I was a 6-year-old growing up in Houston when I asked my mother, Mamma, who are Jews and why do people hate them so much?”
Most first graders don’t know much about such things. But being born African-American and living in the “Sixties” South, I quickly learned the meaning of hatred, rejection, cruelty and shame. Where I grew up, racial hatred was a fact of life. Yet, this business about the Jews was strange.
Never mind that a recurring theme on television news reports back then was of “mean” men dressed in white, lighting fires and crosses burning down homes and lynching innocent people. I wanted to know why they targeted the Jews too. To me, Jews looked just like most “white people.” Yet some people saw them as objects of hate. Inferior. Just like “us.” I wanted to know why.
My parents, Benjamin and Rosalie, earned their respective livings as a truck driver and a maid—occupations common for people of their generation, race and class.
I was the fourth child of five, and their only daughter. On Sundays we would make the thirty minute drive from our neighborhood to an area in Houston called “the Third Ward.” My mother was a Christian, my father was not, but they were both committed to showing us Jesus. They felt if we saw Jesus at least once a week, the pains of life wouldn’t hurt so much, and we would have something to look forward to in the “sweet by and by.” In Heaven—where Jesus lived.
Brenda (in purple) on her sixth birthday. Her brothers (David, back left, and Ricky, back, right) and neighbor children helped her celebrate.
During those years at Trinity East Methodist Church, I listened for clues to the mystery of why some people hate the Jews. In between the “hallelujahs,” the hymns, and my water-sprinkled baptism, I learned that Jesus was “hated without a cause.”1 The preacher explained that no one burned down his house but they pulled out his beard. They spit at him, put “stickers” (thorns) on his head, yelled mean stuff at him…and nailed him to a wooden cross.2 In between the flutters of paper fans that bore Jesus’ picture (he was always white), I learned that Jesus died on that cross and the “police line-up of suspects” included religious people, Romans, everyone who ever sinned, including me…and the Jews.3 To make matters even more confusing, my mother told me that Jesus was a Jew.
I concluded that Jesus had an image problem. And so did blacks and Jews. When I thought about it later, I realized that “image” is everything. In our segregated neighborhood we also encountered “Sam,” the Korean store owner as well as Mr. Krull the Jewish developer (who sold my parents their first and only new home in 1950), and Mr. Butler, the white guy who owned Paradise Cemetery in the next acreage.
Sam’s prices were always marked up by at least 20%. You know, “overhead” for operating in a high crime area. He was shot and robbed one morning in 1968 by a gang of thugs. They found his body the next day in the freezer.
Mr. Krull was either color-blind, crazy or just figured “money was money”no matter where it came from. He had moved to Texas from New York, bought some property and built a planned, paved community of brand new homes in North Houston. He called it Garden City Park. But to the “Negro” families that started moving there in 1949, it was a slice of heaven.
As for Mr. Butler, he figured eventually people would start dying and would need a final resting place, regardless of the color of their skin. This was our version of integration.
Unfortunately, many blacks get to know Jews (and Asians) this way: not as friends but as landlords, store owners and “shrewd” business people. Likewise, I think many Jews get to know blacks as those rioting “television toters” who disrupt communities and wouldn’t think twice about killing you. Stereotypes. Bigots feed on this stuff. Why? Because it feels good to make someone else feel inferior. You draw closer to your own. Some bigots are just plain empty inside. Self-righteousness and pride taste good and give the illusion of filling you. Others learn bigotry out of self defense; victims of bigotry usually become bigots. Others are simply scared of what they don’t know. Blacks are seen as the unpredictable Gentiles that some Jews can’t “afford” to have next door, so when they move in…Jews move out. To some African-Americans, Jews are the “white niggers” of the world. The word Jew, when uttered with that same sneer, that same contempt, becomes more destructive than a neutron bomb. When it’s detonated, the person remains but their heart is broken.
Turn the page, and it’s a couple of decades later, 1985. I had entered my 30s and a new relationship changed my life—a genuine relationship with Jesus. But this time, instead of merely knowing about him, I invited him into my heart and my life—and I haven’t been the same since. It’s hard to describe the indescribable. The “sprinkling” of water in my childhood baptism indicated my acquaintance with the “culture” of Christianity, but I had not “become” a Christian. It was the choosing4 of Christ and my conversion5to Christianity that really opened my heart.
