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How being called a heretic made me a Jew

At age 9 she set out on a spiritual quest that was at once the same as and at odds with her mother's own journey
The author, and her mother, at her 2003 wedding in Jerusalem (Courtesy)
The author, and her mother, at her 2003 wedding in Jerusalem (Courtesy)

I was nine the first time I was called a heretic. And, to be honest, I really was.

After a particularly arduous Sunday school class, in which a dybbuk had filled my pre-teen soul, the harried volunteer teacher phoned up my mother and told her I was a bad influence on the class.

Like all mothers, she took it well.

“Amanda…. Elizabeth… come here right now!” yelled my professional singer mother from the third story of our narrow, near-Vancouver townhouse.

Since at that time I was known as Mandy, the full weight of her displeasure was signified in her use of Amanda (after a beloved great aunt on my mother’s side) and my middle name, Elizabeth, (after Elizabeth Seton, a strong female leader who converted to Catholicism and was the first canonized American).

My crime? I had blithely told the class that day that I didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, heaping on the sins, I told them I thought all of us were God’s children and that the Messiah probably hadn’t even come yet — seeing as the world was the way it was. (A bit precocious, I admit, but it was the height of the Cold War nuclear weapons race, when my schoolmates and I would drill warhead preparedness by diving to cower under our desks while the principal manned his stopwatch.)

Really, my heresy was nothing new. For years I’d rebelled when forced to go to church. Aside from the sheer boredom, in retrospect I think a lot of my angst came from a decisive aversion to the pungent incense. This was an old school Catholic church where white robed altar boys (note: not altar girls) swung smokey incense while following the priest down the aisle.

Mom Audrey Leonard Borschel and me in August 2009. (Ingrid Bellman)
Mom Audrey Leonard Borschel and me in August 2009. (Ingrid Bellman)

When pressed by my parents, I confessed that the whole Jesus thing just didn’t ring true to me — from his virgin birth to rising from the dead.

My dad, the most open-minded confirmed skeptic around, was raised under a variety of my spiritual-seeker grandmother’s religions-of-the-week. He suggested that instead of continuing in the Sunday school class with that teacher, maybe I could go to the library with him and read about religions on my own.

And so I read my dad’s copy of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” which deeply affected me — in as much as a tale of complete asceticism could reach a naturally hedonistic nine year old. (Buddhism, alas, was not the answer for me.) I found and devoured other books at home, including the dog-eared paperback Children’s Old and New Testaments we had hanging around.

That overwhelming WHOOOM!

Eventually, we did go to the local library. There we discovered an anthology of comparative religions in which I read about people from around the globe and their faiths: different sects of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and then…

I flipped to the chapter on Judaism, illustrated by a menorah. I remember beginning to read and feeling this overwhelming WHOOOM!

I read about an amorphous one God and the plethora of Jewish religious expressions. I learned about the holidays, including the Christmas-trumping eight days of Hanukkah. And I recognized in myself my need for Jewish peoplehood. For a girl growing up far away from my almost unknown relatives, being part of a big fat global Jewish family sounded like a really great deal.

I turned to my dad and said, “This! This is it!”

Knowledgeable about world religions, he said, “Well, you know, according to halacha, you are Jewish.”

I didn’t understand what he was saying. What is this word “halacha”? What does he mean, I’m Jewish? What is Jewish?

He explained, my mother was born a Jew, her parents, brother and most of her family were Jews. But when she was 18, she had decided to become Catholic, leave the East Coast and move to California to start anew. However, he said, according to the Jewish law, halacha, I was Jewish because according to this same set of laws, she was still Jewish too.

That’s logic that maybe only a nine year old could understand. So perhaps it was the dybbuk still in me, but I decided on that day, I was a Jew.

Today a woman of 40 living in Israel, a grown up (who only eats peanut butter from the jar when no one is looking) and mother of six, I look back at my nine-year-old self and am awed by my recognition of that little Jewish spark. And even more so by my parents’ initial willingness to let me blaze my own trail.

