Becoming Jewish (Memoir-in-Progress)
I’ve started drafting my memoir: BECOMING JEWISH: How Judaism Converted Me!
It’s going to be quite a journey, getting all these thoughts and memories out. Detailing the events that led to my conversion. Word sculpting, curating to find the best expression. Anyhow, I’ve decided to release my first chapter, complimentary. Please read, cry, support! It’ll probably change in the rewrite, but for now this is it:
CHAPTER 1: Dear God, Help!
The soul always knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind. – Caroline Myss
The FIRST TIME I truly felt the presence of God, I was 27-years old, living in a Nursing Home in Los Angeles. I was on the verge of being deported and only had one month left until I had to vacate the room for an actual senior.
It was a peculiar series of events that led me to living among the elderly in a Polish Nursing Home, situated beside the Catholic Church in Jefferson Park, otherwise known as South West Los Angeles, aka. the poorer side of town. Not quite Compton or Inglewood, but not far off – a low-income ethnic centric neighborhood comprising mainly African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. Despite the location, the Nursing Home, known as “Szarotka” in Polish, was its own entity removed from the rest of Los Angeles. It was like a compound, gated and isolated from regular civilization – reminiscent of communist Poland in its decor and preservation of Slavic culture.
My younger sister, only 19-years old at the time, an aspiring actress, had found the location with my dad when she came to meet with her manager and audition for some castings. It was the only month-to-month living arrangement they could figure out through Polish connections in a short time. Seriously, I felt like only Polacks could’ve suggested a Nursing Home as a housing arrangement for people not of appropriate age. Was Los Angeles seriously that impossible to function in as an outsider? Should I have just committed an actual crime and sought out a prison cell for temporary accommodation instead?
I had just relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago and upon discovering my immigration application had been denied I had nowhere to go, so I reluctantly joined my father and my sister in a single room in the old folks home. It was ironic timing. As uncomfortable as it was sharing a room with my sister and my father well into my twenties, I was fortunate they happened to be there at the time considering we were all from Australia.
But they had both since returned to Sydney and I was on my own. I no longer had the legal right to work so I couldn’t financially support myself and I couldn’t expect my parents to support me indefinitely. I couldn’t go on living in a Nursing Home in my mid-to-late twenties either, even if the room was available for a longer period of time and my parents were actually willing to support me. It was clearly a temporary solution rooted in desperation.
I didn’t know if I could even justify being in America anymore. What was my purpose? I had worked as a journalist in Chicago, but it had thoroughly exhausted me and Los Angeles didn’t seem like the city for high-end reporting anyway. I wasn’t established in LA and had few friends and acquaintances. I chose the city more for the weather than anything else. It was either that or Florida. LA was supposed to be a fresh start but instead it was turning into a B-grade horror movie nightmare. Was it time to go back home? But where was home? It had been so long since I had lived in Australia. I had moved overseas shortly after I graduated from University and had barely spent any of my adulthood years there. Could I assimilate back? What would I do? Where did I belong? I wasn’t exactly from the finest city in Sydney. I was from Liverpool, a suburb in the outer West populated by immigrants mainly. It was almost considered ghetto according to Australian standards. I would be returning back to where I had tried to escape from and I had never felt fully assimilated there anyway. There was a part of me that was so fundamentally European. I was born in Poland and even though I had barely lived there, culturally I felt more connected to Europe, then a land that was established as a convict colony by Great Britain. Was I destined to be defeated? Where did I belong?
My attitude had always been to roll with life, perhaps that was an Australian trait. You’ll be right mate. But now there was nowhere left to roll. I had hit a wall and I wasn’t accustomed to climbing. I had no idea what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to be. The answers to my life seemed completely unavailable. I couldn’t afford a lawyer to appeal my immigration case. I didn’t even have a valid driver’s license because it had expired and I wasn’t able to renew it without proof of residence.
