Harry, come to bed. Harry, she doesn’t want to talk about it.”
My grandmother was such a good natured woman; I think that was the first time in my 11 years I had ever seen her the slightest bit annoyed. My grandfather never raised an eyebrow. He continued our conversation as though we hadn’t been interrupted. My grandmother pulled her bathrobe closed tightly around her neck. Poor Nana was always cold. She just stood outside the living room waiting—a petite woman, her back slightly bent under the weight of her years.
She cleared her throat. “HARRY ELFBAUM! Leave Ruthie alone. She’s not interested in this religious stuff.”
It was my turn to protest. “Nana, its okay. Really, Nana, I like talking to Papa about these things. I’m not tired.”
My grandmother looked at me doubtfully. “Well alright deeyah.” (“Deeyah” is not an obscure Yiddish word, it’s what “dear” sounds like when pronounced with a Boston accent. Both Nana and Papa talked like that, as do all my aunts, uncles and cousins on my mother’s side.) Papa smiled.
“Don’t worry, Shirl. We won’t be much longer.” Grandma Shirley sighed, gave a shrug and went off to bed, her crocheted bedroom slippers padding ever so softly down the hallway.
My grandfather looked at me and said, “So you believe Jesus is the Messiah. Thats what your Mama and Daddy taught you. You’re a good girl. It won’t hurt you to believe that. But when you get to be my age, you’ll know better.”
I shook my head. “How can you be so sure that its not true?”
“Sweetheart,” he answered, “do you know how old your Papa is?” He always spoke softly; I don’t remember ever hearing him raise his voice. But now he spoke in extra hushed tones, as though were about to reveal a very precious secret. My grandfather had a way of sounding quite mystical when he wanted to. I didn’t mind this, except I knew the conversation would take longer. When Papa as being mystical he slowed down and left lots of room for dramatic pauses and contemplation.
“No Papa.” I admitted, “I don’t know how old you are.”
“How old do you think I am?” he prodded.
“You’re ah, well I guess you’re probably about, um…oh Papa, I’m not much good at this. How old are you?”
“Seventy. I am 70 years old. And you are how old?”
“Eleven. I’ll be 12 in June.”
“So,” my Papa said, “So you are 11 years old and I am 70 years old. Do you think it is possible that I might know a little more than you? Maybe it’s possible that you still have some room to learn?” He smiled and added, “when you’re 70 years old, then you come tell me about Jesus.”
“Okay, Papa, I know I don’t know everything. You know more than I do about a lot of things. But does being 70 years old mean you know everything? Is it possible for a 70-year-old person to make a mistake?”
“Is it?” my grandfather mused philosophically. (He was a very philosophical man.) “Yes, it is. It is possible for a person who is 70 years old to make a mistake. But I have not made a mistake about Jesus. The Messiah will come, and things will be different when He comes. That much you can be sure of.”
Harry Elfbaum was a stubborn man. He was an artist and he always did things his own way. Once, he offered to paint something for my mother. He asked her what kind of picture she would like. Mom loves the ocean, so she asked for a seascape. Papa painted an idyllic scene of trees covered with autumn leaves, with a country road winding around the back and a bright blue pond in the foreground. He presented it to her and said:
“There, what do you think?” What could Mom say?
“It s very nice, Dad, but a seascape?”
My grandfather shrugged: “You didn’t say an ocean—so it’s got water in it. See? Right here. I thought this would be nicer.”
Harry Elfbaum had a hard head alright. My dad tells people: “My father-in-law was so hard headed…one day he stepped into the bathtub, slipped and hit his head against the porcelain soapdish—you know, the kind they build right into the wall. Pop wasn’t hurt in the least, but the soapdish…it broke right off the wall!” And that’s the truth, too.
There was a lot more to my grandfather than his stubborn nature. He was also very gentle, very kind and very good with children. He had a way of letting his grandchildren know that what they thought and felt was important. Except he didn’t think that Jesus was too important. Oh, did I mention our family is Jewish? With a name like Elfbaum, what else? My father’s side of the family is Jewish also, the Rosens. Anyway, my Grandpa Elfbaum was a religious man, probably more so than any of our other relatives. The week I stayed with them, the week we talked about Jesus, I remember my grandfather got up to go to shul every morning.
So, if our family is Jewish, what was I doing talking to Papa about Jesus? To understand that, you first have to know a little about my parents, and particularly about my mother.