However, the road to Judaism soon turned bumpy on the homefront. My mother, crushed that her only daughter was repudiating her religion of choice, exercised her parental prerogative. It was agreed in a unanimous vote of one, that I would finish the Catholic church’s life-cycle events up through confirmation.

Ironically, for my mother, a Reform Jewish confirmation at 16 in her Long Island temple was one of the last Jewish ceremonies she attended — until my wedding in Jerusalem, of course.

But by the time of my marriage to a sabra in 2003, I was an Israeli citizen and had lived as a Jew for most of my life. And she was an ordained minister with the Disciples of Christ church.

The ‘replacement child’

Born Audrey Ellen Zimmerman in New York City in December 1945, my mother grew up in a culturally Jewish home in which the synagogue was more a social venue than a house of worship.

Grandpa and Grandma Zimmerman (courtesy)
Grandpa and Grandma Zimmerman (courtesy)

My grandparents had a loveless marriage following the death of their second child. Mom always said she was a “replacement child” for a vivacious three-year-old who died of a now easily cured infection during World War II. She grew up with the feeling that she didn’t measure up to the gentle girl’s memory, which was ever-present. Her brother, ten years older, was out of the house by the time my mother was in first grade. He married young and had children of his own by the time she was in high school.

Hers was not the loving household I grew up in. My air-kissing, gem-stone-wearing maternal grandmother came from a privileged German-Jewish family. She was an accomplished pianist and a homemaker who was known for her signature dish: chicken cooked in butter. But on a day-to-day basis, the hired help did the cooking — and the childrearing.

My clothing salesman grandfather was a self-made man. A real storyteller, he loved being with children and in his retirement in Florida, often volunteered for Big Brothers. He was a vibrant, colorful individual; a devote of bright turquoise and silk pocket handkerchiefs.

Unfortunately, his unending quarrel with my grandmother — punctuated with exasperated nasal New Yorker exclamations of “Lu!” and “Leonard!” — created an unpleasantly tense atmosphere during their rare visits. (Only after his death when I was 13 did I have a real conversation with my grandmother, which was, if I recall, about how eating half a muffin can be as satisfying as a whole.)

My mother Audrey Leonard Borschel shortly after my birth in 1975. (courtesy)
My mother Audrey Leonard Borschel shortly after my birth in 1975. (courtesy)

Family lore has it that my mother became interested in Christianity after an interfaith weekend meet-up of Jewish and Catholic high school youth where she met a dashing young man. (Before meeting my father, she left her vocal studies at Juilliard, where young Itzhak Perlman was the class clown, and followed a Catholic boyfriend to LA. They quickly broke up.)

Aside from a warm relationship with an aunt, who lived down the road from my grandparents in Woodmere, Long Island, her home life was rather lonely. She told me once that at friends’ houses, she had seen attractive models of large, warm, functional Catholic families, and had longed to be a part of them.

She converted to Catholicism in New York City at age 18. She told me once that afterward her uncle, the husband of her beloved aunt, dramatically told her she was dead to him upon hearing the news.

She made a new life for herself in the music school at Cal State LA, where she met my clarinetist father, who to this day is against the ills of organized religion (but not the personal practice of it). They decided to marry in a music-filled non-denominational Christian ceremony and raise any future children in her faith.

And so, at age 10, after our move to Indianapolis, I was again placed into Catholic Sunday school. There I found new power in the knowledge gleaned from my independent readings — and I really kicked ass at Bible Trivia.

Who is a Jew?

Fast-forward to age 13, and while I had been impatiently — and impetuously — explaining to one and all that I was Jewish and would be Jewish once I got this whole confirmation thing over, I went through the motions.

The writer, then known as Amanda Elizabeth Borschel, with Eighties hair, glasses and retainer -- and the silver crucifix given to her by her mother. (courtesy)
The writer, then known as Amanda Elizabeth Borschel, with Eighties hair, glasses and retainer — and the silver crucifix given to her by her mother. (courtesy)

The big day approached and I shyly asked my long-time violin teacher Becky to be my godmother. As for my saint’s name, I chose Etheldreda, the miracle-working twice-married virgin princess, queen, and abbess. (Also the Anglo-Saxon origin of my mother’s name, Audrey, and, interestingly, the word “tawdry.”)