When I would drive, mainly to the local Starbucks, Santa Monica library or the notorious hiking destination, Runyon Canyon, I was always on the look out for police cars. I’d think of them as sharks. The road was like an open ocean on the set of Jaws. Avoid the sharks, I’d tell myself. I’d change lanes and try to dodge them as best as I could. I felt like a fugitive in those six months, constantly living in fear and paranoia. My Australian license had also expired. I was completely helpless. My only source of valid identification was an Australian passport.
A lot of what had transpired was simply out of my control. After much anxiety and panic, I surrendered. Ok, so life hasn’t gone to plan or smoothly in any sort of way. That doesn’t mean you should hurl yourself over a bridge.
It just happened one day. A calmness swept over me. I remembered what someone had told me once, When you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything at all. So I didn’t. I decided to submit. I sat on a bench beside a cream colored ceramic statue of an angel in the Nursing Home garden, looking out in the distance at the slender palm trees that stretched out into the pale blue sky, bending in all directions, misaligned and scattered unevenly between overhead power lines, imperfect and random — just like my life. I breathed into my field of vision and did the only thing I could do. I prayed.
Dear God, Please Guide me and lead me in the right direction. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I didn’t enter into a fraudulent marriage for a greencard as the USCIS has accused me. If I leave the country, I’ll be banned from re-entering the U.S. for 10-years and I’ll probably never have the desire to return after that anyway. If my destiny is to return to Australia, I am open to it. I just don’t want to leave the U.S. after five years feeling like I’ve done something wrong. My only crime has been falling in love with the wrong man. God, I put my life in your hands. I trust that whatever happens is in my best interests and meant to be. I love you now and forever and ever. Amen.
I had spent the past four years in Chicago working as a freelance journalist and then a Public Affairs writer for the military (U.S. Navy), after marrying an American man. We had met on the Amtrak when I was 20-years old traveling around the country on a student visa. We maintained a long-distance relationship for two years. He visited me in Sydney twice during that time, then I moved to Chicago after I graduated from University and we married in Vegas. We didn’t choose Vegas spontaneously; it was what we could afford. We weren’t trying to be wild or rage against the stream.
It had all worked out so ironically. I had met Foster Radcliffe on a moving train somewhere between Washington D.C., my final stop on my Amtrak route, and Los Angeles, my final destination before flying back to Sydney. Yet the only place in the United States I had any sort of family from my Polish descent, was in Chicago, in the suburb of Bolingbrook. Foster was also from Chicago, from the bordering suburb, Naperville. What were the chances of such close proximity?
It was all so uncanny. When I moved to Illinois, I wasn’t without any relations. If anything it gave me the opportunity to connect with family members I never would’ve had to opportunity to properly acquaint. It all felt like it was meant to be. Kind of.
My family in Chicago was from a lower class Western suburb and they had all sorts of Jerry Springer family issues. My cousin was struggling to mother two children from teenage pregnancies, while the father of her offspring was a classic recidivist – in and one of prison for alcohol, drugs or theft. My uncle had an issue with porn or perhaps sex addiction, and suggested I owed him a sexual favor after he co-signed on a vehicle I purchased because I didn’t have a credit history established. It wasn’t like he paid for the vehicle, it was merely a signature. What was wrong with these people?
If anything, perhaps this was family I would’ve been better off never knowing. But my aunt, my father’s older sister, was nurturing and kind and I had a natural bond with my cousin, despite her issues at the time with alcohol and dealing drugs amidst her parenting struggles and figuring out her life trajectory.
There were other aunts and uncles too. I had a small family in Australia and my parents were in a constant state of war. So leaving Australia was never difficult for me, if anything it was inevitable. There was emotional abuse, occasionally physical and after I graduated with a degree in Media, I was open to breaking off contact with my parents entirely. In fact, I had arranged a working visa in the UK for two years if Foster and I decided to change our minds about the wedding. One thing was for certain, I was starting from scratch in some new unknown location where no one knew me or my dysfunctional family history.
