My name is Janie-sue (Arotsky) Wertheim. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1955. Both of my parents are Jewish. My dad managed the auto parts departments of various dealerships in New Haven and Ansonia. Growing up, I knew more about cars than a lot of boys my age.
My mother worked in a kosher bakery. She especially loved to bake and decorate birthday cakes. Some of my best early memories are of beautiful birthday creations that Mom made for my younger brother Stuart and me.
Other early memories include celebrating Shabbat. My mother would make a roast beef or chicken with potato kugel, string beans and homemade challah. My dad would come home from work, change into nicer clothes, put on his kipah and do the kiddush in his beautiful, strong voice. I knew that we celebrated Shabbat because we were Jewish, and I knew that Jews were the chosen people.
For synagogue, my dad chose the little shul where my grandpa davened, on Greenfield Street. It was extremely Orthodox. After helping me find the appropriate spot in a shul siddur, my dad would hand it to me and then I found my way to the women, who were set apart behind a translucent screen. My dad explained that this enabled the men to concentrate on being holy, undistracted by the beauty of the women.
The rabbi spoke mostly about how Jews should fulfill the law and do what was right, and he chided the congregation for not doing what they should to honor God. Try as I might to be good, when he talked about wrongdoing and wrongdoers, I felt that he was pointing right at me.
Unlike Shabbat, which filled our home with comfort, the High Holidays brought anxiety. It started with Rosh Hashanah. Part of the tension was due to divided loyalties. My mother went to the little shul at the Jewish home for the aged where my Zaide (her dad) lived. My father went to Greenfield Street with his dad. Often, I felt torn between my parents.
Then there was Yom Kippur. I remember one year when I was nine or ten I went to shul with my father. During a recess he took me out to a restaurant for a snack and stood outside while I ate. Walking back to the shul, I asked my dad, Why do people fast on Yom Kippur?” “We fast for forgiveness of our sins,” he told me. “Why don’t children fast?” “Because they are too young.” I didn’t really understand. I thought that I was plenty old enough. I remember asking, “When you fast, do you know that God has forgiven you?” My dad looked at me and with a sad smile said, “I really hope that he has.”
I wondered, “If Dad doesn’t know, how will I ever know?” But I tried not to think too much about it.
I imagined God was a lot like my Grandpa Louie. Grandpa took religion very seriously. He’d frown at Stuart and me with disapproval if we were too loud, too restless, or too inquisitive. He seemed unapproachable, and since Grandpa was the most godly person I knew, my impression of him carried over to the Almighty.
My mother’s faith was more of the “knock on wood” variety. She was superstitious; whenever she complimented anyone, immediately she would say, “kainahorah!” and then spit to ward off the evil eye. Mom worried about keeping the rules of kashrut but had no problem going out to a Chinese restaurant and eating unkosher food there. I didn’t see anyone in my family operating with a consistent faith in God so I did not learn to believe in or trust him.
When I was in the fourth grade Mom became mentally ill. The bottom began to drop out of our family life and religious practices. When we celebrated Passover, Mom couldn’t see the dirt and chometz because her reality had become so disordered. We couldn’t have a really “kosher” Pesach and that angered Dad. Mom had constant mood swings and sometimes she lashed out at us verbally and physically. My dad began spending more and more time at work. My mother’s behavior began to isolate our family. My Aunt Bea told me years later that my mother had had a psychotic break and was schizophrenic.
The cleaning and cooking were neglected, and as the big sister I felt I should fill in the gap. I felt it was my fault that things didn’t get done, as if I were responsible for the unhappiness in my home. It wasn’t a logical thought—but I could not shake it.
My Dad tried to explain my mom’s actions, and in the process would talk with me about things that children are better off not knowing. For example, I was well aware that our financial situation was precarious. I knew that the neighbors complained to Dad that the laundry Mom hung on the clothesline was dirty. Knowing about these things made me worry.
Meanwhile, my cousin Ellen was preparing for her bat mitzvah. She received a copy of the Jewish Bible as a gift, and passed her old one to me. To this day, I’m not even sure why I began to read it—but as I did, I was quickly gripped by the fact that God was involved in people’s lives in Bible times. When they called out to him in their trouble, God answered with miracles. As I surveyed the wreckage of my family, I found myself wondering, “Does God still work miracles for his people? Why don’t I see them?” I thought back to all the Passover seders where we talked about miracles and thought, “Either these things happened, and God is real, or they didn’t—and He isn’t.” I desperately wanted to know, because things were getting darker and more difficult.
In my freshman year of high school my friend Karen, who wasn’t Jewish, watched her parents go through a bitter divorce. She was devastated at first. But I began to notice some differences in Karen. She seemed peaceful—even joyful. I saw that she was carrying a Bible with her schoolbooks and reading it between classes. I asked her what was going on.
