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Canadian author tackles becoming Jewish again in her memoir 'Between Gods'

Author Alison Pick is seen in this undated handout photo. Canadian author tackles becoming Jewish again in her memoir 'Between Gods.' THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO - Random House, Emma Lee Photography

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Author Alison Pick is seen in this undated handout photo. Canadian author tackles becoming Jewish again in her memoir 'Between Gods.' THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO - Random House, Emma Lee Photography

TORONTO - When Canadian poet and novelist Alison Pick was 11, her classmate Jordan told her that she was Jewish.

"I remember having this instinctive fear and saying, 'No, I'm not,' while at the same time having an inkling that what he was saying was true," said Pick.

As far as Pick knew, both her parents were Christian — growing up in Kitchener, Ont., her family only celebrated Easter and Christmas. But what she discovered after prodding her parents for answers was that her paternal grandparents were in fact Jewish, escaping the former Czechoslovakia on the heels of Nazi occupation during the Second World War and masking their heritage with new Christian identities when they settled in Canada.

Feeling a pull to reclaim her lost culture in her 30s became the subject of her memoir, "Between Gods" (Doubleday Canada), due out on Tuesday.

When Pick first starting poking around the family tree as a teen, her father wasn't pleased.

"I remember those conversations being really charged," said Pick. "Not that he was angry with me, but that he was really anxious with me bringing it up."

It wasn't until two decades later that she really started to excavate her family history after relocating to Toronto and beginning research for her 2010 novel, "Far to Go." The book — which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won a Canadian Jewish Book Award — tells the story of a secular Jewish family escaping Czechoslovakia right before Nazi occupation.

"Even though 'Far to Go' is not an autobiographical novel at all in terms of the plot, it was thematically about what it means to be a Jew in a historical moment that my grandparents had lived," said Pick. "So I did delve into our family specifically and that was a big time of uncovering."

Shedding light on her family's buried history compelled Pick not only to learn more about Judaism but to be part of it.

"I wanted to officially convert for a number of reasons, but I would say less about the religion and more about the culture — the culture that had been lost in our family and our Holocaust history," said Pick.

But she discovered that becoming Jewish wasn't just up to her. There was a formal process requiring a sponsoring rabbi, all complicated by the fact that her then-fiance, now her husband, was not Jewish. Pick writes about the obstacles faced by the couple, which left her trying to embrace Judaism while not always feeling welcome.

"It was a surprise at first and it was really difficult to not feel rejected, but I sort of learned more about the culture of Judaism," said Pick. "I tried to understand the cultural background that it was coming out of and that helped a little bit."

Although trying, the process also brought Pick unexpected joy — her father, previously reticent to identify as Jewish, went through his own transformation.

"If I went through the process of feeling like Judaism really resonated for me in a way that Christianity never had, my dad went through a tangential, similar process," she said. "It was certainly something that drew us closer."

Not only does Pick delve into the sensitive subjects of religion and family relationships, she also tackles depression. One of the biggest challenges in writing the book was accurately depicting how depression feels, said Pick.

"While it's something a lot of people can relate to, when you're in the grip of depression there's a heaviness and deadness," she said. "So I thought the writing had to be particularly animated and I had to take something that experientially is flat and unappealing and make it appealing."

Pick makes it clear to readers the heavy nature of the journey she is about to take them on in the opening pages of the memoir: "Whoever lived below me, in my shadows, had me. A hand on my ankle, her nails digging in."

Reconstructing and reflecting on that period of her life left her with one clear lesson.

"I think secrecy puts a real lid over everything and increases its power over us, so I've learned, whenever possible, it's good to let those secrets breathe," she said.

Pick has committed to transparency with her own family, which now includes her four-year-old daughter. While she can't appreciate the nuance of her mother's religious background just yet, her daughter already has a firm grounding in what it means to be Jewish, said Pick.

"She has a sense of that's who she is — there's something really satisfying about that," she said.

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