My father was a first generation North American. He grew up in Canada in a home heavily accented with the culture and customs of Eastern Europe, and a Jewry which was quickly shedding the religious orthodoxy of the Old World. He certainly didn’t believe in Jesus, but the way he spoke that name almost daily had an effect on me as I grew up.
He would speak that name when he was irritated, upset or frustrated, and I would hear, Jeeeezus!” The name came out as though it were being spat upon the ground, and I learned early just how to say it as an emotive, ejaculatory display of displeasure. “Jeeeezus, I’m tired of all that school work!”
Coupled with that inbred, unpleasant association with the name was my mistrust and fear of Christians who loved that Jesus. “Don’t ever marry a Christian girl when you grow up,” my mother told me. “Our people never did well when we tried to assimilate. They (the Christians) will eventually turn on us because they think we killed their savior.” So my early training in Jewish life confirmed in my heart that there was nothing worthy in the name of the savior of the Christians. Besides, most of my “Christian” friends didn’t have any more regard for Jesus than I did.
That was all fine and easy to live by until a very inconvenient notion began intruding into my awareness. In 1970 I finished off my basic college education, and I launched out on my first job as a counselor in a drug abuse clinic. I was supposed to have answers to the pain and problems that my “clients” were facing. I had the responsibility of offering some alternative way to cope with life, other than self-anesthetization through the use of drugs.
I started to explore a number of disciplines in the field of psychology, such as mysticism and religious thought, in the hope of discovering something greater than my own wisdom to communicate. I knew that I didn’t have the answers for other people. It was all too apparent that I didn’t have answers for myself. My own personal struggle and occasional failure to remain drug-free made me painfully aware of the frailty and inconsistency of humanity.
There was a unique woman on the general board of the drug clinic where I worked. Trained at John Hopkins University, she was filled with a wealth of experience in the field of psychology. When I asked for her help, she made a very cryptic suggestion: “Why don’t you ask God to show you who he is and who you are in his eyes.”
So I did it. All alone, literally on a mountain top in Southern California, I called out to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to let me know if he was there and what he wanted of me. Then, and only then, did the truth begin to surface in my life. The sea of emotions began to boil. The clouds of turmoil darkened, thickened and seemed to close around my life like a dense fog.
The very confrontation with the name of Jesus brought to the surface emotions that I could not explain. I had never spoken with a Christian about the person of Jesus. It was always too easy to avoid. I bristled with such hostility over the subject that I honestly don’t recall anyone who attempted a meaningful conversation with me about him.
When my best friend gave me a copy of Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, in 1970, I felt that the offer was a bother. His stepmother had “recently become a Christian,” although I thought she had always been one. I’d never asked my friend to read a book about Judaism, so I felt justified at being annoyed.
Yet for some reason, on a night in early December of 1970, I read the book in one sitting. I came away very troubled. It was the first time that I had ever allowed myself to hear what a “real Christian” believed about Jesus. Here was a gentile who said that Jesus was the prophet of whom Moses had spoken in the Jewish Scriptures.
Here was one of those people against whose influence I had been warned. He seemed to be stripping the very dignity from my Jewish heritage by claiming that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. My own reaction puzzled me. I sat still long enough to ponder, “Could it be true?”
Shortly after this, Hal Lindsey came to speak on the campus where I was working. I went to hear him at an evening lecture. He repeated much the same information that was in the book, only now the need in my heart was pulling me toward a conclusion like a team of run-away horses drawing a wagon.
At the most basic level of need in my heart, I wanted what Jesus seemed to offer. The deepest, innermost part of my being desperately hungered for the answer that he claimed to provide. Apart from my culture, heritage and identity as a Jew, Jesus spoke to my most basic instincts. He came to offer me a forgiveness, a relief and a release from the guilt and pain of my sin. In him I saw hope, the possibility of a new relationship with the God of my forefathers. It would have been so easy if that had been the only level upon which I had to relate.
But when that lecture was over, I stood up from the place where I had been sitting—the floor in the back of the auditorium. As a Jew it had been very hard for me to go and hear a Christian speak. I did not want my interest to be known, nor did I want to have to offer an explanation for my curiosity. I didn’t want people approaching me, asking for a commitment to a conclusion which caused me so much trouble.
Still, I wanted so much to know who Jesus is. I approached the speaker to talk to him, to ask how I might know the truth about this savior. But then a tempest of emotions borne on the winds of tradition rallied up in my heart. The words were meant as a simple declaration, but they came out with such anger: “As a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I’ll concede that what you said was interesting, but that’s all.”
Had social convention allowed it, I would have struck the man. My own anger caused me such embarrassment and concern that I forced myself to turn and walk away. It seemed that the very desire that drove me forward hungering for more knowledge was coupled with an equal impulse to repel such knowledge.
I was filled with hostile questions which seemed to mitigate what these Christians believed. How could we be wrong? How could our leaders miss Jesus if he were truly the Messiah? If an ordinary common Jew like me were to discover the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, what did that mean in terms of everything else that I had believed from my teachers? It was as though the fabric of tradition that held Jewish life together might unravel at any moment.
Anger, such anger as overwhelmed my soul, seemed to flood my entire being. I needed to talk to somebody, but there was no one who could understand this ambivalence. Had I met a Christian in that moment, I would have blamed him for every Jew who had died at the hands of the murdering “Christian” crusaders. I would have spat the name of “Jeeeezus” back at them as the one in whose name our people were tormented by the inquisitors. As I left the lecture hall, I heard the speaker calling after me, “Why are you so angry?” l didn’t have an answer, yet I asked the question of myself, “Why are you so angry? What did Jesus ever do to you that you should hate him so? Why am I so angry?” I had to ask.
If the truth were known I would have to admit simply that I was afraid. I was afraid of the truth. I was afraid of the consequences and the responsibility of knowing the truth.
About a month later, I resolved my own ambivalence. I surrendered my heart to the truth, despite what I imagined believing in Christ would cost. But my experience of anger has helped me to understand the reactions of the very people to whom I’m now hoping to communicate the message of Yeshua (Jesus). “Why are you so angry?” I’ve asked people. ‘What makes you so mad?”
There’s a responsibility in knowing the truth. And sometimes we Jewish people, for the sake of tradition and because of human nature, would rather preserve the statue quo. The voice of tradition, warning against the unknown, calls, “Turn back before you become lost.” And the voice of anger, joining in, riles up to call us back to the popular and safe beliefs of our community. But Yeshua’s voice can still be heard, making known the simple truth of God. He told us, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Have you asked yourself lately, “Why am I so angry?” What makes me so mad?”