Many people make drastic lifestyle changes during their lives, but few travel between such diverse worlds as Perpetua Hollywood.
Born into a Catholic family in Northern Ireland, Hollywood grew up amid the violent disturbances in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Converting to Judaism some years ago, she now lives in Israel with her second husband, Jonathan Bell.
The beginning of Hollywood’s journey from Armagh to Caesarea can be traced to a childhood interest in Judaism.
Her Irish brogue accentuated by a pronounced lilt, she recalls asking the nuns at her convent school why they’re not Jews, because Jesus was Jewish.
“And I got slapped on the hands with a ruler for that.”
Her father, who was a teacher, encouraged her by finding books on Judaism for her to read, starting with the Old Testament. Even after she married in the Church and gave birth to two children, she maintained an interest in Judaism until, one day, at the age of 36, she began visiting a synagogue in Dublin, some 110 kilometers away.
“I’d leave on a Friday morning, coming home on Saturday evening,” she said.
Her husband did not share her interest and the marriage eventually broke up.
Following her divorce, Hollywood moved to Switzerland for a year where the lack of spontaneity in Swiss society prompted her to return to Ireland, where she lived close to her children.
“By this time, I was in contact with a Jewish outreach program on the Internet. It was run by a rabbi who recommended reading material for would-be converts and you could type questions about what you read to him and he’d answer them.”
Around the time of the 2001 Irish elections, Hollywood joined a Jewish chat room.
“That’s where I first met Jonathan,” she says. “We began chatting and really hit it off.” She shared with him her distress at the level of sectarianism against Catholics in the area where she was living, and Bell suggested she leave and join him and his girlfriend in Spain.
“So I packed up my car, handed in my notice at work, told the landlord I was heading off and I drove from Northern Ireland to Portsmouth to get the boat to Spain.”
Driving through Spain by herself with only a map for guidance (pre-GPS navigation systems), Hollywood headed for the airport in Valencia in southern Spain, where she was to meet Bell.
“But I got lost in Madrid; I was sitting in my car, holding my head in my hands when a man stopped. ‘Follow me,’ he said and he put me on the right road. I’ve never forgotten that man. I’ve thought of him many times in my prayers.”
Two days after meeting Bell in the flesh – he was still with his girlfriend, Christine – Hollywood had a sense that he was going to play an important role in her life. Just under two months later, Hollywood and Bell became engaged. (The two of them are still on good terms with Christine, who left soon after Hollywood’s arrival in Spain.) They married in August of the following year and a few years later moved to America.
In the States, the newlyweds joined a Conservative synagogue, where Hollywood underwent conversion to Judaism.
They spent a number of years traveling from America to Spain, to England to Bell’s birthplace in Wales, and back again to Spain. Suddenly, two years ago, Bell announced he wanted to live in Israel.
Bell, a foreign currency specialist, had spent the better part of his childhood in Israel, later serving 11 years in the army.
He left the country in 1996, believing he would never come back.
“But there we were, sitting on our balcony in Spain, when there was sudden rush of memory and I had this incredible feeling for Israel. I felt as if I were being pulled like a magnet. So I turned to Pet (as he affectionately calls his wife) and told her I’d love to go back to Israel.”
“Nah, don’t be silly,” she responded.
Every time Bell broached the subject, Hollywood said no.
But fate eventually played its hand.
Bell’s company wanted him to set up an Israeli division.
“I told Pet we had an opportunity to move to Israel,” he says. This time, she agreed immediately.
“It just felt right,” she says. They arrived, accompanied by their two shih tzu dogs, Cookie and Susu, in June 2015.
“I’d been warned that Israelis can be very rude,” she says. “But I can say, hand on heart, that I have yet to meet a rude Israeli. And I can be very aggravating because I don’t speak the language. I have tried to learn it, but I have hearing issues and I don’t catch the start and end of words. Israelis are truly obliging – they go out of their way for me.”
She’d also been warned about Israel’s relentless bureaucracy, but she insists she can recall worse bureaucratic experiences in England, Spain, Ireland and (with an air of exasperation) Switzerland! Her only cavil is with mosquitoes that the summer brings.
Illness left Hollywood unable to practice her profession as a dog groomer, so she turned to cross stitching, making household items, such as coasters, and greeting cards for her daughter in Ireland to sell online.
At home in the bucolic charm of Caesarea, Hollywood would appear to have traveled far, both spiritually and physically, from her origins. Although the complexities of the Irish and Israeli situations differ widely, there are some unfortunate similarities.
Noting that the sectarian violence of her childhood left her scarred for life, how does Hollywood reconcile to living in Israel with its intermittent outbreaks of terrorism? “It’s my normal,” she says. “It wouldn’t occur to me not to go to Jerusalem, for example, just because last week someone set off a bomb.”