AUTHOR Leah Kotkes was sitting shiva for her late father when I, unknowingly, first contacted her for this interview.
She agreed on condition we dedicated the article to the memory of both her late parents.
Yet these same parents had virtually cut her off when she became religious 27 years ago.
Her father had only become reconciled with his daughter three weeks before he died.
Her paternal grandfather had died when he was young and the teenage boy had to leave school early to go out to work.
Leah, originally Vanessa, told me: “My father was very strict with himself. He provided for the family. He expected me to be like him. He didn’t want a daughter. He wanted a son. He raised both my brother and I like sons.”
Yet her father did not give his two children parity of education. He sent his son to a private school and Leah to the comprehensive North West London Copthall School where she was bullied.
Leah told me: “I didn’t like it at all. It was a really bad experience. My brother, though, had a good education.”
Nevertheless Leah still wanted to go to university.
She said: “All my friends went to Oxford or Cambridge. I wanted to go to university. My father wouldn’t let me go. I wanted to study law at Oxford. My father said, no.
“I was very artistic and I got into Kingston University with a view to becoming an art director or a photographer. My father said I would never get in, but I got in.
“My father refused to pay for the tuition. He earned too much for me to get a grant. I could not go without his help. I had to find a job.”
Leah found work initially as a fashion publicist and eventually worked her way up to become a marketing director.
She changed direction to become the personal assistant of the ITN news editor and then trained as a news journalist and producer until, at the age of 28, she became disillusioned with the high-flying work and world travel and turned to spirituality and religion.
Now a religious divorcee with four sons, Leah has finally caught up with her lack of university education after having studied at both Oxford and London universities.
Looking back on her lack of university education in her younger days, Leah now says: “I had an intellectual thirst. My father’s attitude was to go to work to earn money. He did not understand that some people were not interested in earning money to have more than anyone else, to have nice clothes, a nice car and a nice house.
“What if you only want the basic essentials because you want to educate yourself so that you can teach others? I believe that you should educate your child according to their way.”
Her father could not forgive his daughter for decades after she went to Israel to explore her Judaism.
She said: “When I stepped away to explore spirituality and my womanhood he completely disowned me. It was very hard.
“When I was a little girl I used to keep a journal and write to God and talk to Him through poetry and lyrics.
“My mother found the journal once. She told me not to let daddy see it, that he disliked any mention of God and that he would be very angry if he saw it.”
But grown-up Leah defended her father, saying: “My father was a good man. He went to an Orthodox shul every Shabbat, gave a lot of charity and regularly visited Israel.”
But she added: “It really scared me that my father would be so displeased with me if he saw my journal. I felt I didn’t have a sacred place anymore.”
She maintained: “Every human being should have a sacred place to write or to talk to God or to a friend or a journal to give them support. Everyone deserves to be in a place where they are accepted and celebrated.
“I felt very rejected by my father. He was completely not interested in me. He was always quite detached when I was younger. In my 20s when I became more spiritual he was absolutely disinterested in me.
“But it did not stop me trying to embrace my life and be positive and happy. I always prayed that he would somehow come to have peace with me and we would have some sweet moments together and that he would say, I love you. I always prayed for it.
“I never thought a negative word about my father. It really hurt. But I accepted my father and I had compassion for him. He gave me life. I am enjoying my life.
“My father had not wanted to see me all that time. It was very hard. Every morning I davened for a reconciliation. I was peaceful. I was respectful in my prayers.
“Then three weeks before he died, my father asked to see me and the children. We came. He was very nice to the children. I sat with my father, held his hand and said I was sorry he wasn’t well.
“I asked him for forgiveness, if there was anything I had done as a child to upset him. He had always looked at me differently from my brother and mother.
“He said he forgave me and asked if I would forgive him. He said he loved me and that I had brought up the children beautifully. I sat with him for three weeks.