Dressed in a long creamy lace Jessica McClintock gown with my hair chastely braided and my silver crucifix around my neck (a gift from my mother), I stood with Becky before the bishop in the Indianapolis cathedral. And as with each young candidate, before drawing an ash cross in the middle of my pimpled forehead, he asked me for my saint’s name. Then asked me to repeat it. And again.

Done with my Catholic obligation (after a few months of contemplating becoming a nun, since it wasn’t going so well with the boys anyway), I soon donned a silver Star of David and turned to my Jewish friends.

The one Orthodox Jewish boy in my high school orchestra taught me the Hebrew alphabet (and several Hebrew curse words). I asked him to confirm with his rabbi that I was indeed Jewish. After consulting, he assured me I was.

So I watched “Fiddler on the Roof” and began to celebrate holidays with friends: Passover seders with several interfaith families and Yom Kippur a few times with one friend, in which we virtuously only broke our fasts with “Jewish” food like bagels. (Much later, a stoner classmate took me to Torah study at the big Reform temple on Saturday mornings  — after wafts of another kind of incense first.)

By age 14, my paternal grandmother had come from California to live near us for a spell in Indianapolis. Interestingly, her other son, my uncle, had converted to Judaism a few years before, ahead of his marriage to a Jewish woman. Having quite thoroughly investigated faiths herself — from the Methodist she knew as a girl in Iowa, to several decades as a Christian Scientist, to Sai Baba in LA — she was very supportive of my religious expression. When I enrolled in the huge Indianapolis Reform temple’s Introduction to Judaism class, she often brought me there.

My interview with the Reform rabbi did not go well, however. Approximately my parents’ age, he wasn’t sure what to do with me and definitely wasn’t keen on going against my mother’s wishes.

Significantly, the rabbi delivered a real blow in telling me that for Reform Jews, who do not adhere to halacha, I was not Jewish since I wasn’t raised as one and would have to formally convert.

Oy. Va’avoy.

He said, however, that with my parents’ permission I could continue in the Intro to Judaism class, which was designed for adults interested in conversion.

Judaism for Dummies

Today it is intriguing to me that in the huge stack of books for the course, a large proportion dealt with the Holocaust. I read Elie Weisel’s “Night” and “Day,” and a half dozen other titles I cannot recall, and was left with the feeling that this is the cornerstone of Jewish identity.

There was also a Judaism for Dummies-type text, which I found very instructive and frequently referenced when trying to observe holidays. I purchased a Hebrew prayer book from a used bookstore and I was on my way.

But I was terribly conflicted. Not realizing that the question of “Who is a Jew” would be part and parcel of my future everyday working adult life as a journalist for Jewish media, I needed to find out right then — was I or wasn’t I Jewish?

I turned to the Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue, which was walking distance from my home and run by a lovely husband and wife rabbi couple who were likewise my parents’ age.

They explained that yes, according to halacha, I am Jewish. But since I wasn’t raised Jewish, it could be that to resolve my status I should complete some kind of conversion-esque ceremony. In the meantime, why don’t I just come to services and learn how to pray as a Jew?

Mom, aka Audrey Leonard Borschel, in the role of the high priestess in a stadium-filling touring production of 'Aida.' (courtesy)
Mom, aka Audrey Leonard Borschel, in the role of the high priestess in a stadium-filling touring production of ‘Aida.’ (courtesy)

I went to their synagogue off and on throughout high school, until following in my parents’ footsteps and enrolling in music school at Indiana University in Bloomington as a double voice and violin performance major.

My mother was my voice teacher in high school and it should be said that, aside from hormone-driven spats, we always had a very good relationship. We would talk for hours about everything except religion, for when it was brought up — or shoved in her face — her emotional side would take over and she’d dramatically exclaim, “What are you trying to do, drive daggers into my heart?!”

