Shelly Sanders

Seven Days Until Israel

Nana, my mother, sister, and me, in Chicago, 1973
Nana, my mother, sister, and me, in Chicago, 1973

In seven days, I will arrive in Israel, along with hundreds of Jewish mothers from all over the world. It’s a Momentum Trip, organized by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which has brought more than 7,000 women to Israel since 2009. This will be my first visit to this small, divisive, powerful, and innovative country, and the timing is perfect, as I just reclaimed my Judaism in April.

My path to Judaism has been more of an erratic freeway of collisions, rather than a long, winding road. And ironic because it’s been part of me all the time. In my blood, my DNA. It just took eighteen years until I found out, and another couple decades to reach out and embrace the faith that has been brewing within me since birth.

Growing up, two things were certain. First, I am named after my maternal grandmother, Rachel “Shelly” Talan Geary. If I’d known her history when I was a child, the incredible obstacles she’d faced and overcome, the enormity of being her namesake would have weighed me down, made me feel as if nothing I did could ever measure up to her achievements. To me, she was simply ‘Nana’, an older-looking version of my mother, who spoke with a strange accent, sent me postcards from exotic places like Trinidad and Barbados, called me ‘sweetie’, could eat an entire grapefruit at one sitting, and was a talented embroiderer.

I didn’t see Nana often; she and my grandfather ran a resort in Barbados. He died when I was four and the only memory I have is me sitting on his lap, feeling warm and safe. Nana came every year after that for Christmas; I have a handful of photos and am especially fond of one with me and my sister, my mother and Nana, three generations of women together for a moment that seemed insignificant then, yet is powerfully meaningful today.

The other thing I knew for sure: we were not religious. Christmas and Easter were secular, commercial holidays, laden with gifts and chocolate. We revered Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and knew next to nothing about the meaning behind these occasions; the only hints I gleaned were from singing Christmas songs in my school’s choir. Back then, there were no groups protesting the word, ‘Christmas’, being used at school.

My first induction to religion came when I was seven and living in Toronto. My best friend, Julie, announced that her sister had broken her arm. I asked if she had a cast. Julie said no, her sister wouldn’t be going to a doctor. God would heal her arm.

“How can God fix your sister’s arm?” I’d asked Julie.

“He just does. If we pray a lot.”

“But what if it doesn’t get better? Will she go to a doctor?”

“No.” Julie shook her head. “We don’t believe in doctors.”

“How can you say that? There are doctors everywhere. My whole family has a doctor.”

“We’re Christian Scientists. God will make us better when we’re sick.”

“If God can help people, why do we need doctors? Why don’t we all pray to God when we’re sick?”

“You have to be Christian Scientists for it to work,” she said.

“So, God won’t help my family?”

“No. You’re not Christian Scientists.”

Our conversation ended, but I worried that there was a God somewhere who would ignore me and my family if we were sick. It made me feel as if my family wasn’t important because we weren’t Christian Scientists.

I told my parents about Julie’s sister. My father grunted and said their family, and everyone else in that “crazy church ought to have their heads examined.” He had no time for religious people or churches or God. Years later, I’d see how the term ‘atheist’ fit him like a well-worn pair of jeans. My mother sighed and said she didn’t understand how a doctor interfered with religious beliefs, and that she knew plenty of church-going people who went to doctors.

The logic of my mother’s words bothered me for days. Why did some people who prayed to God not believe in doctors while others did? It took weeks for Julie’s sister to get better, and more than once, I told Julie to ask her parents take her to the doctor. Julie got mad and said that would be admitting they didn’t trust God, and that was when I realized I couldn’t be a Christian Scientist, because I thought a doctor could help a person more than a prayer.

A year later, we moved across the border to a small, predominantly white Chicago suburb, Rolling Meadows. There, I started to grasp the essence of Catholicism because of my friend Nora, who never missed a Sunday at church, and was the youngest of five children. With two older sisters, Nora happily educated me on subjects beyond appropriate for an eight year-old in the mid nineteen-seventies. Like birth control. One afternoon, when we were fishing for crayfish with our hands, in the creek near our houses, I asked Nora why her mother had five children and then complained about them whenever they were around.