After our wedding, both our families in Chicago threw a wedding shower for us. Possibly out of sympathy, at least on Foster’s mom’s side. His mother attended our Vegas elopement and afterwards I heard her describe our wedding to a friend over the phone as, “very sad and lonely.”
Perhaps we had rushed into it, but if we wanted to be together, we had no choice. Flying back and forth between Sydney and Chicago, was costly and exhausting. My mother didn’t support my decision to marry Foster, but I had no respect for her opinion or how she had raised me so her disapproval didn’t affect me much. It was expected. I was often criticized for my choices.
I was in love with Foster and I didn’t consider us too young or immature to marry. I was 22 and he was 28. The problem was, I was much more prepared for marriage than he was. It’s like he had some kind of allergic reaction to it after it was done.
Late night drinking, disappearing, cheating. He wasn’t very skilled at monogamy. Since I hadn’t observed him in his regular environment having lived across the Pacific Ocean during our long-distance relationship, I was unprepared for what would become an emotionally, borderline physically abusive relationship. It’s as though conflict and chaos followed me or as if I had recreated the war zone I had grown up in, but on a grander scale with alcoholism thrown in the mix.
I had no problem finding work in Chicago. I was young, enthusiastic and excited to be in a new country. I had never lived in snow and even though I grew to resent the Chicago cold, initially I found it all very enchanting. But Foster depended on me to take care of all the responsibilities – the rent, the bills, food – while he’d go out gallivanting and entangling himself in “whiskey and women” style binges.
I felt so betrayed. How could a person suddenly be so different? Had it all been an act in the beginning? If anyone was being fraudulent, it was him in his behavior. Ultimately, the biggest culprit in the destruction of our marriage was alcohol. Foster would drink a 12-pack of Miller Lite every night. Often I’d drive to the corner Chevron with him after work and pay for the beer. He was dependent on it and would threaten me if he didn’t have the money to buy it himself. If he wasn’t drunk, he was despondent and if I wasn’t in a state of fear, then I was reveling in melancholy. It was disturbing witnessing his nightly drinking binges, hangovers, depression, demotivation to find work or do anything productive.
The relationship was turbulent to say the least. We separated after the first six months of marriage. I filed for divorce, but when he asked for a second chance, I reconsidered. We reunited and then the same would happen again. It was a cycle. Eventually, the whole marriage fell apart under the worst of circumstances.
Foster had decided to go work on an Alaskan fishing boat with a male friend from high school. Despite being fiscally suffocated, left to pay all the bills on a woman’s salary (for as long as I can remember I was always underpaid for my work as a writer and in hindsight, particularly compared to my male counterparts. At the time I was young and unaware, happy to be employed at all) I opened a credit card to pay for Foster to go to Seattle and interview for the job. It would mean we would be separated for at least three months, but I just wanted to see Foster sober and working. Our marriage was in a fractured state and on top of the financial struggles, anything romantic had also been sucked out of our relationship. We could probably use a break to regain perspective or maybe it was the most efficient way to branch off.
But Foster’s criminal record surfaced, a criminal record I was unaware of till after we married, and he was rejected for work even on a fishing boat. It was right there and then that I had reached my threshold – I couldn’t anymore. I came home from work to find Foster getting drunk on hard liquor this time when he broke the news. I flipped out. Why could he never find a job? Why was he such a liability? Why couldn’t he function in life like a normal person? Why was he always intoxicated? Why was this always happening to me?
We started arguing. He then threatened me with a gun, what looked like a 45mm, that he kept hidden in a safe. Turned out it was a fake, BB gun, upon police inspection. Foster spent six weeks in jail. I chose not to press any charges, but I filed a restraining order. I had had enough! I spent another year in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles.
Foster was the reason I came to America. Was I wrong to stay if the marriage hadn’t worked out? Maybe I was guilty? I had created some semblance of a life in Chicago – I had a job, a vehicle I was paying off, I was contributing to the economy. But now I was in Los Angeles, without purpose, and a letter from USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services), denying my application for permanent residence.
