My Identity as a Jew: An Interview with Jodee Steiner
Editor: When did being Jewish first hold meaning for you?
Jodee: I can’t remember it not meaning something to me, so I guess it always did. But I think it started causing problems when I entered school. When I was at home with my mom and dad, I thought everybody was like us. You don’t realize that other people have different cultural aspects to their lives.
Editor: How did being Jewish distinguish you from other people?
Jodee: As a young child it was in small ways. It seemed like during the holidays all the Jewish kids in the class would take off; they were all Jewish then! But during Passover when we had to bring matzoh sandwiches to school, not very many children did. In second grade it’s really hard to bring a different kind of sandwich. But a few of us did, and the other kids would make fun of us. That’s when I felt singled out. And when holidays came up, the others talked about events that we didn’t really celebrate, and they didn’t talk about some that we did. In the Christmas pageant there would be one song about Hanukkah, and the rest was Santa Claus and Jingle Bells.
As I got older, my Jewishness set me apart in a different way. I think it’s typical in many Jewish families that education is stressed. I excelled in school, and that set me apart; sometimes people make fun of you. So I’d try not to do too well so I could have some friends!
By the time I reached high school I didn’t really consider myself Jewish. I became interested in Zionism my senior year, but there wasn’t anything about Judaism that I felt I needed in my life at that point. But everyone else still considered me Jewish, and people sometimes made anti-Semitic comments and still made jokes about me.
Editor: What did the religion of Judaism mean to you when you were growing up?
Jodee: We had family gatherings during the holidays, but it wasn’t a religious thing. At Passover we would tell the Passover story, but that practice was eventually dropped. My grandma lived with us; she went to synagogue on the holidays and kept kosher pretty much. I used to go to synagogue with her until junior high, and then I even stopped doing that. But every time we’d go to the synagogue I remember thinking there was something special about it, yet nobody there seemed to think that it meant anything. They were all just going through the motions. As a child that used to make me feel really sad, because I was brought up to feel that being Jewish was really important, even though I didn’t know what about it was important.
I didn’t see any meaning in Judaism itself. I began to resent it, and by the time I reached high school I was uninvolved in Judaism. None of the Jewish people I knew believed the tenets of Judaism. I never opened a Bible until I was 16 years old. My family didn’t believe the Bible. So all that Judaism was to me was the way that we related to each other, the traditions that we kept without the meaning, without the God behind the traditions.
Editor: What did being Jewish mean to you?
Jodee: It was so nebulous, I didn’t even know. I just knew I was one. It was an inseparable part of me. It meant keeping the traditions that are of the Jewish people,” whatever that meant. It almost meant not believing in God. It definitely meant not believing in Jesus.
Both my parents are Jewish, and my father used to consider himself an atheist. I almost felt like that was a part of being Jewish—that we we’re too smart to believe in God. God was for people who couldn’t manage life on their own. We looked down on such people. When I was first confronted with God, that was one of the things that really held me back—that he can’t be real; only stupid people need him, or sick people, or emotionally disturbed people.
Editor: Has your understanding of what it means to be Jewish changed at all?
Jodee: Yes, drastically. I think it began to change after I became a believer in Jesus. My Christian friends would always say, “It’s so neat that you’re Jewish!” They said I was one of God’s chosen people. So I started thinking about it a little bit more. Then, for the first time, I read the Scriptures, the history of my people.
As I started studying the Scriptures, God began to work on my heart. I was sitting in a class and we were studying the Abrahamic Covenant, and I realized that day that I was Jewish, and that nothing would ever change that, that God had made me Jewish for a reason—he doesn’t do anything randomly. I also realized that my being Jewish left me with a responsibility not to ignore my heritage and not to ignore my people. I think that’s when I started to understand that the decision I had made to follow Jesus was a Jewish decision.
Editor: Did you accept Jesus because you wanted to get away from being Jewish?
Jodee: Definitely not. It wasn’t even a consideration. I did it because I thought I needed him. God just built more of a love for Jewishness in me. After that when I would go home and celebrate the holidays with my family, it was really painful, because to me the Passover had a glorious meaning, and to them it was a big joke. They mocked their way through the story and laughed about everything, and that was different, because before I had been mocking along with them. Eventually God brought me to the point where I wanted to reach out to other Jewish people. I’d say that’s a big change—from total rejection to a real burden for my people.
It took about three years after I put my faith in Jesus for God to get through to me that there was something special about the way he’d made me, and that I shouldn’t deny anything about myself that he created. Now I like being Jewish. I’m glad I’m Jewish. I’m content with being what God made me to be.
Editor: How did this new view affect your life?
Jodee: It changed everything. Yeshua changed everything. But it’s really a process. Once I got to the point where I connected on being Jewish and what that meant as far as my believing in Jesus—which is something you learn about all your life—it just changed my perspective on life and on what I felt was important. I accepted the fact that I was Jewish and that I had a responsibility being Jewish. I couldn’t just hide myself in the ranks of Christianity.
Editor: How did this new view affect your plans for the rest of your life?
Jodee: I was planning to be a music teacher. But telling Jewish people about Jesus changed my perspective. I hadn’t wanted to do it because I didn’t want people to yell at me, and I didn’t want to be rejected. But I learned that everyone needs the right to vent their hostility and anger. And venting that, then they can think about it, because they’ve gotten past the explosion and can think like rational people. For that reason I could stop looking at the hostility as something negative and could see that it was actually a positive reaction, and then it became worth the risk and the pain involved. So actually having the opportunity to tell Jewish people about Jesus and have some of them sincerely be interested really helped to change my future plans. It just became so important to tell. Always when I had told my family before about Jesus, I had never gotten through. It had always been a highly emotional thing. After that I hadn’t wanted to tell anybody about Jesus—not even gentile people, because I was sure that they would yell at me. But once I got past that and saw that God was working in people’s lives and not everybody was as hardened as my family—the hope that God was really going to do something and that he could even use me is what changed my idea about what I wanted to do with my life. I might go back to teaching some day, but I’ll never stop telling Jewish people about Jesus.
Editor: Why is it important for them to know?
Jodee: Because he’s the Messiah! Because it gives meaning to everything. It makes the nebulous cloud a real thing that you can grab onto. Jesus put together so many things in my life—changed me. Not to mention the fact that I have eternal life with him and a relationship every day with him!
Editor: Do you have any advice for those of our ISSUES readers who might be struggling with their identity as Jews?
Jodee: I would advise them to read the Scriptures and to find out what God says about being Jewish, instead of floating around in the cloud of “something meaningful” that you can’t figure out. I would challenge them to ask God if he’s real and if Jesus really is his Messiah, and to be willing, if he answers yes, to follow him; because Judaism doesn’t mean anything apart from the God of Judaism. If they want to know what Jewishness means, they should try to get to know the One who made them Jews.
Editor’s Note: Jodee Steiner is married to Paul, also a Jewish believer in Jesus. This interview was conducted before their marriage when she was still Jodee Karroll.