From the earliest days of my childhood in Jamaica, Queens I dreamed of perilous journeys and exotic settings where I could be my own master and follow my star wherever it led.
The greatest pleasure of my boyhood was reading. It became the doorway through which I found at least some measure of freedom from the stress of daily existence in the one bedroom apartment our family of four occupied. I would surely have thanked God for books, if I had known there was a God to thank.
To call us cultural Jews might be accurate, but the term far from does us justice. Although my father held no brief for religious believers of any sort, he instilled a high regard for and fierce loyalty to my Jewish heritage, history and social responsibility. Although my non-religious parents were thoroughly Americanized, my father’s older Rumanian siblings still practiced the faith after their own fashion, and my early recollections still fill my senses with the strange spicy smells that lingered in their homes. Their ways created an environment that undergirded my view of who I was without my even knowing it.
If they were of the synagogue, we were at least of the Jewish Center. It was there I attended Hebrew School and was Bar Mitzvah. Why would an atheist send his children to Hebrew School? In the fifties and sixties it was the done thing, if for no other reason than out of obligation to the six million—a number I knew, I am certain, before I entered kindergarten. After pride, the emotion most bound up with my sense of Jewishness was a persistent wariness with regard to the rest of the world. Jamaica was a mix of Jews, Italians and Irish in those days, and I woke each morning to the ringing of the bells of the Catholic church on Parsons Boulevard.
The tough, uniformed, Irish kids emerged each day from the parochial school looking for someone to pick on, and I took special care to make sure that it wasn’t me.
The neighborhood was full of Catholic nuns, and I would find myself staring at them with fascination, especially the silver crucifixes that hung at their waists. To whom did that tiny twisted body on the cross belong? Although I was unclear about what made a Jew a Jew, I knew that for better or worse, I belonged to a family, a community and a history.
My Bar Mitzvah ended any sense of obligation to Jewish religious observance. My sense of obligation to my parents’ wishes in other areas faded as well. In the years that followed, I was determined to crash free from whatever moorings that might have held me back from experiencing every aspect of life that the world had to offer. After a half-hearted start at City College of New York, I finally chucked it all and began a series of hitch-hiking and box car journeys that led all the way to San Francisco.
Finally, I was free. I had no responsibilities, and in those easy days I wandered in the parks and streets without, seemingly, a care in the world. San Francisco was a city of pastel colors and miniature castles—a stark contrast to the grimy brick and hard edge of New York City. Although I used drugs, they in no way added to the euphoria I already felt. At last, I was free to pursue the sense of destiny that had been guiding me for as long as I could remember. The only problem was I didn’t quite know where to begin.
The quest for spirituality seemed good, and I came across a copy of the Be Here Now Book, a westernized version of eastern thought written by a colleague of Timothy Leary named Richard Alpert, who was then known as Baba Ram Dass. I was hooked—for a while. My spiritual journey needed to cover more territory. I dabbled in the occult, but I was still restless. I became convinced that I would not find my destiny in San Francisco. Perhaps across the Atlantic?
I went to Europe—Copenhagen, Zurich, Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and finally to Paris. I had a train pass, a duffel bag and a money belt. It was not a happy trip. In my isolation, I was forced to face the fact that I was not really satisfied with any aspect of my life. In Munich I visited Dachau, the concentration camp, and for the rest of the trip pondered the question of what I owed the Jews who lived before me who had struggled and sometimes died so that I could live as a Jew in this world.
Paris was the last leg of my journey and I was determined to salvage something from the trip. I checked into a hostel and threw myself onto the army cot in the common room. My money belt was chafing me, and just as I was falling into a deep sleep I removed it and set it under the cot.
I awoke the next morning feeling fresher than I had in weeks. The sleep had also improved my state of mind, and I felt ready once more for an adventure. I reached under my cot and froze. My money belt was gone. I began to hear howls, wails and curses in half a dozen languages coming from my fellow travelers. Someone had been very busy during the night.
I sat on my cot, stricken. What would I do? Passport, train pass, all money except for a few coins, all identification, even the ticket for my return flight were all gone. I knew my parents would not be thrilled to have to wire cash to me for the trip home.
All at once, a new thought dawned on me. Why not just let events unfold as they would? I began to see my lost documents and money as the things that were insulating me from the very reality I was seeking to encounter. What if I were well rid of them? What would happen to me in a foreign city without the resources I was accustomed to depending upon? I formed what was perhaps my first real prayer, although I did not recognize it as such. If there was a God, the ball was in his court. I didn’t care if I starved. I would not leave until I had some answers to the questions that had plagued and pursued me.