“Well, now I am a Christian!”
I didn’t get it; I thought she was a Christian already. Karen explained that she had grown up a Methodist because that was the church her family attended. Yet she had only recently heard that Jesus had died for her sins and that if she asked him, he would take away those sins and give her a new start with God.
I told her that was fine for her, but I was Jewish and Jews don’t believe in Jesus. She looked at me and said, “I don’t see why not. After all the Jewish people are expecting the Messiah.” Then she opened her Bible to Isaiah 53. She handed it to me and said, “This is one of the promises from your Bible.” I was stunned because what I read sounded so much like Jesus—yet it had been written 750 years earlier.
I was angry and unsettled. I knew that Grandpa Louie left Russia because of horrible things done in the name of Jesus. And Karen was telling me that Jesus was my Messiah—what chutzpah!
And what was all this about sin? I was a good Jewish girl. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t see sin as a problem for me personally.
Karen and I remained friends even though we disagreed. Whenever I mentioned a particular problem, she prayed for me. I wanted that kind of relationship with God, where he would be near and real all the time. So I began asking Karen questions, sometimes challenging her, sometimes genuinely curious. She suggested that I read the New Testament for myself and come to my own conclusion about Jesus.
As I read, everything Jesus said and did seemed so Jewish. He was loving and compassionate and He did things that only God could do.
As for the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 53 wasn’t the only passage that stunned me in terms of Jewish prophecy. Daniel 9 actually gave a time line for the coming of the Messiah, including the fact that Messiah would come before the destruction of the Temple.
I became convinced intellectually that Jesus was the Messiah—but I I still didn’t think I was one of those sinners who needed forgiveness. Then one night, I suddenly remembered an event that had occurred years before.
I was in fifth grade, and my brother was in second grade. A few houses down there lived a boy named Tommy who hated us after learning in his catechism class that Jews were “Christ killers.” One day, Stuart came in the house, crying and his nose was bleeding. Tommy had hurt him. I ran to Stuart’s room, grabbed his baseball bat and ran downstairs. Tommy was standing in front of our house. I swung threateningly. I was so furious and full of hatred that I wanted to beat him with that bat until he was dead.
I never got close enough to hurt Tommy but I screamed, “You touch him again and I swear I will bash your brains out there on the sidewalk!” Tommy never touched my brother again.
I believe it was God who flashed that scene into my mind in the moments that I was considering Yeshua. All at once it hit me—I was a sinner, I had wanted to murder Tommy. I realized that I truly did need Yeshua’s forgiveness, because my hatred had offended a holy God. I later realized that we all think, say and do things that offend God, almost daily. But I just needed to be confronted with that one ugly episode to understand my need. I asked Yeshua to take my sin away, and I acknowledged him as my Messiah and Lord.
That was May 3, 1970. I felt a remarkable sense of peace, like a warm blanket covering me. The uncertainty I had as a child about whether God forgave me was gone.
It was no easy thing, being the only one in my family to believe in Jesus. My relationship with my dad became very strained. He barely spoke to me other than to say things like, “Pass the salt” or “What time are you going to be home?” In fact, my dad was thinking of disowning me, but my Aunt Bea said, “Paul, don’t be ridiculous, this is your daughter; and anyway, this Jesus stuff is just a phase. She’s young, she’ll outgrow it.” (It’s been over thirty years and I think my dad is still hoping I’ll outgrow Yeshua.)
Over the next few years I met other Jewish believers in Jesus, and in the autumn of 1977 I was invited to send an audition tape of me singing and playing guitar to the head of the Jews for Jesus music team, who played it for the rest of the team and a certain guy named Steve Wertheim. I guess Steve liked my voice, because he was very eager to meet me. When I moved to L.A., we became very close friends and quickly realized that our friendship was becoming more.
On April 24, 1978, Steve took me out and gave me three roses: one yellow, one pink and one red to tell me he loved me today, tomorrow and always. We went to Santa Monica to watch the sunset. As the sun sank slowly, Steve dropped to one knee and asked me to marry him. Before he could finish asking, I said yes.
We were married November 25, 1978 and have two wonderful kids. Ben was born in 1980 and Rebekah in 1984. Both of them believe in Jesus. Before my mother died, she also came to believe. I know that she is no longer suffering, but filled with truth and joy.
While both of our families were angry about our belief in Jesus at first, three of our four parents and one sibling so far have come to share that faith.
What about you? Have you been wondering about Jesus, but worried what the consequences would be if you were to let him into your life? We can’t tell you that it will be easy…but if Jesus is true, turning away from him will not be good for you, or for your family.
If you would like to correspond with Janie-sue, please email: [email protected].