She wasn’t an observant Catholic at this point, and although her spirituality was always in the background, she really only attended church sporadically and on holidays. At home she was “the Diva,” primarily a performer, but also a composer and a teacher. She was an artist and called herself “a free spirit.”

However, with the severing of my older brother’s life, all of us were irrevocably changed and her focus permanently shifted.

Not the natural order

My brother Nick died 20 years ago this August from melanoma. He was only 22 and had been stationed in Korea with the US Army. It was a surreal situation: my fit soldier brother went from maxing his physical fitness evaluations in March, to hospitalization in mid-June. By July 21 he was medically retired from the military at 100% disability. He returned home to Indianapolis on July 29 and died on August 16.

In anguished shock, my father told me then, “This is not the natural order. A parent should die first.”

Nick celebrating in style at his 1991 high school graduation. (courtesy)
Nick celebrating in style at his 1991 high school graduation. (courtesy)

When Nick finally came home, a hospital bed was put into my old room on the ground floor and he died there with my parents and oldest brother by his side. He’s buried in a military cemetery in Indiana, among rows of brothers at arms.

My father, in a letter to a soldier who served with Nick in Korea, wrote about six months following his death: “One is confronted with the ultimate questions with profoundest imponderables. We believe Nick is in a better place and is experiencing perfect health, etc. He taught us an incredible amount about courage, fortitude, masculinity, acceptance, determination and Grace… I am left with absolute knowledge that we all will die, but most won’t do it with the style Nick exemplified, I’m sure.”

This letter fell out of a journal my mother kept, one of a series, beginning in January 1995. She had just turned 49 and was anticipating entering a new decade of her life with this new blank book on the New Year.

“I am thinking that a year filled with adventure, productivity and fun will prevent negative anticipation of turning fifty years old next December 11th. This journal, then, is to be my statement of living a happy journey to the half century mark.”

Mom in her very early 50s in a trip to my Bloomington apartment. (courtesy)
Mom in her very early 50s in a trip to my Bloomington apartment. (courtesy)

She writes of wanting to lose 15 pounds, of paying my Bursar bill “sure hope she gets her stuff together,” of my oldest brother running out of gas when picking up his girlfriend from the airport — “We all do that a couple of times!”

Before her death in April 2014 after nine years of fighting breast cancer, my mother and I had discussed finally writing a book together about our own journeys — hers from Judaism, and mine towards. Her brain tumors, however, got her before we could get it off the ground and these journals were given to me by my father so I may continue that project.

Reading them is an amazing opportunity to open up the lid on my mother’s mind and see how she, then only a decade older than I am today, felt as she lost her child, and found her faith.

Seeing the world through Mom’s eyes

In that first journal, a hard-cover blank book adorned by Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” I also found her mundane events, and versions of my life’s episodes, including when my ex-Mormon long-haired drug dealer boyfriend dumps me.

“I said I experienced a breakup as a senior and she was just a little behind me, but that we all usually have to go through it before we find the right person. I hope that was the right stuff to say and that she’ll be all right.”

This was during one of the lowest points in my life. Suffering from tendonitis in both hands and a malignant lack of purpose, I had dropped out of music school, and spiraled into a deep, drug-filled depression.

As my mom put it, “While I’d prefer her to be independent, I think she needs supervision. She’s gained a lot of weight and she’s got green hair. I wish she could find her center and work with her spiritual side.”

During this time I had a pretty heavy pot habit, which alongside all the pharmaceuticals my prescription-happy psychiatrist gave me, had me, well, pretty fucked up. There is a lot that I simply don’t remember.

She records that I attended a narcotics anonymous meeting and “felt the people were too old and that you had to believe in God.” She writes, “I asked her what the problem was and she wasn’t sure about the God part. I think she’s misunderstanding a religious influence for a belief in a Supreme Being concept. Maybe that is because she is the center of her universe and feels she is the Supreme Being!”

Ouch, but true.