The one thing I did take away from Chicago was Christianity. Foster’s mom was a devout Christian. She prayed over me many times in the early stages of our marriage and took me to Church. It had a powerful affect on me. The times that Foster and I were separated I would still attend Christian Church. It provided me with some sense of peace and comfort in a foreign country. I would wake up on Sunday feeling helpless and destitute, then I’d attend Church and feel hopeful about the future again. I felt hopeful about change.
I was raised Catholic, but Catholic church, especially listening to Polish sermons which I only partially understood and tended to tune out, did not resonate with me. I had become disassociated from the concept of a Catholic God since I had turned 18 and became my own adult. But all of a sudden, I was relating to these Christian sermons that I was being exposed to in my early adult life and they were helping me deal.
So that afternoon, in the Nursing Home garden, I leaned on faith again. I turned to God aka. the universe, the universal field of energy, whatever that higher presence or power is, and I asked for guidance.
Several days later I was at Starbucks on Mid-Wilshire in Korea Town, my usual hang, when a man with an accent similar to mine, asked to use the internet on my laptop. He was in a hurry and didn’t have an AT& T account, so he couldn’t connect his Mac. It was before internet at Starbucks was free. I obliged, then inquired about the pass around his neck that read, “GENRE.”
“I’m doing reshoots on the Indiana Jones movie,” he said feverishly, while checking his email for the location of the shoot. “Are you Australian too?,” I asked, noticing his accent. He replied, “No! I’m from New Zealand,” in a slightly offended tone. I’m not sure where it originated, but there has always been a subtle rivalry between Aussies and Kiwi’s (as per the colloquial reference). But given that I was born Polish, I never had such inbuilt or passed down bias.
John was rugged in a hip bohemian way. He had light brown sun kissed shoulder length hair that waved and flared out at the bottom and deep creases that pierced the skin of his face, each line adding a layer of depth, suggesting a story. He made no effort to conform and seemed to own who he was; flaws and all. There was a level of badass to his demeanor, the type of guy who created his rules based on his own knowledge of life. He was compact, no taller than 5”8, and moved fast within his lean muscular physique, giving the illusion of life is too short to stand still in one place for too long.
After he was done with my laptop, he thanked me with a single word, then took a sharp right and began to walk away. I didn’t want him to leave. There was something about him. I had some type of intuition that I needed to engage this man in conversation. I yelled out a question, which turned into another question. The more that was uncovered, the more it turned out we had in common, despite the 24-year age difference. I was 27. He was 51.
John Bramley was from New Zealand, but had previously lived in Australia for 10 years. He had been a photojournalist for Rupert Murdoch’s publication, “The Australian.” Whereas, I had worked for the competition, “Fairfax,” on a local newspaper level.
He asked what I was doing in LA. Oh you know, just waiting to be arrested or deported. I only mentioned the “writer” part of my shady identity. I had actually started working on a screenplay in all my spare time of legal non-existence. It seemed like the logical thing to do, considering my journalism background, but not something I would’ve deferred to, having been lectured numerous times on the impossibility of selling a screenplay on speculation. Regardless, I had to keep my mind occupied or I’d fall into an even deeper depression. So I wrote a light-hearted comedy, inspired by an idea my sister came up with about the empty nest syndrome. It was entitled “My Dad,” about a single dad who has a mid-life crisis when his daughter goes off to college and leaves him behind to pursue a new life on campus.
John, or rather Bram, as he preferred to be called, was a still photographer who had worked in the movie industry for more than 20-years. He had worked on almost every major feature from Tombstone to Lord of the Flies, Rocky Balboa, Finding Graceland, Spider Man 2 and so on. But he had secretly always wanted to write a screenplay. He had attempted journalism during an internship with the New Zealand Herald, but discovered he was much better with images than words. Still the desire to create a visual story via script lingered in him.
