Sandi Krawchenko Altner about to enter the ocean for the cleansing "Mikvah" ritual of her conversion ceremony with Rabbi Dan Levin of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton instructing her. (Bob Altner)
I think I was looking for a place where God would find me. I eventually found my connection many years later, and only when I had stopped looking.
—Sandi Krawchenko Altner, author
Religious beliefs are complicated matters and so I was both delighted and somewhat bewildered when asked to contribute this blog post about my reasons for converting to Judaism. Did my research for my novel, Ravenscraig, help shape that decision? In a word, yes. But the studying was really one piece of a much larger journey.
My novel was initially inspired by my interest in learning my family history. My family descends from the first group of Ukrainian speaking peasants that settled in the Vita area in 1896. These were the people known as "stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats." They survived largely because of their faith, resourcefulness, and incredible determination.
I went to church as a child; the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church. I liked the atmosphere, the songs, the smells, but I couldn't find a connection.
I started inviting myself along to Sunday services with my friends and began shopping for a church of my own. I was ten. I think I was looking for a place where God would find me. I eventually found my connection many years later, and only when I had stopped looking.
Ravenscraig tells the story of a Jewish family, the Zigmans, who leave Russia and struggle to put down roots in Winnipeg, Canada. Their story is entwined with a rich family led by a man who schemes his way to power. The foreigners were not wanted and it was a hard life.
Thinking about those early immigrants, and learning how they lived, what was important to them, and how they felt about being Jewish and unwanted foreigners in the New World was fascinating.
The Jews and Ukrainians in Manitoba mostly started out from the same place in the old country with large numbers of immigrants from Galicia, Bukovina, Ruthenia and that part of Russia known as the Pale of Settlement that today encompasses areas of Ukraine, Poland and Russia. So it is that a large number of people in Manitoba can trace their ancestry to this relatively small region.
In my studies I read extensively about life in czarist Russia. The Czar's plan to deal with what was termed "the Jewish problem" was to kill a third, allow a third to escape the country through an emigration system greased with cash, and finally to force the remaining third to convert to the Orthodox Church.
Forced conversions. A new light shined on my own family history.