Those words were spoken to my mother by my friend’s mother when I was nine years old, and while they made a distinct impression on me, it wasn’t until sixteen years later that I considered them in a personal way.
I grew up in an upper middle-class, Conservative Jewish home in the suburbs of Kansas. I attended a Jewish grade school through the third grade, and went to Hebrew school twice a week until I became a Bat Mitzvah.
My parents had different approaches to their Judaism: my mother’s was rooted more in duty and obligation but my father’s came straight from the heart. My father’s mother was a very devout, Orthodox Jewish woman who instilled in me a sense of God’s holiness and love. Everything my grandmother did was out of love for God. She would often tell me the secret to a happy and successful life is to love God and keep his commandments. My grandmother would say, Allison, don’t ever forget that you are Jewish, and that being Jewish is very special.”
It wasn’t until I started the fourth grade in a public school that I realized there was a whole other world outside the Jewish life we led. I remember one boy saying, “You’re Jewish? Didn’t you guys kill Christ?” Well, I wasn’t sure who “Christ” was, but I was pretty sure my family and everyone we knew hadn’t murdered anyone recently, if ever. I quickly realized that this gentile world was not very friendly to us Jewish kids.
Some of the girls started warming up to me, but they would change friends as often as they changed clothes. But Rebecca Buchanan was different. She was kind and generous and never played favorites. We quickly became friends, spending most of our free time together. In the summertime, we would spend day after day at the country club where my family belonged, or at the public pool she liked to visit. Beyond our commonality of being part fish, something deeper seemed to connect us. Her family members were Christian Baptists and we were Conservative Jews. They believed in God; we believed in God. Their home was different than any other gentile friend’s and our home was definitely different. Their lives centered on the Bible, ours on Judaism and the holidays. Even though our beliefs about God differed, being different from the rest of the world linked us together.
It was in the Buchanan’s home where I first saw a picture of Jesus, or I should say, pictures of Jesus. I’m not sure how many were on their kitchen wall but when my mother would pick me up to go home, she would say, “Oy, it’s like a shrine in there!” I remember staring at those pictures and thinking about how peaceful he looked and how he seemed to be smiling at me, but also thinking he didn’t look very Jewish. I asked my mother, “Was Jesus really Jewish? Why don’t we believe in him?” All she could say was, “I don’t know Allison, we’re Jewish and Jews don’t believe in Jesus.”
Even though talk of Jesus made my mother uncomfortable, she and Rebecca’s mom, Bridgette, got along quite well. When my parents went to Israel, my mother brought her back an olive wood camel, which Bridgette still treasures.
By junior high school, Rebecca and I had very different friends (mine mostly rebellious and hers straight-laced) so our contact with each other waned. We remained friendly but didn’t spend much time together. One afternoon I remember stopping by to see her, and ending up at a “Youth for Christ” meeting. I was overwhelmed with how peaceful and happy the people there were, with smiling faces and joy that seemed real. Most kids I knew at that age only smiled when they heard a bad joke.
By the time we were out of high school, Rebecca and I had lost touch completely. I spent the next seven years waywardly wandering into numerous bad choices, ending up a single mother with no direction. I couldn’t find fulfillment in anything—relationships, college, work—and I had become disconnected from the Jewish community. I was waiting tables, living in a small apartment with my daughter and feeling very lost. I started to really question the meaning of life and why I was even here. The short, surface-level prayers I had prayed all my life changed from self-centered petitions to questions like, “Why am I here God? Where are you and do you care about me?”
It was about that time I met another single woman in my apartment complex who instantly befriended me. Kim was an African-American from Kentucky, working at a local television station. She loved my daughter, Carly, and was always inviting us up for her Southern cooking. She would play soulful, contemporary Christian music and sing along with deep joy. She knew that I was Jewish and never made an issue over anything religious, yet I knew she definitely believed in Jesus. One Sunday, she invited my daughter and me to church. I had always been impressed by Gospel choirs and their vibrant spirit, so I reasoned it would be a cultural experience. As soon as the choir started singing, my spirit seemed to lift and by the time the music was over, I was moved to tears. It was like my heart recognized what my mind wasn’t prepared to accept. I knew that I wanted what these people had, but I didn’t know how to find it.
One thing I did know was that Kim read her Bible—a lot. She showed me how it had daily readings, called devotions, reflecting on some of the passages. Those readings helped me feel somehow closer to God so eventually, I bought a “devotional” Bible like hers. I hid it under the counter at the coffee shop where I was working because I didn’t want people to know what I was reading.
At the same time, other people and books were influencing me. I met a girl who was into the occult though I didn’t know it at first. Eventually she told me she had Tarot cards. She pulled them out of her purse and start telling me about my future. I also read a book that spoke of how to become more “enlightened” and another that was an account of one woman’s near-death experience with heaven. I was intrigued, but none of the ideas that these books or my Tarot card-reading friend offered seem to have an ultimate ring of truth to them. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that the Jewish Bible forbids fortune-telling, consulting with the dead, etc.