Both my mother and father were raised in Orthodox Jewish homes. My father’s family was more nominally Orthodox, whereas the family that raised my mother was strictly observant. I say “the family that raised my mother” because she grew up with foster parents. Shortly after she and her twin brother were born, their natural mother died. Her natural father, Harry Elfbaum, was grief stricken and unable to care for his twin infants alone.
A Jewish agency took temporary care of the baby boy, but a woman who had been a friend to the late Mrs. Elfbaum prevailed upon my grandfather to take the little girl. The Starrs were childless and Mrs. Starr was determined to keep my mother. Amidst the confusion and grief over his wife’s unexpected death, she gave my grandfather papers to sign which, unbeknownst to him, gave the Starrs custody of his little girl.
Just as my mother was entering her teens, she and her foster parents left Boston and moved to Denver, where she met my father. They began seeing each other when they were 14, decided to marry when they were 16, and were wed at age 18. A year later my sister was born.
Both my parents have a strong sense of Jewish identity. Each brought into the marriage aspects of Judaism received from their own upbringing. My mother did not want to keep kosher, for it had never brought her any closer to God during her childhood. But although she was not aware of it, her religious upbringing did ingrain in her the necessity to obey God. Though she did profess a period of agnosticism, there was never any question in her mind that if God existed, he was totally deserving of her obedience.
The aspects of Jewish upbringing my father brought were more related to Jewish culture, especially family ties: the importance of being a good provider, a good husband and father, and in general, being loyal to one’s own, the Jewish people. Holidays were celebrated because it was the Jewish thing to do. Life was neatly lined out, everything in its place and under control.
My mother, though no longer “under the thumb” of a strict Orthodox home, began to think seriously about God again before the baby came. Mom had always loved music, especially Christmas carols, though not in a religious sense. Once during a high school Christmas pageant, she had a fleeting moment of curiosity about Jesus. The songs spoke of Bethlehem, and the seed of King David. The curiosity passed quickly and she didn’t pursue it. But as she listened to Christmas carols the winter after my sister’s birth, her interest was rekindled. Why would Christians be singing, “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel”? Privately, my mother asked God, “Could it be that you really did send Jesus to us? I am ready to go back to Orthodox Judaism if that is what you want.…
But if you want me to believe in Jesus, please show me.” Mom didn’t think much more about that prayer until a week or so later. Then, on New Year’s Eve, something startled her, and caused her to remember the prayer. As she looked out of a window she caught sight of the biggest and brightest star she had ever seen. And she found herself thinking, “Maybe that’s what the Christmas star looked like.”
Suddenly, she knew she wouldn’t rest until she found out the truth about Jesus. Mom really trusted God to show her whether or not she ought to believe, but it was still hard for her to go through with her search. She began to wonder about the New Testament, but was afraid to read it. She was happy and naturally didn’t want her life to be disrupted. She knew there was a good chance she would be ostracized by family and friends if she became a believer in Jesus.
Finally, Mom gave in to her burning curiosity and began to read the New Testament, starting with the Book of Matthew. She went on to read Mark, then Luke and John. Then, she promptly went back to Matthew and started all over again. She knew Jesus was real, and couldn’t read enough about him.
Mom says it’s hard to describe what she found so irresistible about Jesus. First of all, it was obvious that he was Jewish. The genealogy in the Book of Luke traces him back as a son of David. That set her mind at ease because she saw from the start that she wasn’t reading about some foreign religion. But what really impressed her was the way Jesus talked. He was so practical—down to earth—and at the same time, there was something unmistakably divine about him. He spoke with authority. He was compassionate, yet inspired respect, and his commands were a call to righteousness.
As she read, Mom knew Jesus was not just a literary hero. He had to be real. God had answered her prayers in a rather inconvenient way. But she had promised to accept his answer, whatever the consequences. I think that was rather brave.
Needless to say, Dad was not pleased with Mom’s new beliefs. He had heard all about Jesus from a Christian acquaintance, Orville. Orville had pointed out the Jewishness of Jesus and the fullfilment of prophecy, but my father would have none of it. He didn’t want to know whether or not it made sense because believing in Jesus would constitute a breach of loyalty. My father didn’t find out till much later that Orville and his family had prayed three times a day for three years that God would show Dad the truth about Jesus.
