As a child, I often felt like I had accidentally been delivered to the wrong family. It wasn’t that my life was bad; quite the contrary. But I always had a sense of being blatantly different from all the other members of my family.

My parents were both out of the ordinary. My Christian father was physically present, but absent nonetheless. My Jewish mother was nervous and alienated, and usually very busy. I was raised by the maids, and spent a lot of time on my own.

I always had a sense of being blatantly differentWhen I was thirteen, I was sent into exile because I had been a bad girl. I used to sneak out of the house to go to parties, relying on the fact that the house was so big that nobody would notice my absence. I left my elegant home in Mexico City for a Catholic boarding school in Ottawa, where I was to share a room with thirty other Christian girls. My father was very silent during the trip. He did not tell me how I should behave, or how I could protect myself in this new life that was so far out of my comfort zone.

Some people go into exile knowing that they are in exile. But for me, the prospect of this new life was neither better nor worse than my old one. The idea of sharing my life with girls who were not my sisters intrigued me. I spent my days learning to make a bed the way the nuns ordered, guessing the history and geography of Canada, deciphering the funny French that was spoken in Canada, and pretending I was something I wasn’t: a devout Catholic.

My father, may he rest in peace, wasn’t particularly devout and seldom went to church. He had sent my siblings and I to a few classes in catechism, and given a big party for our first communion. For me, the religion was pure form and little content. As soon as I started my first day of classes, I made a revealing mistake, some silly religious commentary that incited a few girls to question my identity. Their question was more like an affirmation: “What, you are not Catholic?”

In retrospect, I suppose the nuns must have been suspicious. With a second surname like Avramova (Mexicans use both paternal and maternal surnames), they did not need Sherlock Holmes to discover my Jewish origins. In any case, they knew how to imprint my young soul with Jewish paranoia.

When Mother Superior summoned me to her office, a tiny transparent cubicle allowing her to supervise the traffic of students, I tried to pretend I was innocent. But she took her time, carefully observing my gestures and composure.

“You know that nuns . . . well, we have antennae, don’t you?” she asked me.

I nodded, not fully understanding what she meant.

Their question was more like an affirmation: “What, you are not Catholic?”“Yes,” she continued, caressing her rosary. “We know about everything you do. We can even read your thoughts. So I know that you did something forbidden, but I would like you to confess it yourself.”

So many possibilities crossed my mind at that moment. Although I didn’t fall for it, her manipulation had a big impact on me. The boarding school was not just a physical prison; it was a prison of conscience. You couldn’t even think without self-censoring.

I did everything I could to get kicked out, and at the end of my junior year, my work finally paid off. My mom found me a different boarding school, where the nuns were much kinder. They sweetened my experience with Christianity.

When my fourth year of high school ended, so did my relationship with Catholicism. Back in Mexico City, I befriended Doris, a young Jewish woman, in whose presence I never felt lonely or bored. This was an entirely new experience for me. I was welcome at her parents’ home, where I felt more comfortable than I did with my own family. They didn’t keep any traditions in particular, but I was invited to every one of their parties, weddings and celebrations.

Although Jews were a minority at my college, I befriended a few of them. When I told them I was Catholic, none of them believed me . . . including Moshe, the boy I was dating and who was on the brink of popping the question.

He did not react well. “It cannot be! I refuse to believe that you are not Jewish,” he said in a tone of disappointment and disbelief.

I had to be honest. “I was baptized, I did my first communion, and your parents are not going to like this,” I told him. And with those last words, our courtship ended.

My identity became even more confused when a friend’s mother married a rabbi. When he found out my mother was Jewish, he looked me straight in the eye and exclaimed, “This is a very important day!” He then pulled out a bottle of schnapps to make l’chaim.

I wouldn’t have dared to enter a synagogue, and none of my Jewish friends were observant. While I was happy to learn that I was part of this sympathetic crowd, I still didn’t have a clue what it all meant.

