Life & Culture

How my son’s terminal cancer inspired me to convert to Judaism

Kit Vincent’s film ‘Red Herring’ tracks his family’s devastation after they were told he was terminally ill. His father tells our writer about how life has moved on since


Close bond: Lawrence and Kit Vincent in Red Herring

When Lawrence Vincent first watched his son Kit’s highly moving documentary Red Herring, it was more than he could take. “It was overwhelming. That’s the word – it was completely overwhelming. I felt traumatised by it,” says Lawrence when we speak over Zoom. “I couldn’t believe what he’d made.”

This is hardly a surprise. Intimate and personal, Red Herring chronicles what happens when Kit, then 24, receives the diagnosis that he has a brain tumour, and it’s terminal. When Kit’s father first heard the news, alongside his son, he had a heart attack on the spot. Thankfully, he survived, but the road since has been anything but easy.

The documentary, which won Best UK Feature at the Raindance Film Festival last year, not only deals with Kit’s illness, but how Lawrence and Kit’s mother Julie cope with the news. In Lawrence’s case, he turned to Judaism, finding comfort in its teachings, a spiritual journey that shows just how vital faith can be in times of trouble.

A “private, shy person” by his very nature, Lawrence was “resistant initially” when his son – who has been “messing around” with cameras since he was young – decided to start filming intimate exchanges. “When I realised how much it meant to him, and he was going to turn it into a proper project, I kind of submitted to it,” he says. “And if you completely give yourself over to something, it’s easier in a sense, isn’t it? Stop resisting. So that’s what I did.”

Teaching Semiotics and English – he was principal and chief executive at Bournemouth and Poole College for seven years – Lawrence says he’d always had “a working knowledge of the world’s religions”, and it was his education that led him to Judaism. As the film shows, his inquiry into the faith began as he undertook an online course run by a Chabad rabbi, who is soon seen in the film talking about the connection between the living and those who have passed away.

“As an academic, when I’m in pain, what I do is study, and I started studying Judaism,” Lawrence, 64, explains. “Once I got into it, the more kind of enchanted and intoxicated I became really, because it seemed to be stealing my energy in a way that was helpful to me.”

Raised in Leeds, Lawrence’s upbringing was not a particularly religious one. “I suppose my family would say they were just regular Christians… but not in any practising way,” he says. As he became an adult, he considered himself agnostic, even atheist, but Kit’s diagnosis changed everything. Judaism became an unexpected light for him. “It opened up a part of my brain, which wouldn’t have been opened up before, and was helpful,” he says. 

With Red Herring some five years in the making, the majority of this period saw Vincent studying Judaism. “I thought I could be halfway in and halfway out or I could commit and I committed. And it’s not easy to convert to Judaism. I mean, it takes a long time. It was four years of hard work.”

In that time, he studied the Torah and learnt Hebrew. “The rabbi sets you challenges and you’ve got to stick at it. The Jewish faith is not interested in converts who are not going to stick at it.” He has clearly embraced that wholeheartedly. He joined a Reform congregation, befriending the rabbi. He also celebrates Shabbat and integrated himself into the local community.

“In an odd way, I always felt Jewish,” he says. “I always felt like I was outside of things and homeless and stateless and all of those things, symbolically. So, it’s given me some peace. I haven’t become a massively religious person, but I’ve become a more deeply philosophical person.”

So what Judaism has taught him. “I’ve learned that we need to be more sensitive, kind… it appeals to me because of its emphasis on learning. What it teaches you… there’s nothing new in the world. Kit’s situation isn’t new. And if you connect with some of the right stuff, you can form a deeper understanding as to what’s going on and, therefore, you form a deeper understanding of the human condition.”

As heavyweight as this sounds, Red Herring has a lightness of touch. At one point, Vincent dresses as Albert Einstein as a way to celebrate Purim. He can also be glimpsed with Kit and his ex-wife Julie as they attend a Chanukah menorah lighting. As this demonstrates, Kit truly captures tender moments between father and son. But what did this emerging film-maker make of his father’s conversion?

“Kit called it like I was avoiding with what was going on. I always disagreed with that. I just thought it was the opposite to that really. The bizarre thing is, we didn’t know anything about [the background of] Kit’s mother – my first wife – because she was adopted. And since the film has been made, we’ve discovered that her background is Jewish. So the whole thing has been really bizarre.”

Asked how he feels about the movie, and Vincent glows at the thought of his son’s filmic achievements. “That’s the overriding of pride,” he says. But understandably he calls the whole experience “raw”, with friends and family members only now watching the film. For Julie, in particular, it’s been “difficult”, notes Vincent. “It throws a light on Kit’s slightly difficult relationship with his mum.” Despite her work as a nurse, she finds it almost impossible to comprehend what might happen to her own son and a palpable distance grows between them. “His sisters [also] are not in the film. And that is a bit odd for them, I think.”

Still, it’s the father-son bond that takes up the most oxygen. At one point, we see that Lawrence is starting to grow cannabis, to his son’s shock. “There’s enough medical evidence to suggest now that cannabis helps people with seizures,” he says. “It’s been in medicine for 3,000 years in China. I just thought, I’m powerless in this situation. But what I can do is I can make Kit some cannabis oil… if it helps him.” Lawrence advocates decriminalising the consumption of cannabis in the UK. “Germany have done it, haven’t they? Whenever I go to America, I can’t believe now how decriminalised it is. And for people in Kit’s situation, it should be [prescribed].”

Lawrence says he’s watched the film 20 times now. “Seeing myself in those moments of real trauma and distress, that’s obviously not easy viewing, is it?” So how did it feel when the camera were turned off? “I mean, a big relief initially. Kit and I, for quite a while, seemed to be able to communicate through his film, which is quite an odd concept. And possibly, it helped with some of our communication as well, because he was asking me questions that he wouldn’t normally ask. But I’m glad it’s over.”

So how is Kit now? “He’s more healthy than any of us dared imagine at this stage after six years,” says Lawrence. “That said, today he gets his feedback on his latest six-month scan. So today’s a difficult day.” Kit, in spite of the precarious nature of his existence,  continues onwards. The success of Red Herring means he’s moving onto other projects, including a documentary in Kosovo. As for Lawrence, he’s now an artist. “You are what you do every day. And every day I paint.”

Before we part company, I ask Lawrence what he likes best about the Jewish faith. “I love the way that it channels energy towards compassion, justice and kindness,” he says. “So it reminds me to be a better person every day. And as an academic, I’ve always been very attracted to this emphasis on learning. It keeps me curious. That’s the word.”

Red Herring is in cinemas and available online from May 3.

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