It’s difficult enough fasting in Jerusalem, but in Wimbledon, surrounded by generous slices of chocolate-layer cake, it was nearly impossible. My mother speared a bite, popped it between her lips, and my mouth watered. Talia, my sister, passed plates over the white tablecloth, and my family all dug in. The only thing that landed on my bone china plate were squares of sunshine from the pane glass windows.

“You ‘Is fasting on Yom Kippur not good enough for you?’ sure do pick your moments to make a point, dear. Is fasting on Yom Kippur not good enough for you?”

I shrugged. I kept my mouth shut. I used to match my mother’s way of speaking, word by feisty word. But I didn’t have the heart to do so now that she had such little time left. So instead, I explained myself and threw a few facts in.

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning,” I said. “The First and Second Temples, the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, were destroyed on this day. The Jews were expelled from Spain on Tisha B’Av, too. Fasting is never fun, Mom, but it’s kind of nice to have one day to be reflective. It takes the pressure off being depressed the rest of the year.”

I detected a hint of a smile. My mother and I once shared a fondness for the ironic. But when you’re doing your best to hide your pain, even a smile takes effort.

My mother had done everything in her power to make me in her image. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine you would move to Tokyo, marry a Japanese man and then become Orthodox.”

“Mom, I’m 56 years old. I’ve been moving in this direction for years.”

“Yes, dear, I know. Chabad has done wonders for you and the kids.”

A Chabad House appeared in the middle of Tokyo soon after I became a mother for the first time. Chabad was literally a home, a shul, a sliding open door in Tokyo. On the other side waited a full-bearded Israeli rabbi or two, and their fresh-faced, wig-wearing wives. Like so many wayward Jews who stumble upon the worldwide Chabad network—there are centers like this one in every major city—I was enticed by the warm welcome and nonjudgmental attitude. It felt nothing short of a miracle that these young, charming Chassids from Crown Heights and Kfar Chabad had set up shop, spiritually speaking, in Japan’s capital, the city I called home.

“Liane, all this religiosity ... ,” my mother couldn’t continue due to her cough. What started as a slow, hacking cough turned so watery and deep, it sounded as if it came from a bottomless well, and it terrified me.

My mother’s cough came with the devastating diagnosis of lung cancer. It had spread to her bones, but that wasn’t going to stop her from traveling. Not even a death sentence was going to prevent her from escaping the oppressive heat of the West Palm Beach country club she called home. I had flown over from Tokyo, wanting my children, Shoshana and Akiva, to be with her and be reminded that they had an interesting family not only in Japan, but in England, where she was born, too.

My Uncle Graham had set out the bone china, the best silver and the cut crystal glasses. Shoshana, my 19-year-old daughter, and Akiva, my 15-year-old son, were old enough to appreciate that something in this household was way out of the box compared to Japanese family normalcy. How many 83-year-old bachelor uncles in Japan are going to shop, cook and clean up for a houseful of relatives?

My cousins, Justine, the archaeologist, and Sir Hugh, the politician of the family—the Member of Parliament from York—had brought along a box of photographs. In one black-and-white photo from the 1920s, Hugh’s grandmother Cecily—my grandfather’s older sister—struck a pose as only an actress can do.

We were, it would be fair to say, a family of ultra-serious theater-goers. But Torah scholars? Rabbis? Not one. Shabbat-followers? I couldn’t think of a single close relative. Perhaps another reason for mourning on this day—the spiritual exile of our family.

I shared DNA with the Maidenhead branch of the family through a great-grandfather, Avraham Cohen. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but in a small family that gets smaller and smaller with every generation, this relative could have been the beginning of our mass assimilation and marrying out. In the early 1900s, great-grandfather Avraham left his wife, Sarah—I’m not making this up—and parted from my grandfather.

I don’t think his children ever forgave him. My grandfather, David, rid himself of all connection with Avraham Cohen by changing his name to Richard Dennie. His older brother Harry never married. His older sister Cecily married a wealthy older man, a diamond broker. In this way, my family could claim Maidenhead, with its great churches and tree-lined avenues, as their own, and forget that only a generation earlier they had been Latvians, hailing from Dvinsk. And here I am now, an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem.

How could that have happened? In a word: Chabad.

WhereWhere did Avraham Cohen vanish to? did Avraham Cohen vanish to? This question was a safe one for dinner-table conversation in Wimbledon—something for me, my uncle, my sister and my cousins to ponder even now, three decades after his son, my grandfather, parted this world.

The question also kept us from engaging in a more difficult and relevant topic—the near-complete loss of Judaism in our family.

I held in my hand the death certificate that my cousin Justine had brought along. It was handwritten in cursive lettering on paper as old as parchment. Now we had a date for poor great-grandfather Avraham’s demise.

When the last photograph had been laid to rest back in its box, I pointed across the street to Wimbledon Common and asked if anyone wanted to join me. I left the flat alone, heading towards the traffic light. I needed this fresh air.

Further along, a windmill was stacked onto an octagonal brick house. I approached the cafe at its base. Rocket Lollies were on the ice-cream menu. I craved the sweet syrup and almost succumbed. That’s the thing about returning to a Jewish way of life, far beyond anything practiced in my family for generations. Once you let your guard down, it’s easy to slip back to the old self who didn’t know or care about a Torah-led way of life.

But I do care now. Judaism offers remedies for just about everything that needs a cure, whether it’s losing two temples or your mother. Not that it’s ever easy to follow Torah. There are always the two voices inside. One says: “Restraint brings you closer to G‑d!” The other says: “Go for the Rocket Lolly!”