at 0:40) on the other side of the door…

I can say with 100% certainty I had a wonderful conversion experience. Although my parents seemed a little uncertain at times (due to this being a new experience for all of us), I had their support as well as the support of my now-husband, his family and my synagogue. But my experience is far from typical and it isn’t always a seamless experience. Conversion can be challenging for people who don’t have a lot of guidance, may still be tied to their former beliefs or feel pressured to convert.

There’s no cookie-cutter conversion journey but these steps might help you think about whether conversion is the next step in your life.

1. Make this decision for YOU. Don’t allow anyone to coerce you into conversion. It is extremely personal and has to come from deep within. Ask your yourself why you want to become Jewish. Is it only because you feel you have to do so to get married? Can you imagine a Jewish identity separate from your partner? No engaged woman wants to think about the end of her marriage, but I had to ask myself if I was prepared to continue living Jewishly should I ever separate from my husband.

2. Meet with rabbis in your community. If it’s not obvious which stream of Judaism you want to follow, meet with different rabbis. I treated it a little like a job interview in which they were not only checking me out but I was doing the same to them. Which rabbi excites you? Are they someone you trust and respect? The rabbi will likely play an important role in your family’s life cycle events so you want to make sure they’re someone you want to have around.

3. Choose your synagogue. This isn’t necessarily tied to the above step, especially if there are different options of the various streams in your area (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.). You may be influenced by the stream your partner grew up with or by the values that are important to you. Though my husband grew up Conservative, we got a good feeling from the Reform rabbi after attending the synagogue’s A Taste of Judaism information session and decided to stay on with him. It was a new experience for the both of us to share.

4. Sign up for a Jewish Information Class (conversion course). This will likely be a requirement for conversion at your synagogue. The timeline may differ but fall to spring is typical. My class was once a week for two and a half hours. One hour was devoted to learning how to read biblical Hebrew (in order to follow along in the prayer book) and the rest was devoted to Jewish religion, history and everyday life. My husband was required to attend, which was helpful to me because I could ask him to expand on things we had learned, and it felt like we were doing this together.

5. Live Jewishly. This means observing Shabbat, attending services and taking part in holidays. I had my husband to guide me but there are a number of different resources including your rabbi, fellow congregants, books and Jewish websites. Start small and add to your Jewish way of living. Light Shabbat candles and nosh on some challah. Challenge yourself the next week to make a completely kosher meal.

6. Study, study, study. As part of my Jewish Information Class, I was required to read up on a variety of topics, practice reading Hebrew and write a weekly journal entry. It may be surprising how many people in your Jewish social circle don’t actually know too much about the history of the Jewish people or the stories in the Torah, so reading on your own or attending Torah study at your synagogue might be ways to fill in the blanks.

7. Prepare your family. “Becoming Jewish” may be very abstract to your family. They hear you saying it and they know you are taking classes but it still might not feel real to them. Tell them why you’ve made this decision and why it’s important to you. Invite them to ask questions about your decision and what it means to be Jewish. Invite them to have Shabbat dinner with you or take part in your mikvah (ritual bath) celebration.

8. Set a date for your mikvah. This is the last step in your conversion. Before you do the mikvah you will be required to sit in front of a beit din, a which is a panel of rabbis (usually three) that will ask you questions about your conversion journey. Don’t be concerned about trick questions. They want to see you succeed in becoming Jewish. They only want to make sure you have come to this important decision on your own and that you have every intention of living a Jewish life.

Everyone’s conversion journey is different. As long as you believe in what you’re doing, you are making the best decision for you.

While I like to jokingly remind my husband that my life was perfectly fine before I became Jewish, the journey to conversion (and beyond) has brought us closer together. It has also made me part of an active community and allowed me to tap into a spiritual side that I never knew I had before. In Judaism, I have found love on so many levels.

What do you remember most about your conversion journey? Please post below!