I became of interest to him when he saw the potential of possibly co-writing with me, but after I failed to turn up on the set of Indiana Jones the following day, I almost never saw him again. Apparently he had gone to quite an effort to arrange a visitor’s pass, but I was so paranoid about showing identification at the gates. I wasn’t sure what type of security they had. What if upon seeing my Australian passport the guard called immigration and I’d end up in immigration prison? I did make an effort to go, but I’m not sure if I legitimately got lost or if my paranoia had reduced my effort in finding the studio that day.
Bram took me to dinner at a sushi restaurant a week later. He dressed a little more upscale than his usual everyday attire. He wore a nice white cotton dress shirt with the first few buttons undone paired with blue Levi jeans. He acted like it was a special occasion and ordered the finest of everything. “Fuck it!” he announced when we sat down and asked for my permission to order. What did I know? I had been famished and forced to survive on tuna cans in my nursing home state of poverty, so this free meal felt like a gift from the divine. I barely had any experience with sushi restaurants having lived on a Midwest diet including the worst of fried foods, hot dogs, Denny’s, Panera Bread occasionally. I had no idea what a person should order anyway. For at least a year when I first moved to Chicago I survived on McDonald’s happy meals – cheeseburger and fries – and cigarettes alone. In addition to the coffee and cigarette diet during the worst of my marital turbulence.
Few men had ever taken me out to dinner. I had spent most of my twenties up until that point battling it out with an alcoholic husband. The fanciest diner Foster and I ever frequented was Hooters, which always required me paying. So even a regular sushi restaurant in a strip mall was considered fancy by my humble standards.
During dinner we talked about photography and Ansel Adams, the famous American landscape photographer. I had always worked alongside photographers and had an attraction to the art form. Bram said, “If I don’t remember a thing I shot, then I know I had a good day.” He was modest about his work and said he operated on intuition and instinct mostly.
His real passion was sailing. He had owned boats and had sailed from the U.S. to New Zealand during a two year tour. He was on a greencard, however, and was unaware that you couldn’t be out of the country for more than a year at the time. So he snuck back in via Mexico. He reminded me of the “Most Interesting Man on Earth” from the Dos Equis beer advertisement. But the actual person the Dos Equis ad man was modeled on.
He invited me to Lake Arrowhead where he lived in the San Bernardino mountains for a weekend visit. It was two hours away if you drove fast. He said he only came down to LA for work because he couldn’t stand the people in this city. I was slightly apprehensive, but a week later I made the drive. We drank wine and talked like we had known each other since childhood.
When I arrived back at the Nursing Home I watched the DVD that Bram gave me of his favorite movie, “Dead Man” by Jim Jarmusch. The genre was labeled as Spiritual Western and Johnny Depp as the protagonist named William Blake, though he claims not to be the William Blake poet, becomes a hunted man on the Most Wanted List during a spiritual journey towards death. The theme: You can’t always win in life. I related to the doom. I felt like I was on that same journey and if life was going to be unpleasant for me in this lifetime, perhaps I needed to acquire a sort of diligence to navigate it till I reached the finish line. A sort of grace.
Bram and I had similar artistic sensibilities, backgrounds, the Australian thing in common. I felt like I needed to confess my immigration situation to him. Perhaps it would alleviate my own personal shame if I exposed my secret and I was beginning to see him as a sort of mentor. Maybe he could even advise me on what to do.
When I saw him next, I tried to tell him four times during lunch that I was living in a Nursing Home and was on the verge of deportation, but I couldn’t force the words out. I was so incredibly embarrassed. I felt like, “Nobody” the name of the Native American character from “Dead Man,” who guides Johnny Depp into the spirit world. In hindsight, I think I was William Blake and John Bramley was my “Nobody,” – my escort through my immigration turmoils and troubles, because he seemed to have the presence of a guru or shaman.
When finally I confided, preparing for immediate rejection and abandonment in friendship, Bram laughed. “Ah, don’t worry about that shit. I’ve gone through the immigration bullshit myself. l’ll help you out mate,” he said.
I’ll never forget those words.
I don’t know. Do we manifest people who are similar to us or can help us? Was it prayer or the law of attraction? The only thing I do know is that I prayed and John Bramley was the answer to those prayers.