I'm a Jew in My Blood'

Helena Yogev-Mor's grandfather, a pious Christian, came here from Finland because he believed this country belonged to the Jewish people. She decided to convert and resolve her split identity.

A vast distance lies between Carlo Swenty, a Christian missionary who came to settle in Tiberias in 1947, and his grandaughter, Dr. Helena Yogev-Mor, a scientist who lives in Ramat Aviv. Yogev-Mor separated herself from her Finnish, Christian roots 28 years ago, converted to Judaism, and adopted a secular, Israeli identity.

Her choice does not prevent her from relating with empathy to the religious belief that stirred within Swenty, causing him to give up land in his native country to distribute religious texts in Israel. Yogev-Mor views life in Israel with a sober eye, and sides with the Israeli left. Yet, she considers the fundamentalist, right-wing views shared by her father and grandfather, who died five years ago, to be innocent faith.

"My grandfather saw himself as a pioneer," she says. "He believed that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, in the simplest sense - as is written in the New Testament. That is why he supported Israel. He and my father tried to portray geopolitical realities in Israel as proof of the truth of prophecies in the Bible."

Yogev-Mor, 47, moves between two worlds. She is the second daughter in a Christian family which answered a religious call to settle in Be'er Sheva. Yogev-Mor is the only one of five siblings to settle in Israel.

"I didn't want the next generation to have problems. I didn't want my children to suffer the persecution and pain that I did because of my split identity," she says.

Her older brother, a lawyer, is also not religious. He had difficulty settling in, and left for his parents' homeland while he was still a high school student. Her two younger brothers and a sister also returned to Finland.

She attended Israeli public schools, but received a Protestant Christian education at home, steeped in Finnish patriotism. Her parents did not watch television or listen to radio, except for a small transistor radio purchased by her father during the Six-Day War in 1967 to follow the Israel Defense Forces' progress. Biblical characters in the New Testament were the only superheroes to shape her life.

Be'er Sheva in the 1960s was not an easy place for a daughter of pious Christians. In her neighborhood, where most families were immigrants from India and Morocco, "I was too pale, and I grew up in a home where we ate herring in sour cream and said grace before meals," she says.

Her family background was a big secret. "My father worked in an Anglican church souvenir shop and was involved in proselytizing. It wasn't normal work. One of the things they teach you in Christianity is to bring the Gospel to everyone. That tore me up. What could I tell my friends - to believe in Jesus?"

Yogev-Mor was called "goya" and "notzria" [Christian] more than once by neighbors in the district adjoining the Old City of Be'er Sheva. Her family eventually moved to Omer, where they built a house with a Finnish sauna. In the suburban bastion of secularity outside Be'er Sheva, no one was concerned with the family's religious background. Yogev-Mor was no longer the victim of name-calling at school, but history lessons were a nightmare.

"The Jews were always portrayed as victims of Christian persecution. I felt personally accused, but I didn't understand why." As a teenager she rebelled against her pious parents. They saw the parties she attended as the source of all evil, and did not allow her to have a boyfriend.

"According to their belief, anyone who does not believe in Jesus is going to hell," she says. "They wanted to save me because they love me." Her parents never rejected her. "My parents are true Christians, moral to the point of naivete. They loved each other and they loved us. They gave me a sense of morality."

Pleasant conversion

She decided to convert when she was 19. "I wanted to be completely Israeli," she explains. "Orthodox conversion is the ticket to Judaism, because it is commonly accepted by all. I'm happy with my Judaism, but I've found myself unwilling to count four hours between [eating] milk and meat." She did not consider Reform conversion. "Their conversion process is short - not serious. They accept everyone with no selection process." Her parents belong to a branch of Christianity that permits children to choose their own spiritual path when they become adults. So they accepted her decision.

She regrets not having served in the IDF. Her parents, concerned about the intermingling of the sexes, sent her to Finland. According to Yogev-Mor, the current generation of Finnish Christians have taken on an Israeli identity, and do serve in the army. Her sister left Israel and now lives in the United States, but her son recently completed his army service, and her daughter is planning to enlist soon.

Her conversion at the Rabbinical Court was not traumatic, except for the gaggle of angry couples awaiting divorce proceedings that she calls the "horrible decor". She fondly remembers the kindly rebbetzin [rabbi's wife] who taught her, and she holds on to the notebooks where she inscribed the secrets of Judaism in neat, tiny lines.

She changed her difficult-to- pronounce surname, Swenty, to Yogev because she liked the way it sounds. (In Be'er Sheva, the children called her "Simantov.") She ascribes a lot of meaning to names, in general. She named her now 24-year-old eldest daughter from her first marriage, Liam. The name "Liam", literally, "I have a people," symbolizes her happiness at becoming a Jew. The children of her second marriage, however, have names that reflect her Finnish heritage - and softened heart. Her 10-year-old son is named "Agam," literally, "lake," because Finland is called the "Land of Lakes," and her 9-year-old daughter is named "Livneh," literally, "birch," the tree that symbolizes Finland.