Then life brought a series of crises that shook me to the core. I found no solace in my broken family. My mother was remarried and living in New York, my siblings were in Europe, and my father had just remarried a woman who was about my age and who demanded I leave the house. I had built a pretty successful career in journalism, but my articles were suddenly banned from publication without any explanation from my newspaper. Within a few years. I was left in a state of physical and emotional destitution. I searched for answers in philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism and other isms, which all turned out to be palliative cures.

The author, Gabriella Keren
The author, Gabriella Keren

I decided to go to India to pursue my studies in Hindu philosophy and yoga. I had a long stopover in New York, where I stayed at my mother’s Fifth Avenue apartment. Lost and lonely, I often passed by the Stern College for Women and observed the dining room, all set for Shabbat dinner. I once even dared to walk into the college, oblivious to the fact that my dungarees and stilettos would raise eyebrows.

I wouldn’t have dared to enter a synagogueThe secretary looked at me scornfully. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.

Yes . . . ! No . . . I didn't want to explain my complicated background, and walked out without answering her.

Then a miraculous turn of events occurred. In this island of loneliness and skyscrapers, I started a conversation with a woman who was sitting next to me in a movie theater. Over the next few months, Diane talked to me about Torah and Kabbalah and the mystery of the Hebrew language. She also invited me for Shabbat dinners, filled with artsy people of all credos and ethnicities. Finally, she convinced me to drop my plans to study yoga and Oriental philosophy in Dharamsala, and learn about Judaism in Jerusalem instead. She recommended the Ma’ayanot summer program in Jerusalem, led by the legendary Manitou (Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi, of blessed memory). I felt like I had finally found what I was searching for, and a little more.

Nevertheless, I was terrified. I didn’t know a soul in Israel. I was very vulnerable, and had many doubts about who I was. My family history was not simple. But it was clear to me that if I really wished to discover my Jewish identity, I would have to just go, despite my hesitation and fear. I realized that one is never ready for the unknown and that waiting was simply a waste of time, and booked a one-way ticket to Israel.

On the first day of classes at Ma’ayanot, I felt as lost as I had that day my father took me to boarding school. I was as ignorant about Torah as I had been about the New Testament.

One girl asked me a very innocuous question: “Are you Jewish?”

It made me feel like a fraud. The fact that I belonged to two cultures and religions made me feel like something inside me was irreconcilable and wrong. This engendered a kind of existential shame. I felt like a driven leaf, without roots or branches. It was already too late for me to change my mind. I knew I would have been persona non grata in the Mexican Jewish community, a very posh and closely knit circle with no real place for marginal Jews like myself.

I had to swallow many of these embarrassing situations. From not knowing one isn’t supposed to talk between washing the hands and breaking the bread, to never having attended a Passover Seder, to having a surname that raised eyebrows, I felt like I had landed on Mars.

The fact that I belonged to two cultures and religions made me feel like something inside me was irreconcilable and wrongMy encounters with Manitou were sporadic, because I was too shy to ask questions that would reveal my ignorance and troubled existence. I was expecting to meet a man of great stature and extroverted personality. But Manitou was not tall, and he was very timid during face-to-face encounters, despite his no-nonsense x‑ray gaze. But he was a brilliant teacher who knew how to answer questions we didn’t dare to ask. He had a talent for linking issues to a biblical theme and conveying his message indirectly. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening to me. But today, I know he was slowly leading me down the winding road to a mutation of identity.

At times, I almost wished that I could erase memories and concepts that were difficult to unlearn. I wished to change my identity overnight, like going to sleep and waking up another person, as if this mutation could be as easy as changing one’s socks.

In the group there was a young man from Paris whose name was Richard and who, like me, suffered in silence. He, too, had a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. We shared a few excursions to the Old City, gorged ourselves at the falafel joints and visited the Western Wall together. He kind of looked after me, and even bought me a little gold Magen David pendant “to protect me.”

I didn’t realize that he needed protection himself. A few months later, after the program had ended, I found out that upon his return to Paris, he had shot himself dead in a hotel room.

