On my eighteenth birthday, I returned from the college library to encounter a small gathering outside my dorm room. It occurred to me that they might be planning to surprise me with a small party. I entered and set down my books. Some of the guys pushed their way through my door. I expected them to yell, Happy Birthday!” To my great horror, I noticed a poster on my wall. Someone had scrawled in dark red letters, “If I had known it was your birthday, I would have baked you a kike.” Turns out my roommate, a “friend” from high school, had let everyone in and helped them “decorate.” The fight that erupted left me with two broken ribs. I spent the rest of my birthday in the infirmary…
My great-grandfather was murdered in the town square of a village in Byelorussia in the early 1900s. His death was meant to signal everyone in the area that Jews were no longer welcome. Out of desperation, my greatgrandmother sent my grandfather and two of his brothers to North America.
When my father was born, he was given the name Abraham “Abe” Zaretsky. In an attempt to blend in, however, he later took the more common name “Al.” He and his family then changed their last name to Carsen, and that is how a Jew of Eastern European heritage became known as Dr. Albert Carsen.
I was born in 1947 in San Jose, California. My parents named me Lloyd Carsen. Our home was in a mostly “Christian” neighborhood. Yet my parents socialized almost exclusively with Jewish friends and family. So in my small world everyone was culturally pretty much like me.
As a child, I had a sense of something bigger than anything I could see or imagine—a sense of God. I still remember my first impression of him. I was about six and had been outside all day, running around. The day was ending and I was tired, so I flopped down on our front lawn, rolled over on my back, and looked up at the sky and watched as it went slowly from bright blue to pale blue to purple then finally to black. I felt something like awe as I looked up at the infinite sky that night. I believed God lived somewhere out there, and I wanted to find him.
On Sunday mornings I went to religious school. My classmates came from various schools in San Jose, so it was fun getting to know kids outside of my immediate social circle. In public school we were always the outsiders—the ones who didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. But at Hebrew School my friends and I were a community.
As the time for my bar mitzvah drew closer, however, Uzi Justman, an Israeli, came to my house each week to tutor me in Hebrew. I liked Uzi. He was passionate about Israel. He had served in the Israeli army in the first Sinai Campaign in the mid-1950s, and he told me about his experiences. My love for Israel was born out of those animated conversations with Uzi.
In the spring of 1960 my entire extended family came to California for my bar mitzvah. I was excited to feel part of something that was much bigger than just me. One night my grandfather and grandmother held a ceremony in our living room. With great solemnity—in front of my entire family—they presented me with the yarmulke and tallis that I would use for my bar mitzvah.
That night they also told me the story of their coming to America. As they told of my great-grandfather’s murder and my grandfather’s flight for survival, I realized I was linked to a very distant past. Even though I could not articulate it, I knew this connection somehow gave my life meaning and purpose.
On the day of my bar mitzvah I remember feeling pride as I read the prayers with both my grandfather and father—each of us in order, generation after generation. I recalled what my father had told me about his upbringing, and how he grew up saying those prayers daily as a young Orthodox Jewish boy. A window seemed to open into the past. Yet at the same time, I could see the future in myself.
After we prayed, I read from the haftorah portion Devarim out of Isaiah, chapter 6. It was the story of the prophet’s response to God’s call. The Lord asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah replied, “Hineni,” (“Here am I”). As I read those words I felt like I, too, was calling out to God. Just like when I was six, lying on the lawn looking up at the stars—I was reaching out to him.
Afterwards, while the reception was underway in the fellowship hall, I sneaked back into the sanctuary. I wanted to meet with God—alone. In the darkened sanctuary, I said the only thing that came to mind, “Hineni.” But nothing broke the silence except my own breathing and the distant sound of people talking beyond the doors of the dark room.
“Here I am,” but where was he? I had sacrificed a lot of time preparing for this day. I had read and believed the prophets. I saw how God spoke directly to my ancestors, and now I figured it was my turn. But where was he? I sat awhile in the darkness until I figured I wasn’t going to meet God there after all. I rejoined the party a disappointed young man.
After my bar mitzvah, my perception of what it meant to be Jewish in a mostly “Christian” neighborhood changed. What my parents had said about how “the Christians” felt about Jews was no longer remote—I began to experience it personally. Once, I was eating lunch with some high school classmates when another student came over and asked them if they knew that they were eating with a Jew. My lunchmates looked back at him, as if to question whether, in fact, they were doing something wrong.