However, by June 12, my mother writes about hearing from Nick, who told her he had been “troubled for a few weeks with headaches and nausea and is on sick call. Hopefully they’ll run tests because he doesn’t seem to be able to function. He’s received orders to go to Washington state in August.”

By the next day he was taken to Seoul and then evacuated to Hawaii for further testing on masses that were found in his brain and chest. By June 18 my parents had flown out to Hawaii to be with him.

Mom writes of a prophetic dream she had on June 20: “I woke up after dreaming that Mike and I were holding Nick in his bed and that he was hot and smaller. Needless to say, night was over and I had a good cry… I’ve got to keep myself together for Nick’s sake, and Mike’s.”

Only on July 14 did the family learn Nick’s true diagnosis of melanoma and his very poor prognosis. “Only a combination of Nick’s bulldog spirit and a miracle will help now,” she writes. After a close call in which he almost died after a seizure, they put together a notarized power of attorney and signed a DNR — a do not resuscitate order.

In her writing during this nightmare, she determinedly steers herself away from despair. “Living one day at a time makes us so much more aware of each moment and the value of everything we do. What a lesson we’re all learning.”

On August 17, a day after my brother’s death, our mother writes with resigned restraint, “About 11:45 his breathing slowed and his heart stopped. It was so peaceful. He wasn’t in pain — no violent event to hurt him. He died with great dignity… Nick showed such courage.”

Wrapped in Jesus’s hug

As a family of musicians, we all participated in Nick’s funeral mass. My mother and I harmonized on two psalm settings, my father and oldest brother did readings, my little brother and grandmother read other prayers. “The liturgy was as beautiful as we could make it.” There was a military detail, complete with 21 gun salute and flag ceremony.

My mother’s priest spoke with her about avoiding bitterness, and instead growing in faith. “I feel I have no choice. Father astutely said I need to grow bigger, versus bitter.”

She writes that she feels an enormous pull to go to mass. “Growing nearer to sacramental life will no doubt be healing and comforting.”

A page from the 1995 diary of Audrey Leonard Borschel. (courtesy)
A page from the 1995 diary of Audrey Leonard Borschel. (courtesy)

And my mother began turning towards her faith. At first gradually, and then as a full-time preoccupation.

Kept up all night by grief, by September 6 she writes, “I feel a strong pull toward more fuller participation. I don’t know what direction that will take.” She discusses doing a theology degree, or starting an Indianapolis Catholic children’s choir. “So far I have sketches begun for about 5 songs for an album titled, ‘Out of the Depths.’ If I can’t sleep nights, the music may get done more quickly!”

By the end of September she is deeply involved in her spirituality and describes a conversion of sorts that comforts her: “One of the things that became very clear was that the funeral mass was the point where I was enveloped by the Holy Spirit, protected or insulated against the grief that could destroy. It’s hard to articulate, but I’m awed by that Presence that is with me constantly, transforming me into something, taking me on a special journey that will be joyous. I’m not sure what to make of it all, but the signs have been there of God answering my prayers for strength, to do His will — to know what that will is.”

Mom with Grandma Lucille Zimmerman in her Winter Park, Florida home. (courtesy)
Mom with Grandma Lucille Zimmerman in her Winter Park, Florida home. (courtesy)

Through the guidance of her new spiritual director, in October of that year, Mom bonded with her mother over their mutual loss of children, and told her she loved her. My grandmother told my mom she loved her too, and they began a new, much closer relationship, which lasted until my grandmother’s death several years later.

At the same time, my life was getting back on track. While working fulltime at a hippie-dippie food coop in Bloomington, Indiana, I finished a degree in Jewish Studies and History. After hearing a brilliant lecture on Talmud in my final semester, I decided studying classical Jewish texts in Israel should be my next step. For although I was still not a religiously observant person, I wanted to be literate.

The draw to connecting with the Jewish peoplehood had never subsided and at 24, I was both ready for an adventure and thinking about putting down roots. Israel beckoned.

