From the time I was old enough to understand anything, I believed in God. He was a big omniscient Jewish Grandfather in the sky who could fix everything and make it right if He chose. I knew He was there because I often heard my mother talking to Him in Yiddish. If someone was hurt, or sick, or if she’d had a particularly bad day, I’d hear her saying, Oy, Gott!” Sometimes it sounded more like a complaint than a prayer, but I knew she was appealing to Him for some kind of action. From this I surmised two things: one could appeal to God in times of trouble; and one spoke to Him in Yiddish.
I remember my first prayer. It was over a broken toy, a luxury to a three-year-old growing up during the Depression. My feet hurt as I clomped out of the shoe store that day, holding my mother’s hand. I didn’t like my new shoes—brown, ugly, high-topped oxfords. The salesman had laced them too tightly, but I was too shy to complain. Still, my discomfort faded into the background as I tenderly hugged the big red balloon he had given me. It wasn’t an ordinary balloon on a string. It had a round head with Mickey Mouse ears and stick-on eyes, and its pear shaped body, ending in a knot, was attached to a pair of flat blue and white cardboard shoes. I loved that balloon. Whenever I tossed it in the air, it always came back down on its Charlie Chaplin feet, its comic black and white eyes rolling wildly. In a home with few luxuries and no brothers or sisters, it was my doll, my pet and my friend, and I spent many happy hours playing with it.
Unfortunately balloons have short life spans, and too soon the inevitable happened. As I tossed the balloon up, it disappeared with a loud pop. Shocked and grief stricken, I hunted for the remains. When I found the limp piece of red rubber, my daddy tried to blow it up again, but he couldn’t. I was heartbroken over losing my jolly red friend. The next day, as I sat on the floor cradling the funny black eyes and cardboard feet, I cried and asked God in Yiddish to make my balloon all better. Of course He didn’t, but I didn’t hold that against Him. I knew He could if He wanted to, and maybe the next time I asked for something, He would answer.
Other childish prayers followed, always in Yiddish. Afraid of being left alone, I awoke one night, terrified to realize that my parents weren’t home. I prayed very hard that God would bring them back, and minutes later they came through the door, surprised that I was awake and crying. They had left just long enough to transfer some of our things to a new apartment down the street. Events of a similar nature happened a few times after that, and God always answered my prayers. Once when I was seven, I awoke with a headache and a patch of itchy blisters on my chest. I begged God not to let me have the chicken pox, but He said “no” to that prayer. Still, I felt God was real and I could count on Him to give me what I asked for, at least part of the time.
The next autumn I started my formal religious training in Hebrew school, and I found out that God spoke Hebrew, as well as Yiddish. In fact, the teachers gave us the distinct impression that God preferred Hebrew. Then my prayers became mechanical and no longer personal. I didn’t know what I was reciting from the Hebrew prayer book, but I guessed it didn’t matter because God knew what I was saying, even if I didn’t. I stopped talking to Him from my heart then, and He didn’t seem as real any more.
Where was the God who comforted me when I hurt my knee or helped me find my Daddy when I accidentally sat on a stranger’s lap on the subway? He’d disappeared. Suddenly in His place was a censorious Being who spoke through the voice of my authoritarian mother and my religious teachers. “Mein tor nicht” (one mustn’t) became my behavioral guideline. Whether the words were uttered about crossing a busy street alone, drawing or sewing on the Sabbath, or trying to write with my left hand just for fun, “mein tor nicht” to me was the voice of God. He wasn’t a kind grandpa any more; He had become a stern policeman.
When I was twelve, I decided I didn’t need a policeman in the sky to tell me what to do. Many of my Jewish friends weren’t following the taboos and regulations I had obeyed all my life, and they weren’t being punished or struck dead by lightning! Maybe God wasn’t real, after all. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became. There was no God, and that was fine with me. Still…sometimes I wondered. Could I be wrong?
Then suddenly I was grown up and married, and expecting my own child. No one said to me any more, “mein tor nicht.” I felt free to make my own choices; things were going my way, and I was happy. Again, I wondered. Is there a God after all? If He’s real, is He the kind grandpa or the stern policeman? Either way, I had to know.
For the first time in many years, I prayed in my own words, not reciting out of a prayer book: “God, if you’re real, please forgive me for saying I didn’t believe any more, and thank You for giving me such a happy life.” I felt good about that, like Someone really heard me, so a few days later I thanked Him again, adding, “And please help this baby I’m carrying to be healthy.”
That was the beginning of my road back to faith. The more I talked to God, the more real He became to me. Finally I dared to ask Him for some answers: Who was He really? What did He expect of me? Did He want me to obey all the rules of Judaism I had been taught, or was there another way? I promised Him I would do whatever He showed me, but I had to know it from Him, not from what other people said. From my eight years of Hebrew school, I thought I knew everything important about Judaism and the Old Testament, but I knew there was another part of the Bible that we Jews avoided. My curiosity about that forbidden part of the Bible grew until it became an obsession. I knew I had to find out for myself what it contained before I could decide what God really wanted from me. Tied down at home with my new baby, I had a good excuse for not buying that New Testament myself. Instead, I asked a cousin who was also my close friend to get one for me, and she complied without question.
From my eight years of Hebrew school, I thought I knew everything important about Judaism and the Old Testament, but I knew there was another part of the Bible that we Jews avoided.
With trepidation and excitement, I opened that part of the Bible I had always feared even to have in my possession. As I read it, God showed me that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the One about whom I had learned as a child. I found that the New Testament was just as Jewish a book as the Old Testament; that Jesus came to earth to live and die so that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, could really know and love God without fear of displeasing Him by breaking one of His rules. I realized that God loved me, and He didn’t want to be my policeman or jailer. I read that Jesus in His life on earth had obeyed all rules I couldn’t keep, and He had taken upon Himself all the punishment I deserved. This meant God could be my loving Heavenly Father, rather than my stern, unforgiving judge. At last I could know God and what He really wanted from me.
I was so excited about finding God that I wanted to tell everyone. I thought I’d start by sharing my new discovery with the cousin who had helped me buy my New Testament. Surely if she’d been broad-minded enough to do that, she’d be open to listen to what I had found in it. I was wrong. The minute I mentioned Jesus to her, I sensed an invisible wall springing up between us. That wall never came down, and our relationship was never the same. The rest of my Jewish friends and family were angry and upset, too, when I tried to tell them that God had shown me from the Bible that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
They frowned or glared, and said, “That’s absurd! How can a man be God? We Jews don’t believe in Jesus.” I tried to explain that it wasn’t a man becoming God, but that God had limited part of Himself to human flesh so that people could know Him. “That’s impossible!” they told me. But I knew it wasn’t impossible. After all, the God who created the universe must be all powerful, or He wouldn’t be God. I knew I had found again that One I knew as a child who could “fix everything if He chose.” That God could move mountains, change the laws of nature, or show Himself to His creation in human flesh. He could create or destroy a galaxy as easily as He could comfort a frightened child. In His perfect holiness, He could hate sin while still loving the sinners, and He could bridge that gap in the atonement of Jesus, the Messiah. I tried to tell that to my family and friends, but few wanted to hear it. They found changing their old established concepts of God too upsetting. But I knew that God had answered my prayer by showing me the truth, and I must believe it. I also know that God will show that same truth to anyone who really wants to know and is brave enough to hear His answer.
Jesus the Messiah once said, “Except you become as a little child, you cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” I have found the God I knew as a child. I believe with childlike faith in what non-believers consider impossible because with God,
- ALL things are possible!