During his childhood in Garden City, L.I., Tyler Barnet, grandson of Herbert L. Barnet, a former president of Pepsi-Cola, knew almost nothing about the company’s adherence to the Arab boycott.
Raised Catholic, Barnet, now 26, wasn’t taught about Israel or anything else Jewish.
“I grew up knowing there was some sort of anti-Israel boycott, but I didn’t know the details,” said Barnet, who spent this week touring Israel on a Birthright trip.
Barnet acknowledged the irony of his situation during an interview at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, on Monday. Pepsi only began selling its products to Israelis in 1992, right after the Arab League discontinued its boycott.
“It’s complicated,” Barnet, a young entrepreneur who is the founder of the website SoAnnoying.com told The Jewish Week. “My father’s mother, Annette Sobol, was Jewish, as was Herbert Barnet, my father’s father.” Barnet was the man who headed Pepsi in the 1950s, during some of the many years the soft drink giant caved into Arab pressure not to conduct business with Israel.
“When Annette died, leaving two young children, Herbert cut all ties with his Jewish family and roots,” said Barnet, who now lives in Manhattan.
“We don’t know why,” he said. “What I do know is that he sent my father, who was 3 when his mother died, to a Christian school. My mom and dad got married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
Barnet’s interest in Judaism was piqued when his father’s older brother died.
“A rabbi called and said my uncle had been living in a Jewish community. A year later, I decided to see what the Jewish half of ‘half Jewish’ was like.”
Barnet contacted his paternal grandmother’s sister and her descendants, and even some of the Barnets. Their warm welcome created a sense of belonging.
“Today, a lot of my friends are Jewish and I join them on Shabbat, on Rosh HaShanah. I’ve been to Jewish weddings,” Barnet said.
A while back Barnet visited Auschwitz “but it didn’t really hit me until just now,” he said, referring to Yad Vashem. “Now I suddenly understand what was really lost.”
Birthright, Barnet said, “has been a transformative, pivotal experience.” Prior to the trip, “I considered myself a ‘critical atheist.’ Now in Israel, I see Judaism from a philosophical perspective. Before coming here I thought it would be impossible for me to adopt religion. Now I think it’s a possibility.”
Barnet is already planning to return to Israel soon, this time with his father, who is halachically Jewish but unconnected to the Tribe.
“I think my dad is really happy that I’m making a connection. He must have lost a sense of identity though decisions made for him by others. That’s something I want,” Tyler said.