I’d heard the stories about how the “Christians” killed my great-grandfather and how the University of Toronto Hospital had rejected my father’s application because he was Jewish (even though he was the second highest graduate in his medical school class). I even sat through a meal once at a neighbor’s house while the father made comments about Jews having “killed” Jesus. I kept close to my Jewish friends in high school, not merely to be with them, but to be away from others.
The times when I felt freest were times I spent in the ocean—surfing. Every day, I could barely wait for classes to end so I could dash home, grab my gear and with a few friends head over to Santa Cruz. Far out in the ocean I felt small, yet significant. I often talked to God during those times.
I continued to speak to God during my college years. Of the 2,000 students at the University of Redlands, I knew only ten (including me) who were Jewish. I was known as Lloyd Carsen at the time, so it was easy for me to blend into the white, middle class Southern California atmosphere. Many assumed I was “one of them.”
But I never quite felt like I belonged. On my eighteenth birthday, I found out I wasn’t as well accepted as I had thought. The incident in my dorm room left me both infuriated and humiliated. The remainder of that academic year was perhaps the loneliest time in my life.
My concept of God began to change. I had a deepening desire to connect with him and to know him intimately. After classes, I often hiked in the nearby mountains. In those beautiful surroundings I found the peace to focus my mind on God. In fact, I began seriously seeking his presence through prayer. I was lonely. I also worried about being drafted for the war in Vietnam. I knew God was the only one who could help me.
I longed to hear from God, but the more I reached out, the more frustrated I became. As in my bar mitzvah days, I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t talk with me the way he did with my ancestors.
I dealt with my loneliness by eventually turning to drugs later in my college career. On my twenty-third birthday I became depressed, as the reality of how I was choosing to deal with my problems became too heavy to bear. That night a friend of mine took me up to the mountains. I wanted to walk in the snow until the sun came up, imagining that I could somehow walk out my despair. As I watched the beauty of the sunrise, I started to feel the weight of my hopelessness lift. I was talking to God. I asked him to help me find more beautiful sunrises.
I received my M.A. and eventually became a counselor at a local drug abuse clinic. It made me face the fact that I was a hypocrite—telling others to stop abusing drugs, while secretly I used them to numb my own pain. I hated my hypocrisy. I wanted to live as I knew I should.
I had a true desire to help those I was counseling, so I often looked to others in my field for advice. That is how I came to know Jean Zeller. Somehow she always seemed to bring the conversation to a more personal level. I knew she was a religious Christian, and I never hesitated to show my true feelings about her “people.” She never seemed to take offense at my blunt remarks and we shared a mutual respect and appreciation.
One evening I shared with her how God had disappointed me ever since my bar mitzvah. Then Jean told me about God’s promise: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” It didn’t occur to me to ask when God made such a promise. It sounded like God. After all, there had to be some reason why I’d been calling out to him all those years. Jean encouraged me not to give up.
On that warm evening I went back to the mountains. Seated next to a waterfall I called out to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the “only one God” of the Jewish people. I told him that I was asking, seeking and knocking for two purposes: I wanted to know how I was doing in his eyes, and I wanted him to reveal himself to me.
Soon I realized that God had already been answering the first part of my request. I was very aware of my hypocritical behavior at the drug clinic as well as the cowardly way I’d chosen to run from life’s difficulties.
Around that time, the mother of a good friend gave me a gift. She had recently come to understand God in a new and personal way through Jesus. So I wasn’t surprised when she sent me a book about religion. She inscribed it: “I’m sending this to you because I cherish you.” I leafed through the pages and quickly noticed references to Jesus. I tossed it to the back of my closet.
However, a few weeks later, while I was reading other spiritual material, I reached back in my closet for the book and began reading it. It was The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. I was enraged with Lindsey’s view of the Scriptures. He was trying to tell me, a Jew, that the Jewish prophets made reference to Jesus. I immediately concluded that Lindsey was an idiot. But my rage gave way to curiosity.
I had been trying to open myself up to different worldviews. At the same time I had never given the slightest thought to the possibility that Jesus could be the Messiah.
If Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, my whole frame of reference—my reality—was wrong. The mere thought made me feel isolated. If I believed this, who would I become? There was no category in my understanding for a Jew who believed like a Christian. I knew that if I believed like that I would become a minority among my own people—an outcast! I knew firsthand what people who (I thought) were Christian did to Jews, and I couldn’t even imagine why I, or any Jewish person, would even consider their Jesus. Nevertheless, I was driven to find the truth.
So when I saw a sign on campus the next day advertising: “Hal Lindsey, Author of The Late Great Planet Earth: Here Tonight!” it seemed beyond the realm of coincidence. I felt like I had no choice; I had to hear Lindsey. I sat in the back of the meeting and listened to him give the same message I had read in his book. I was terribly frightened. I wondered if his message might be true. How could our rabbis be wrong? How could a whole people be wrong?
At the end of Lindsey’s message I approached him and said something like, “As a descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, what you had to say was interesting, but that’s all.” When he tried to ask me my name, I turned and stomped out. Even so, there was something inside me that would not bow down to my fear. I felt like I was fighting for truth.
I knew I either had to pursue what I suspected was true or else turn away altogether. I chose to pursue my growing “suspicions” by reading the Gospel of John in the New Testament. I was astounded at how believable it was and how credible Jesus was. There was no way I could logically dismiss what I was reading. I knew what I had to do.
Eight months had passed since I had gone to the mountains to seek God. I went again, this time with a Bible in my backpack.
Sitting in my tent surrounded by snow-covered wilderness, I read the Gospel of John again. Everything I read about Jesus convinced me that he was the Messiah. In him, I saw the fulfillment of the Scriptures. He lived as a Jew and understood Torah as God intended it. He taught it like no other rabbi I had known. I started reading by evening light. I finished by flashlight, and when I finally hiked down the mountain, I knew I had encountered the Messiah of Israel. I was exhilarated. I had finally found what I’d been looking for. But I was also chilled by the fear of what I had to do next.
A few days later a former professor invited me to a Christmas pageant. For seven years I had avoided invitations to these programs, but this time I accepted. I sat in the back, culturally estranged from the crowd, yet personally drawn to the message that I heard that night. It was, “Jesus said, ‘…I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me'” (John 14:6). Still, I was resisting because I had always been taught “Jesus is not for the Jewish people!”
At intermission, I repeated that phrase “Jesus is not for the Jews.” A professor seated nearby told me that when Jesus spoke those words, he was talking to a crowd of Jewish people who were just like me. With that, my last barrier fell. I walked into the cold December night, my heart torn between hope and sadness. I talked to God about my life and my sin. I told him I was afraid of being alone forever—afraid of being separated from him and from my people. As I told God my fears, I was comforted by the idea that God was there with me. For the first time, I felt God’s presence as I had imagined my ancestors did long ago. That night I encountered God himself, Emmanu-El—God who is with us.
I remembered how God answered the first part of my request by showing me my shortcomings and my need for him. Now he was answering my second request as he revealed himself to me through Jesus. I bowed my head and told God that I wanted to turn from my sin and receive salvation through the Messiah, Jesus.
A few weeks later, I headed for Israel! Where else could I find answers to the unique challenges of both being Jewish and believing in Jesus. I arrived in Jerusalem in March 1971. In that place it made sense culturally to start using the Hebrew name my parents had given me. Tuvya, which means “God is good,” fit better with the family name of Zaretsky. I eventually made it a legal change.
For 18 months I lived and worked in Israel. I studied Hebrew and the Bible intensely. In the fall of 1972 I returned to the United States. I continue to travel to Israel whenever I can. In fact, I was finally able to take my wife, Ellen, and our three children there in the summer of 2003.
I have traveled to Israel before with Ellen, who is also a Jewish believer in Jesus. This time it was wonderful to be there together as a family. The kids know that Jews are our people even if their language and culture are different in Israel. We had deeply spiritual moments for prayer and Bible reflection in the places where some of the biblical events had occurred. Best of all, we were reminded that when we say “Hineni” (“Here am I”) to the Lord, his answer is “…I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).
It’s not always easy being a Jew who believes in Jesus, but no difficulty can overshadow the joy of knowing God in the same way our ancestors did. The truth will remain the same, whether or not we go looking for it or choose to believe it. Are you willing to ask God to show you the truth about Jesus?
by Tuvya Zaretsky with Tracy Stiffler