Though Dad never presumed to tell Mom what she should or should not believe, he did feel he had the right to ask her to keep quiet about it. She respected his wishes and did not tell the family that she had accepted Jesus as her Messiah. Dad read some of the literature Mom left lying around so he could explain to her how foolish it was. But many people were praying for him, and one day he had to admit that it did make sense. He could no longer deny that Jesus was the Messiah. He hadn’t wanted to believe because he knew that he and my mother would be considered traitors. And you know, he was right.
Once Daddy accepted Jesus, he knew it wasn’t right to keep quiet about it. He thought if he could explain it in just the right way, his family would understand and believe in Jesus, too. Instead, he was disowned and disinherited. (Eventually, his family relationships were restored to some extent, but things were never quite the same.)
And my mother? Her foster parents said if she didn’t give up her faith in Jesus, they would give up being her parents. And that’s exactly what happened. Ironically, it was the values they had taught her—that God is to be obeyed more than man—which drove a wedge between Mom and her foster family.
Mom kept in touch with her twin brother, Jay, through the years. They had exchanged letters occasionally. After she and Dad became believers in Jesus, Mom heard from Jay that Grandpa Elfbaum, seriously ill, had asked for her. She wrote the family telling them of her new faith saying that they might not want to be in contact with her anymore, but that she and my Dad hoped to keep up the relationship. After years of estrangement from her natural father because of misinformation about the “adoption” procedure (she had thought he hadn’t wanted her) now Mother was hoping for some sort of reconciliation.
My true grandfather was overjoyed to be reunited with his daughter, regardless of her belief in Jesus. In fact, the whole family welcomed my parents and sister with open arms. Grandpa Elfbaum had remarried, so now Mom had a step mother (Grandma Shirley) and three half brothers. The loss of her foster parents still stung, but her acceptance back into the Elfbaum family with no questions asked was deeply gratifying. My parents moved to New Jersey so Dad could attend Bible school, and they made trips to Boston to visit my grandpa and grandma from time to time.
By 1956 when I was born, my parents had been believers for a few years. Naturally, they taught me about Jesus as I was growing up. I don’t remember needing to be taught about being Jewish. I just always knew I was. I remember celebrating the holidays, especially Passover. It never seemed strange to me that we ate matzoh at Pesach when many of the other school children ate bread sandwiches. It meant being Jewish was something special—because we did certain things differently than everyone else and because the stories in the Bible were about our ancestors.
I felt lucky, because there was only one way to be Jewish, and that was to be born thhat way, which I was. I also felt lucky because not everyone knew about Jesus, but I had parents who understood and could teach me who he was. They also taught me that I had to decide for myself what to believe. I remember specifically two things about being 6 years old. My dad taught me to play chess and that year I accepted Jesus as my Messiah.
So now you know why I, a little Jewish girl, was talking to my grandfather about Jesus. While he didn’t seem to mind about our believing in Jesus, he was making it clear to me that he knew better. Yes, Harry Elfbaum was a stubborn man, but I had inherited some of that stubbornness and was applying every ounce of it to our conversation. We were having a lively discussion about Isaiah 53, and Papa said the prophet couldn’t possibly be referring to Jesus.
“Why?” I kept asking. “Why are you so sure?”
“I’m an old man,” he answered, “and I’ve studied these things. I’ve even read the New Testament.”
“But when you studied these things,” I pressed, “were you already sure he wasn’t the Messiah? Or did you study because you were trying to find out?”
“Trust me,” Papa said, “Jesus is not the Messiah.”
But my head was as hard as his! “But what if he was? Wouldn’t you want to know?” Papa paused, but this time, it was not for effect. He was making a very important decision. Finally he said, “Yes, I would want to know.” And he meant it.
My Papa was a godly man. I was very happy. I hadn’t won the argument, but I had won my grandfather’s attention to a matter of great importance. There was just one more thing I had to do.
“So if you would want to know, it wouldn’t hurt to ask God to show you, right? And you could even read the New Testament again, but this time, you could ask God if its true while you’re reading it. Will you, Papa?”
My grandfather smiled indulgently. “Okay, I’ll think it over.”
“Oh good! Oh, and Papa, don’t just ask once, okay? Sometimes it takes a while to get an answer.”
“I’ll remember that. Goodnight, deeyah.”
It was a year later, or maybe two, that Papa accepted Jesus as his Messiah. I can’t tell you exactly how or why, but I can tell you this Papa was a hard-headed man who always did things his own way…but he was a man who wanted to know the truth. I guess it must run in the family.