As a Christian, I found I had a new interest in the Jewish people. It was not the little girl curiosity as to why “they,” like “us,” were treated as outcasts. It was an interest based on genuine love, and a deep appreciation for the people whom God used to bring the Messiah into the world. I know it might sound strange but because of the Jewish Messiah, I have been included in God’s family. Moses wrote that Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles, and I am one of those Gentiles who has seen the light of Israel’s Messiah. Maybe it seems presumptuous to some that I have accepted Jesus as the Jewish Messiah when such a small minority of Jewish people see him as such. But what is puzzling to me is how few Jewish people I meet are looking to the Jewish Bible for the promise of the Messiah.
It was over dinner in Cancun, Mexico that my Jewish friend Sandy told me she thought the Bible was full of interesting “stories.” But c’mon, Adam and Eve in a “garden?” Noah and his boat full of animals? David and Goliath? Egyptian plagues? The parting of the Red Sea at Universal Studios was more real to her. Her parents weren’t very “religious.” They’d go to synagogue every now and then, but…Sandy preferred to believe that we had all evolved.
Then there’s Rachel, my friend the psychotherapist. She knows all about the Bible—even “New Testament stuff.” But it’s all in her head, not her heart, so it doesn’t do her any good. She doesn’t have faith.6
Another Jewish friend, Daryl, recently attended one of those New Age “spiritual” conferences. He said it was weird. Hard to believe and bordering on the ridiculous. When Daryl asked what I thought about it, I simply said I believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Silence. “Really?” was his response. Really.
Then there are two other friends—Aaron and Barry—Jewish men who are also believers in Jesus Christ. I remember my response when I first met them. Curious. In all my years of “churching” I had never heard of such a thing. I didn’t know such people existed. So, naturally, I wanted to know more.
To my surprise, Aaron’s story was oddly typical of many Christians. His mother Rosalyn is Jewish (and a believer in Jesus) and his father was neither Jewish nor a believer. Aaron had spent years tuning out anything religious and thought the idea of a “savior” was ridiculous until one day…he believed. In embracing Jesus, Aaron told me he could also embrace his Jewish “roots.”
Through Aaron I met Barry, one of the brightest and funniest people I’ve ever known. The three of us would get together at Barry’s apartment and I would be brought close to tears by his unwavering love for Jesus. Barry understood the deep things of Scripture, truths he longed to share with his parents and see them embrace too. But so far that hasn’t happened. Barry says his parents are still angry at God because of the Holocaust. “If this Jesus of yours is God,” they’d say, “where was he when millions of us were being murdered by Hitler?”
It’s a sad fact of life that sometimes the people you love the most are the hardest to get through to. I’ve found the same thing true when I talk to my Jewish friends about Jesus.
What does all of this have to do with “who are Jews?” Everything. To me, Jews aren’t just some ancient people you can read about in the Bible. Nor are they some far away business people who would never invite me to darken their door. I have been blessed to have Aaron, Barry, Sandy, Rachel and Daryl as my friends. And I love them. Most African-Americans will never have such a rich experience. My Jewish friends are the descendants of an ancient culture that God hand-picked to be a Light to the world. Some of them are plugged into that Light, and others…I hope some day will be.
Why do some people hate the Jews? You tell me. All I know is, there is an evil being, Satan, who hates what God loves…and God loves the Jews. My mother told me that years ago, and it’s true today. My prayer now is that my unbelieving Jewish (and Gentile) friends will take up the challenge I did so many years ago. I know people in the Black community who think it’s foolish for me to put my trust in a Jewish Messiah. I had to set aside ethnic stereotypes: the reports about Jesus as told through other’s fears and religious prejudices. My prayer is that my friends will do the same, and get to know Jesus personally.
Jesus promises a future where Israel will occupy her rightful, exalted place on this earth.7 He promises a world absent of heartache, tears, sickness, sin, death and hatred.8 He promises a new Heaven, a new Earth and a New Jerusalem where God will dwell among us.9 And because Jesus died, and eyewitnesses can attest to his Resurrection10…he can make good on those promises, promises I couldn’t refuse.
So the question I ask now is, with so many wonderful promises, why would any people, whether Jewish or black, allow racial prejudice to keep them from exploring for themselves whether Jesus is true?
End Notes 1John 15:25; Psalm 69:4 2Matthew 27:29-31; Mark 15:17-20; Luke 23:11; John 19:2, 3; Isaiah 50:6 & 53 3Luke 22:52-71; Luke 23 4Matthew 20:16; 22:14; Mark 13:20; Luke 10:42; John 13:18; John 15:16, 19; Acts 9:15 5Convert: To turn around, transform 6Hebrews 4:2 7Revelation 21 & 22 8Ibid 9Ibid 10 Luke 24:1-5; 33-43; John 20:29-31; Mark 16:9-16