I walked the streets, and found myself in the Louvre. In the lobby I spied a young woman and struck up a conversation. Her name was Sarah and she was from Milwaukee, of all places. She had blond hair and blue eyes and appeared to be about my age. We began to browse through the galleries as we talked. What did she do? She was a dancer, she said, with a Christian ministry called the Sacred Dance Group that was based in England and in Boulder, Colorado. They led workshops in praise and worship through movement, and performed pieces based on scriptural themes. Sometimes,” she said with eyes sparkling, “the Lord outpours the choreography right on the spot.”
I thought, um-hmm. My image of Christianity at that point was not favorable, to put it gently. Dull, gloomy nit-wits who wanted everyone else to be a dull, gloomy nit-wit. Yet Sarah did not seem dull, gloomy nor, I was to discover, a nit-wit. “Well, I’m Jewish,” I said, to close the subject.
But the subject did not stay closed, although it was I who had to reopen it in the end. For there was something about Sarah that intrigued me in spite of myself. In the days that followed, as she befriended me, it was I who finally had to question her about it. It was then I heard the story of Jesus unfolded for the first time in a way that made sense. Sarah seemed to know how to tell it to a Jew, or else I was somehow just ready to hear it.
The point of contact that made the story of Jesus begin to seem real to me was the dimension of his suffering. Until then I had no problem believing that Jesus was an historical figure or that he had actually been crucified. But what bearing could that event two thousand years earlier have on my own life? Could it be that my own loneliness, isolation and sense of rejection were somehow redundant—if indeed Yeshua had suffered these things for my sake. It was certainly worth thinking about.
On the last day Sarah was to spend in Paris, we returned once more to the Louvre. If I had not found romance in Paris, I at least had to admit I had found friendship. We wandered once more among the art treasures.
We came to a room which contained some portraits of the saints. Again and again I saw the artist’s rendition of the halo around this or that saint’s head. “What was a halo, really?” I wondered. I had the feeling that the artist knew, and that the symbolic streak of gold paint applied to the canvas was an indication of a far greater reality. Furthermore, I somehow knew that the people of that culture who viewed the art might share the same knowledge. I, on the other hand, for all of my esoteric searching did not know. What was it the mystic said? For those that know, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, none is possible.
I turned to address Sarah. And at that moment, I was undone. For resting on her head and shoulders was a glorious golden penumbra that emanated life. I shook my head, but the vision persisted. In the space of a moment I not only saw, but knew, things I had never known before. It was as though I could see where the frailties and flaws of her own personality started and ended, and where this glorious quality of perfection began. She had not earned it, but had received it as gift and was indeed in the process of continually receiving it even as I beheld her. Words like righteousness and holiness, which of course had existed in my vocabulary but without any real corresponding meaning, were ringing in my mind and now suddenly blazed with definition. And somehow, in a way I am unable to describe, in the midst of it all was the living presence of Jesus. I turned back to the artist’s painting, and I knew. Four hundred years earlier the artist had alluded to the same thing by the thinnest band of gold over the head of the Christian saint. For who could paint what I was seeing now?
Yet I did not become a believer in Jesus at that moment. Sarah and I parted ways without my disclosing to her what had happened. We did, however, manage to keep in touch. She enabled me to return to Brussels, and I was reissued a return ticket to New York. For an entire year I wrestled with the task of placing the new truth I had found into the context of my previously held beliefs, or non-beliefs, and the way of life to which I stubbornly clung. This is the danger of truthseeking. For what if the truth you find is not to your liking? I became increasingly frightened of the claim I knew the truth of Jesus the Messiah was placing upon me.
The following summer in Boulder I finally found the courage to say yes. I was convinced of the truth and gave my intellect permission to believe. Moreover, my heart knew its need and was ready to accept Jesus as Lord. The only remaining question was what would happen to my Jewish identity.
Would I have to wear plaid shirts and eat mayonnaise now that I was following Jesus? Would I cease to think and feel as a Jew? Without really knowing the answer, I made the decision to follow Christ anyway.
In the twenty-plus years since that day I have found much I did not expect, and have also been surprised at some of the things I have not found. But one thing I will say is that within the framework of the promise of the God of Abraham expressed and fulfilled in Yeshua, the understanding of what it means to be a Jew has been pressed into my hands like jewels to be mined. That has proven adventure enough for me, and then some.