“She didn’t exactly plan for all of us,” Nora explained. “There just wasn’t much she could do. We’re Catholic, you know.”

“What does that have to do with having children?” I said.

“She’s not allowed to stop from getting pregnant, because we’re Catholic and the church forbids it.”

“Forbids what?”

“Birth control. Don’t you know anything?”

“Guess not. You must learn things earlier here than we do in Canada.”

“There are pills you can take, and other stuff, to keep from having babies. That’s birth control.”

I wondered if my mother knew about this or if she was going to keep having babies. My sister was two and my mother had dark circles under her eyes every day. Seeing how loud and wild Nora’s family was, I was convinced three children were as many as my parents could handle.

“Why doesn’t your church let mothers take these pills?” I asked. “Are they dangerous?”

“I don’t really know,” said Nora. “You just can’t take them. That’s what my sisters told me, anyhow.”

“But what difference does it make to God, how many children people have?”

“There’s something in the bible telling us to procreate.”


“Have lots of babies.”

“Oh. But you could take the pills and not tell anyone,” I said.

“That wouldn’t work for us. We have to confess all the things we’ve done wrong to our priest.”

“What if you don’t want to confess? Or what if you haven’t done anything bad?”

“You don’t get a choice. Besides, we all do bad things.”

“It sounds hard, being Catholic. There are a lot of rules.”


Our conversation ended abruptly when I stepped on a rusty nail in the creek and had to walk home on one heel, to avoid pressure on the ball of my foot. My mother was so upset when she saw my foot, she didn’t even get mad until I’d had a Tetanus shot that hurt more than the nail. Then, she yelled at me for walking around the creek in my bare feet and told me I should know better. I wondered if this was the kind of thing Nora confessed to, even though it was an accident. I never intended to do bad things, sometimes they just happened.

Over the next several years, until I finished junior high in Rolling Meadows and moved back to Canada for high school, religion moved to the back burner, superseded by friends, boys, and a dark period of alcohol and drugs. It jumped front and center again during my final year of high school, when my mother blurted out: “Nana (her mother) was Jewish.”

I was speechless, a rarity for me. How could Nana have been Jewish without me knowing? She’d died when I was thirteen, yet had never mentioned this important fact. Neither had my mother, or anyone else for that matter. And it was obvious from my mother’s pinched expression she hadn’t meant to air Nana’s “dirty” secret.

“Why didn’t Nana tell me?” I asked my mother.

“She refused to talk about it. I didn’t even find out until I was twenty-four.”

“Why was it such a secret?”

“I don’t know.” My mother turned away from me, her not-so-subtle way of ending the conversation, and though I wanted to know more, I was off to university a month later. I put my questions aside for years, though I thought of Nana often, and wished I could have spoken to her about her secret, before she’d died.

It wasn’t until after my first child was born, that I began thinking about religion again. Looking at my baby girl, I knew I wanted her to have what I didn’t growing up, the chance to learn about the bible and to grow up within a spiritual community. What she decided to do when she was older was her decision, but I wanted to give her roots to broaden her world. Since I had no religious background, and my husband had been raised as a Christian, I agreed to raise our children in his faith.

Becoming a mother brought out a multitude of intense emotions I’d never expected; instead of getting a nanny and working full-time as planned, I wanted to stay home with my daughter which meant taking in children by day and writing freelance pieces at night. And I wanted to be able to tell her about her heritage when she was older. Since all four of my grandparents had long since passed, I sought out my great-Aunt Nucia, Nana’s older sister, in Montreal. In an odd twist of fate, she had outlived Nana by almost twenty years, though she’d smoked heavily most of her life.

A slim woman, with auburn hair arranged in a tidy bun, and almond-shaped eyes, milky from glaucoma, Nucia looked deceivingly frail. She was the most stubborn person I’d ever known (refusing to evacuate during a fire alarm in her apartment building), and held grudges for years. So I had to tread carefully, if I wanted to find out more about her childhood with Nana.