It took many years to heal the scars that she carried from childhood. In the book of short stories that she published four years ago, "Sipurei Eitz Hada'at" [Stories of the Tree of Knowledge] (Hargol Publishers), she did not dare confront her fragmented identity. However, when reading between the lines, one discerns a thread of displacement common to all the stories. She is now writing her second book, which will include autobiographical material.

A Jewish grandmother

The turning point in her life sounds like a parable with an ultra-Orthodox author. Recently she was told that her maternal grandmother, who died several years ago, confessed on her deathbed that she was a Jew. "It makes sense," says Yogev-Mor.

"She wasn't light in coloring. I knew that she was adopted, and that she was born in Poland. My mother was shocked when she heard it. Only then did she understand why her mother so easily accepted her going to Israel with my father. It's horrible that she kept it a secret all of her life."

The discovery of her grandmother's Jewishness was significant to Yogev-Mor. "Now I feel that I am a Jew in my blood, as well," she says, without a trace of cynicism. "There is such a thing as Jewish genetics. That is clear - even though we don't know what its influence is." She is a biologist by profession, with a specialty in immunology, and is currently engaged in genetic research at Ichilov Hospital. Her sense of belonging, however, is not of a nature that can be examined through a scientific lens.

According to Yogev-Mor, she has recently found herself in the ironic position of "explaining" Christianity even as her Jewish identity deepens. This happened in response to the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ." She was outraged by statements made by Prof. Joshua Efron in an interview entitled "The gospel according to Joshua," published in Haaretz (March 31, 2004), in which Efron claimed that the New Testament was a Christian manipulation of the Torah and the Book of Prophets.

"It's a matter of faith," she explains. Neither was she pleased with the claim that Gibson directed an anti-Semitic film. She sent a letter to the editor "to explain the perspective of millions of pious, Christian, innocent believers."

"I can bear personal witness to the fact that Christians are absolutely not anti-Semitic," she wrote.

She responded with similar anger to another article published in Haaretz, "Do unto your neighbor" (April 28, 2004), describing the persecution of Messianic Jews by ultra-Orthodox factions in Arad.

"I know some of those people," she says. "They are innocent, moral people - not killers. It isn't right to defame them by calling them `hunters of souls.' I sit on the fence. I understand both sides, and I have the feeling that Christians and Jews share a mutual misunderstanding when it comes to their concept of belief."

Apparently, one does not have to grow up in a Christian family in Be'er Sheva to come to that conclusion. However, Yogev-Mor is not talking at all about theological differences, but about the basic difficulty Israelis have in understanding the Christian perspective. According to her, Israelis do not understand that Christianity is an individualistic religion, open to everyone, and that persuading others to join, be they Japanese or Israeli, is a goal of the religion.

Judaism, on the other hand, is considered a religion of a people chosen by God. According to this logic, she says, Jews view conversion to Christianity as a form of betrayal, while Christians, like her parents, accept conversion to other faiths even if does not make them happy.

"I am speaking as a secular Jew. A liberal person should get to know the other side, even when the other side is considered to be an enemy. I have no problem with my children learning about the New Testament. I don't understand the stigma attached to Christians in Israel or the antagonism toward them."

It is not that she is in favor of Christianity - not even the Protestant form, which she considers to be more tolerant than Catholicism. "I have been aware of contradictions in Christianity since I was young," she says. "The Holy Trinity, for example, does not appear in the New Testament. Jesus did not speak of himself as if he were God. There were enough meaningful things about religion that bothered me to prevent me from being drawn in and from becoming religious."

Judaism also failed to convince her. "My Judaism is mainly a matter of resolve and will," she says. As a result, she feels free to criticize: "There are many lovely things in Judaism, but it has become a monstrous religion with all the strict observance of halakha [Jewish religious law]."

Certain things make her particularly angry, especially Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews. "The historic reasons for religious laws against eating in their presence, or drinking wine that they have touched, are clear to me, but they are maddening. Anti-Semitism is a bad thing, but there is another side to the coin. Judaiism is elitist. Expressions like `Shelo asani goy' [a blessing that praises God for not making one a non-Jew] or `Atah bahartanu mikol ha'amim' [You chose us from among all peoples] only bring hatred."

Yogev-Mor decided to be an Israeli for the second time when she returned to Israel two years ago following nearly four years in the United States. She decided to raise her younger children here. She was exposed to the Reform movement in the U.S. when she sent her children to Reform movement schools and attended a Reform synagogue. As a result, she decided to light candles on Shabbat and open the Friday night meal with Kiddush, "for the sake of tradition."

She has discovered a comforting way to combine all the conflicting aspects of her life. Every night she reads her children a passage from her beloved Old Testament, just as her parents did when she was a child, and she tells them stories from the New Testament, as if they are fairy tales.

"I want to pass on the knowledge and the basis of Western culture," says Yogev-Mor, the intellectual. However, there is longing for her childhood hidden within this innocent custom, and the feeling that sometimes washes over her when she sees a Christmas tree or hears a Christian hymn cannot be explained.