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The Wandering Non-Jew

Barbara Bensoussan

She was an angry, tormented soul searching for solace in the dark corners of the world. Until a Hand pulled her from the abyss

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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OUTPOURING OF THE SOUL Throughout Shira Yehudit’s journey, she kept journals into which she poured her questions and pain, and wrote poetry

M ishpacha writer Shira Yehudit Djalilmand sits in her home in Tzfat in a room lined with seforim, wearing a white beret and a sweater against the autumn chill. She has a long, fair English face with round blue eyes, and her manner is calm, composed, even regal.

Seeing her today, it’s hard to believe this was once a girl who came to school with half her hair dyed orange and the other half black, best known for outrageous behavior and a punk rock wardrobe. For close to 30 years, Shira Yehudit was a square peg that her parents and teachers tried to force into a round hole. All it accomplished was to leave her bruised and bleeding, and her elders exasperated.

She wasn’t Jewish, but her soul thirsted for purpose and meaning. No one in her middle-class British circles could offer it to her, or even comprehend the compulsion to search. Like a wild animal trapped in a cage, her soul thrashed wildly against the bars, until she saw no other solution than to blunt the pain with alcohol, drugs, even attempts at suicide.

Fleeing the spiritual wasteland of her youth, Shira Yehudit traveled widely, through Europe and North Africa. While spiritual seekers in cartoons scale mountains in the East in search of wisdom-dispensing gurus, Shira Yehudit ultimately found her spiritual treasure on the top of a Middle Eastern mountain, in the mystical city of Tzfat. There she converted and remained to marry and raise a family, simultaneously developing a career as a writer.

Shira Yehudit has documented her difficult path from angry, tormented non-Jew to serene Jewish mother in a new memoir, Rebel with A Cause (Mekor Press). It’s a gripping read.

Why would a person who describes herself as introverted and somewhat shy undertake to go public about a sometimes-sordid past? “I decided to tell the story to demonstrate the miracles that Hashem did for me, to pull me out of the abyss and bring me home to Yiddishkeit,” she says. “I hope to inspire other Jews, religious or not-yet, to really see in action Hashem’s incredible hashgachah pratit …

“There are many converts within Am Israel. My story just happens to be somewhat more dramatic than average, and so perhaps it has rather more of the ‘wow’ factor.”

***

Shira Yehudit grew up in the West Midlands and then West Yorkshire in a “perfectly normal, upstanding, middle class English family.” It was a less overprotective era, hence she spent a lot of time happily wandering alone around fields and forests, and hiking with her parents through the moors on weekends. “I still connect to Hashem through nature,” she says. “How can anyone possibly fail to recognize the existence of a Creator when they see all the natural wonders and the incredible intricacy of our world?” She has brought up her children to share her love and appreciation of nature: “We have an annual family subscription to the National Parks and Nature Reserves of Israel, and our vacations are spent hiking through wadis, climbing mountains — well, hills really, Israel doesn’t exactly have many mountains! — and jumping into hidden pools.”

Her childhood school performance was spotty; she was a quick study who enjoyed learning and excelled in academics and sports, but had no tolerance for teachers she didn’t respect. While her older brother was a docile model student, Shira Yehudit was a troublemaker.

As she got older, the usual adolescent tendencies to rebel and individuate were exacerbated by her parents’ intolerance and her own inability to discern an adult path that made sense to her.

 

“If my parents had met my struggles with unconditional love and acceptance, it is possible that it would have gone no further,” she writes. Instead, they tried to push her down —and she pushed back equally hard. She’d deck herself out in the Gothic fashions of the time (spikey hair, black clothing, studded belts,) and run out to clubs and bars.

Things deteriorated to the point where her parents gave her an ultimatum: shape up or ship out. Shira Yehudit chose the latter. At age 16, she moved to Blackpool, a seaside resort town, living in a boardinghouse and spending much of her time hanging around arcades and working in a hotel restaurant. Fortunately, she tired of this pointless existence after a couple of years, and decided to go to college in Newcastle.

She originally thought she’d like to be a social worker; her time on the streets gave her a natural affinity for disillusioned youth. As she began doing volunteer work, however, she realized she took every case to heart, and stood in danger of being crushed by the weight of other people’s problems.

She began studying philosophy instead, and joined various left-wing political groups that opposed the Thatcher government. Despite her bohemian outlook, she finished school and was offered a management job in Manchester; incredibly, she even became engaged to a sober, straitlaced accountant.

But her new bourgeois life in Manchester left her feeling bound into a straitjacket. “The unspoken aim of life was to get a steady job and settle down,” she writes. “I didn’t want a steady job and I didn’t want to settle down.”

To her parents’ dismay, she quit her job and broke up with the fianc?. She then landed a job as a proofreader at the University of Manchester Press, but took up with a derelict West Indian crowd that encouraged her to become deeply involved with drugs and alcohol. As her debts piled up and her habit grew serious, she knew she had to make a break.

She applied to work on a kibbutz, but the Gulf War broke out and it was deemed too dangerous. Grasping for any alternative, she bought herself a ticket to Casablanca.

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