It took a few hours, and a couple of assurances, on my part that I was only going to share her information with family (At the time, I had no idea it would end up in a book. Honestly!), but Nucia eventually opened up and spoke wistfully about her childhood in Novosibirsk, Siberia, with Nana, their younger brother, Moses (Monia), and their parents. I recounted Nucia’s story when I faced a Beit Din last April, and was asked why I wanted to reclaim my Judaism.

I told the rabbis how Nana’s family had fled a pogrom in their village, how they’d taken the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia to Vladivostok, then boarded a steamer for Shanghai, because China accepted Jews without papers and without hesitation. Nana had finished school in Shanghai, and worked for a couple of years, before travelling, alone, to California where she attended Berkeley. She graduated in 1930, went back to Shanghai, and met my grandfather, there on business. They married and settled in Montreal, Canada, an anti-Semitic city with signs that read: “No blacks, No Jews, No dogs.”

Nana had my mother right before World War II, when Canada turned ships of European Jews, seeking refuge from Hitler, away. Most of these Jews perished in the Holocaust, as did Nana’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. While there was no way to know for certain, I was pretty sure Nana decided to hide her Judaism because of the hostile climate towards Jews worldwide.

Discovering Nana’s story marked the first step in my path to Judaism. The second step came when I began doing research for a book, inspired by my grandmother’s life (Rachel’s Secret, Second Story Press, 2012). I made two important discoveries: the Jewish religion and culture resonated deeply with me, and it was possible to become Jewish, even if you weren’t raised in the faith. As I learned about the Torah, the Midrashim (interpretive stories), the tenets, especially Tikkun Olam (repair the world), and the idea of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation during the High Holidays, I knew this was how I wanted to live the rest of my life. And I had the support of my brother’s wife, a Jew, raising their children in the faith, as well as my aunt, my mother’s sister, married to a Jew, who had also reclaimed her Judaism.

My conversation with Nucia, my childhood memories of dipping my toes into other religions, and my questions about Nana, swirled around in my head during my time at the mikvah.  On the third and final immersion. I stretched my arms out to my sides, and flapped them against the water, until the top of my head went under. And I was struck by the significance of this ritual. For the first time in my life, I would be embracing religion. I thought about Nana’s parents, who held onto their faith amidst the worst circumstances, and Nana’s cousins, aunts and uncles, who lost their lives because they were Jewish, and I was sad it took so long for me to unravel my family’s knotted history, and to discover my authentic self.

Unable to hold my breath any longer, I rose from the water, and prepared to say the final blessing that marks beginnings, thanking God for sustaining me and enabling me to reach this day: “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehigianu lazeman hazeh.”

I stepped out of the mikvah as a Jew, with my eyes wide open to the joys of learning and growing spiritually, and the challenges of being part of an inter-faith family. Becoming Jewish will not solve my problems, or make me immune to cancer, or even make grieving less painful. But I have a newfound peace, knowing I have the rest of my life to be Jewish, to share what I learn with my children, to ensure that their children know a little about their ancestry, and the sacrifices made that enabled them to be born.

My journey ended as ironically as it started. My Hebrew name is Rachel, in memory of Nana, who was named Rachel, but went by Shelly, the name I was given. I would love to be able to tell her that Judaism will continue within our family, but cannot. For there are no certainties. All I can promise is that I will do whatever I can to be a good Jew, to help make the world a better place. And I can’t think of a better place to start, than in Israel.

About the Author
Shelly Sanders is the Canadian author of the award winning Rachel Trilogy (Second Story Press), inspired by her grandmother's escape from a Russian pogrom. She is a Jewish Book Council Author, and has toured Canada and the U.S. with her books. Shelly was also a journalist for 20 years, with articles in the Toronto Star, Maclean's magazine, Canadian Living, and Reader's Digest. She is represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Lit, and is currently working on a novel about Rumbula, where some of her ancestors were killed.
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