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From Trotsky to Torah: An Unlikely Journey

After quitting the party in 2016, I was desperate to understand how I accepted so many hateful beliefs and, more broadly, what I believed.
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April 11, 2023
Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940) attends a parade in Red Square, Moscow, as Lenin reviews his troops. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

For a time while I was a kid, I used to pray to Anne Frank. I wouldn’t kneel beside my bed or speak aloud, both because I felt silly and because I shared a room with my sister, but under cover of darkness I would lie beneath my bright quilted bedspread, close my eyes, lace my hands across my chest and silently send her my most fervent thoughts. God was remote, indifferent to my miseries and hopes. It seemed right somehow to supplant Him with Anne Frank, who I felt certain had His ear in heaven if she wasn’t a deity herself.

I felt entitled to claim a special connection with Anne, as I called her. Not only was she a girl about my age (even if she wrote like a vastly older, wiser, smarter one), but she was a Dutch Jew, just like my mother. If my grandparents, Oma and Opa, hadn’t got themselves and my mother out of the Netherlands during World War II, my mother would probably have shared Anne’s fate and I wouldn’t be here. In my mind Anne and my mother were fused, but since I harbored an outsized adolescent rejection of my mother, I removed her from the picture and inserted myself. Anne was my alter-ego, who allowed me to be something else—something more—than the impossibly fortunate California girl I was.

It was a new thought for me, this being Jewish. A short time earlier I’d had a school project—interview someone who had an experience with war—and decided to interview Oma. I screwed up my courage—she could be sharp-tongued—got her on the phone and learned that she and Opa had left the Netherlands so they wouldn’t be sent to concentration camps—“You know, like Sophie’s Choice,” she prodded. I was indignant: I knew about the Holocaust. I’d been shattered to learn about it in school and went on to read Anne Frank’s diary on my own. What I didn’t know was that the Holocaust had anything to do with my family. 

In subsequent years I tried getting Oma to tell me more, but she refused to speak. My mother seemed embarrassed to say she didn’t know more than I did: her parents never wanted to talk about it. I learned from others about Opa’s father and sister who were murdered in Auschwitz, notice I seemed to have a lot of relatives in Israel. Still, even as I prayed to Anne Frank feeling she was me somehow, my Jewishness was like an easily dismissible rumor. It was too incongruent with my life of Christmas and Disneyland, shopping malls and a vaguely intuited emptiness.

I eventually stopped praying to Anne and became an atheist, like the rest of my family. I spent high school lunchtimes haranguing anyone who’d debate me that there is no God, then took my opinionated, sublimation-prone self to Berkeley. I became a radical anti-apartheid activist, then joined a much more radical, Trotskyist organization. Not being a half-measures sort of person, I stayed with them for about twenty-five years.

I became a radical anti-apartheid activist, then joined a much more radical, Trotskyist organization. Not being a half-measures sort of person, I stayed with them for about twenty-five years.

In the party I found much that was good, including some of the most selfless, intelligent, funny, critically-minded people I have ever known. I found a precious sense of belonging and meaning. And I found the comfort of clarity between good and evil, progress and reaction. Enemies abounded, but none was so compelling as the preternaturally sinister, powerful, reactionary “Zionists.” As I’ve written elsewhere, I swam in a sea of antisemitism for years and didn’t notice the water was filthy.

After quitting the party in 2016, I was desperate to understand how I accepted so many hateful beliefs and, more broadly, what I believed. I returned to school, wrote my master’s on antisemitism and the left, then continued reading, writing and generally obsessing about antisemitism. But I was increasingly bothered. Antisemitism is hatred against Jews, but who are these people? I knew something about Jew-hatred now, but nothing about Jews, themselves—only as victims. I sensed something that could enrich my life, which had been the beating heart of my mother’s family generations ago. I wanted to seek a connection to those ghostly Jews—to honor not only their sufferings and deaths, but their joys and lives.

I wanted to seek a connection to those ghostly Jews—to honor not only their sufferings and deaths, but their joys and lives.

So I’ve set out not only to learn, but to open my heart. There’s so much turmoil in the world these days, such hatred and just plain craziness that sometimes it feels impossible, and even indulgent, to seek stillness. Yet every Friday I light Shabbat candles, say kiddush, gaze at the flickering flame. I don’t know what I believe. I have a sense of coming home, however—tempestuous as it can be—and that’s more than enough. Am Yisrael chai.


Kathleen Hayes is the author of ”Antisemitism and the Left: A Memoir.”

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