It was a terrible surprise. But it was also a message of his pain, triggered by his trip to Israel and his lack of tools to deal with a very challenging situation: having to choose between one’s father and one’s mother, feeling like an outcast everywhere, not being sure how to live one’s life. I shared this pain. But I slowly came to understand that it had no cure.

I tried speaking with various rabbis about this dilemma, but I invariably got more or less the same answer: “You are Jewish.” It was simple . . . and stupid. So I stopped asking.

Manitou began the Torah portion of Lech Lecha by explaining the verse: “Leave your land, your clan and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

He explained that every land exudes certain attributes, good and bad. The latter affect all of its inhabitants. One could talk about the French tendency towards lust just by analyzing the word Tzarfat, derived from the root of “infringement” or “impulse.” In short, Manitou explained that certain inherited values and unwritten laws in every country are seldom questioned because they are accepted as a way of life, and that in order to fulfill one’s purpose in this world, one must question them and try to eradicate them. The same goes for the clan, the society where one is raised and the family where one is born. The baggage that comes with it, all the unspoken laws, the inherited dos and don’ts, the values that one abides by and seldom questions because they are tribal, must be subjected to the same scrutiny.

A leap of faith is a jump into the unknown, and that’s exactly what I was doingAlthough I am sure other people in the class understood this to mean that one should uproot bad habits that are tolerated within our family and society because of their limiting nature, I thought Manitou was speaking to me. That was what was happening to me in real time. I suppose I now qualified for the Jerusalem Syndrome.

But the truth was that I had left my family. My parents, siblings and friends did not understand why I had run away from them, why I had willingly volunteered to devote my life towards becoming “somebody else.” Why immigrate to a country at war?

The end of the verse said: “To the land that I will show you.” There were no clear instructions, no address, no certainties, no directions. And I identified with this too. A leap of faith is a jump into the unknown, and that’s exactly what I was doing. But in the eyes of many, including the students at Ma’ayanot, I was out of my mind.

The Ma’ayanot program ended just before Rosh Hashanah. I was scheduled to register for a one-year program due to start after Sukkot. Unfortunately, that year the program closed. I was on my own again, but I couldn’t go back to Mexico.

Over the next little while, I lived in several different places in Israel. I met my future husband, who was studying in a chassidic yeshivah. We moved to an Orthodox neighborhood, and although I learned invaluable lessons, I felt like a fish out of water. I was impressed by the number of helping hands that were held out to make us feel welcome, and by well-intentioned neighbors who offered to cook our Shabbat meals when my husband was ill. But all these caring people were immensely formal. When I asked how they were doing, they answered, “Thank G‑d.” I thought I must be the only woman in the neighborhood who had issues, anxieties, sleepless nights and uncertainty. I often thought about Richard, whose suicide affected me terribly. Perhaps I was the only one in the group to understand why he felt that the only avenue to escape this predicament was to take his life. He left no address, no name, just a memory and a Magen David pendant which I wear till this day.

Worlds are built and worlds are destroyed. I was soon a single mother with three children. In retrospect, these were the most fertile days of my life: I learned how to be a mother as we went along, because I’d never had a role model. I re-educated myself through my children, from kindergarten to junior high, in Hebrew. Manitou had recommended that we speak Hebrew to the children to help them build a strong Israeli identity, and I think he was right.

There is so much more to be said. But now, I will jump forward to where I am today.

There have been many moments of joy, and there have been seemingly insurmountable difficulties. All the children, myself included, grew up to become exceptional people, each in our own right. I love my simple and beautiful life, even with all its bizarre challenges.

I am sure my estranged relatives condemn me for having left, for not having fulfilled the brilliant career and future that were offered to me on a silver platter, for having chosen the road less traveled and a life that had many ups and downs and many uncertainties.

And although I still ache enormously over that rupture, I consider myself immensely lucky. I realize that against the odds, I had given my children a meaningful life in a country where they feel rooted and at home. They will never feel like driven leaves, and won’t need to travel six thousand miles to discover who they are.