On intimate terms with the Interior Decorator

Until her death almost 20 years later, that initial experience of God’s envelopment never left my mother. She writes on December 2 of physically feeling God’s love.

“I kind of expected that the actual physical separation of a hug or embrace could be temporary, but I find myself so deeply grateful for this sign of God’s presence that all I could do during communion time today was to say I love You over and over.”

In that first journal, one of many in which she charted her spiritual journey, she closes her final entry on December 31 with: “I feel like a dwelling that’s been gutted to the bare frame and is in the process of being redesigned. While I am on intimate terms with the Interior Decorator, I’m not sure how it will all turn out. Guess I’ll go on trust and faith!”

Today I read her words and know that for my mother, this comfort, this personal relationship with an ever-present God was her epiphany that led her to ministry.

Planting the ill-fated carob tree I called Honi in the Jerusalem Forest in 2000. (courtesy)
Planting the ill-fated carob tree I called Honi in the Jerusalem Forest in 2000. (courtesy)

For me, my second WHOOOM moment came within a few months of my arrival in Jerusalem. One Friday afternoon I decided to tour the Mount Herzl cemetery and pay my respects to Israel’s founding fathers.

Still fresh off the boat, I hadn’t realized the tourist site was also the military cemetery. A little taken aback, I saw the rows and rows of well-tended graves of soldiers who were probably not so different from my brother, but had fallen in service to this country.

The sun beat down as I thought. This is the ultimate test. Am I willing to give up my future husband, my future children, in the fight for the Jewish State?  I had seen how my brother died. It is better to die with purpose, I decided then. (And reaffirm today, after seeing my mother’s slow death, again from cursed cancer.)

When I broke the news of my decision to stay in Israel to my parents, we had an impassioned, tearful conversation. For their first trip here, I had planned a busy tour of the country’s Christian sites and this heart-to-heart was during a rare lull. My dad told me that he and my mom just couldn’t bear the thought of losing another child. I sat on his lap, hugging him and we all cried.

Soon after, at my request, my future husband gifted me with a carob tree, which I planted in the Jerusalem forest in honor of a Talmudic tale of Honi the circle maker. For weeks I brought it bottles of water so it would take root. And then — avoy! — on Lag BaOmer, it was brutally snapped and used as kindling in one of the traditional bonfires that dot the forest. Such chutzpah.

But we made our roots with living trees. Our six children, born in a span of 8.5 years, are today literate secular Jews, learning Bible and halacha alongside math, literature and, of course, music in their integrated religious-secular school.

A vessel, full of faith, and ready to serve

My mother was no saint, but flesh and blood. She farted, she laughed, she was real.

We had our differences and often quickly got on each others’ nerves when at close quarters. The ocean between us was actually good for our relationship because at the heart of it, our distilled essences — a Christian minister and a secular Jew — were at times inconvenient for both of us as we made our own new paths.

The Rev. Dr. Audrey Leonard Borschel preaching on an online ministry she helped found, called DisciplesNet. (courtesy)
The Rev. Dr. Audrey Leonard Borschel preaching on an online ministry she helped found, called DisciplesNet. (courtesy)

The message of her life, however, is inescapably optimistic. It is the evolution of a once rather egotistical performer into a vessel, full of faith, and ready to serve. A true feminist, she found that she couldn’t fulfill her mission through the Catholic church in her destined vocation as a minister. She chose the Disciples of Christ, an Indiana-based politically liberal Protestant church, as her new spiritual home.

And even while ministering to the flock who chose her as their shepherd, she made herself available to be a grandma to her six Israeli grandchildren, and flew in for most of their births.

Until her final illness, we talked endlessly on the phone, about big stuff and life’s minutiae, but not about faith. As much as she couldn’t fathom my need for secular Judaism, till today I cannot fully grasp her relationship with the divine.

But by the end, there was respect. And there always was love.

About the Author
Amanda Borschel-Dan lives in Israel, where she and her husband are raising their six always hungry children. She is The Times of Israel's Jewish Times editor.
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