“Before he died in a London hospital, I thanked him so much for giving me the life I love. He said, ‘I’m really sorry’. That was really beautiful.”
She maintained: “Forgiveness wipes everything out. When a parent says sorry or I love you to a child, everything from yesterday is erased. Those three words stay with me.
“Some people could be bitter and want more, but I am grateful because I never expected it. I prayed every day from about the age of seven for God to fill my parents’ hearts with love, kindness and compassion towards me and my children. Before my father died I got those three words from him.
“All the sadness he caused me, all the crying, all the pain and tears he caused got all wiped away.”
Leah’s mother, with whom she had a slightly better relationship, died four years ago. Her maternal grandfather was a kosher butcher in Stamford Hill.
Leah said: “If my mother had married someone frum and had gone on the path of her childhood, there would not have been a break in the chain. I had to fix that break. My father was not pleased.
“It was hard for my mother. She walked on the path of my father. At times I think she felt a little sad or compromised. She wanted so much to walk on my path and share my life with me.
“She respected what I did, but there was a lot of pressure from my father and I respected that. She made a choice. I was happy for them. I did not try to make them frum.”
Leah recalled: “My mother was a very spiritual person. She believed in God. She did a lot of kind acts.
“One of my earliest memories is of my mother’s little car, a Hillman Imp. My mother used to stop at bus stops to give lifts to elderly ladies. She used to say it was her Mitzvamobile. I never knew what that meant.”
Leah inherited her mother’s kind qualities. Leah’s memoir, The Map Seeker, (Israel Bookshop Publications) opens with Leah describing how, as a seven-year-old in Hendon, she would always help a blind neighbour on her way to school.
She told me: “Since I was a little girl I have always seen God in my life in sweet experiences and memories. I was aware of so many things that did not make sense till I came to understand them when I was 28.
“When I became a baalat teshuva (returnee to the faith), learning and spending time around God-fearing people I realised something about me was similar to them.”
It was in an ITN newsroom, discussing sales options to CNN for war coverage during the 1991 First Gulf War, that Leah first asked herself what she was doing there when the rest of the staff were so excited at seeing bombs detonate on the screen.
She quit her job and went to India. But it was back in London that Leah found what she was seeking when a neighbour invited her to a shiur by Rabbi Rashi Simon.
When Leah told her father that she wanted to study Judaism in Israel, he advised her to return to India. Her parents and friends tried to dissuade her from going to Israel, but she persisted and her parents were finally reluctantly reconciled.
However, after he paid for her wedding to a religious man of whom he disapproved and the marriage ended in divorce, her father would not forgive her.
Back in Israel, the late Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg encouraged Leah to write her memoir, The Map Seeker, as an inspiration to other baalei teshuva.
She also became a writer and editor for several international charedi publications and led writing workshops all over North America.
When Leah’s second marriage also ended in divorce, she decided to return to London with her four sons to be near her mother, who had become ill.
Leah put her writing career on hold, deciding to at last realise her dream of attending university when she was not at her mother’s bedside.
She said: “My mother was very ill in and out of hospital for years. It was impossible to take a job.”
Three months before her mother died, she told Leah she loved her very much and was very proud of her. She was sorry she had made it so difficult for her.
She wished she could have spent more time with her. But she felt that because her husband wasn’t interested in Judaism she had to make a choice.
Now, after the death of both parents and due to finish her university studies this summer, by which time her four boys will all be at yeshiva, Leah is hoping to return to her writing career.
She said: “On my shelf are about four novels, 30 short stories and a couple of film scripts I have written, but have not shown to anyone yet.
“I have not had the time to edit them. I have been studying the whole time. My goal is to write for everyone. That’s why I went to university to learn how to write for everyone.
“Before my father died he told me to get back to my writing. That’s what I hope to do.”
Most of Leah’s work is based on her own personal experiences.
She says: “I hope that the story of my life will inspire others to have compassion and understanding, even towards those who may have unwittingly hurt them.”
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