I tried reading the New Testament but couldn’t make any sense of it. I could not seem to get past my preconceptions. Every time I read about a miracle, my mind would come up with “other explanations.”
I was becoming more and more frustrated with my life and was plagued by feelings of fear and doubt. It seemed like the devotional readings in my Bible were my only source of comfort. One day while I was at work, a middle-aged man came to deliver coffee to our store. Somehow, he saw the Bible and said, ” I see your Bible; are you a Christian?”
“Oh, no!” I quickly responded, “I just read it for the devotions.” Well, before I knew it he had told me that he was a recovering alcoholic and that Jesus had changed his life. He looked at me and smiled, and then he left. Something about the simple way he talked about his faith made me think, “I don’t know how, but I want Jesus to change my life, too.”
A few weeks later, I was in a bar with some friends and ran into Rebecca, who was with her boyfriend. We hadn’t seen each other in years and things had changed in both of our lives. When I got home, I remembered how Rebecca’s mom used to talk about Jesus. I even remembered her unlisted phone number (after not dialing it for more than ten years), and called to speak to her. After listening to my struggles, she said the same words she spoke to my mother sixteen years earlier,
“Allison, you need Jesus; he was a Jew and he came for you.” I objected, “But I’m Jewish, how can I get Jesus?” She tried to explain, but all I could think was, “Is she telling me about Jesus, the Jew—or Jesus, the gentile god?” And if Jesus really was a Jew, why don’t any of my family or friends—not to mention the rabbi—believe in him? And why, if Jesus came for the Jewish people, why was anyone who had anything to do with him a gentile? Finally, and to me, most importantly, what would my family think if I believed in Jesus?
One day, while having lunch with my father, I asked him, “What if Jesus really was the Jewish messiah and we missed him?” He looked at me pensively for a moment and said, “Jesus was Jewish; he was a prophet and a great man, but how could he be born of a virgin?” I was surprised by my answer: “Dad,” I said, “what about Moses and the miracle of the Red Sea? If God could do that, who’s to say?”
“Those are legends, we don’t even know if they really happened,” my father reasoned. Legends? In our own Bible? I was worried that believing in Jesus would betray my heritage but even I knew that the Bible contained the basis for that heritage. How strange that I could not appeal to its pages in discussing God with my father. By now, I was on a genuine quest for truth and I couldn’t blindly accept what anyone else—Jewish or Christian—said. I decided to go to a church on my own and see if any answers could be found there. I found one close to my house. I didn’t hear anything about how Jesus relates to being Jewish, but I did find caring and loving people. Again, I was faced with the reality that people who believed in Jesus were different.
The following week my friend Bridgette introduced me to a pastor. When I asked him some questions, he replied that he would like to spend time answering me from the Bible. Could he come to my home with some friends? Desperate for answers, I agreed.
A few days later, I found out that Rebecca (who was married and living in New York) was returning because of marriage difficulties. We made a lunch date for the same day that I was supposed to meet with the pastor. We spent a long time catching up before I noticed that I was about to be late for the meeting. I asked Rebecca if she minded coming home with me, and I would take her home after I spoke with the pastor. She wanted to ask him about marriage counseling, so she agreed.
The pastor talked about sin, forgiveness and heaven. It all seemed to go right past me. All I could think was, “If Jesus was Jewish, why isn’t there anything Jewish about the church?” I posed this question to the pastor but he didn’t know what to say. He told me that Jesus was knocking at the door of my heart. Would I let him in? No, I said, I still had too many questions. So he asked Rebecca if she wanted to renew her faith in Jesus. She did, and the pastor asked me if it would be alright if they prayed. I had always respected the Buchanan’s beliefs so I said, “Of course.”
He said one more thing before he prayed, “Allison, if you want to pray, please join with us.” Sure, sure, I thought…that wasn’t going to happen.
They bowed their heads and closed their eyes, so I did also. I silently prayed, “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: show me if this is true, if Jesus really is your son, because if it’s not true I don’t want anything to do with it.” That was it. Suddenly all the things I had struggled to understand came together like the pieces of a puzzle. After all my searching, that one question was all it took. And the question was not “If it’s true, why don’t my people believe?” but simply, “Is this really true?”
Time seemed to stop in my living room that day as God spoke to my heart. “Allison, every moment in your life has led to this one. I gave you this friend when you were a child and I’ve brought her here today so that you would know who I am.” I finally knew with clarity—Jesus was the son of God and my Jewish messiah. I found myself repeating the pastor’s prayer, asking Jesus into my heart, not even sure what that meant…and when heads were lifted and eyes opened, there was surprise on every face, including mine.
“Congratulations, how does it feel to know you are going to heaven?” the pastor smiled. It was the most incredible moment of my life.
Later that night, lying in bed, I began to remember things I had done, sins against God and people in my life that I had rationalized or forgotten. They came to my mind, one after another, and for the first time I was truly grieved over them. I wept and wept, telling the Lord I was so sorry for all the ways I had disobeyed him—and the most amazing thing happened. The fear and anxiety that gripped me before left, and peace flooded my heart. That night, I slept like a baby.
The pastor had told me to call three people and tell them about my new faith. So the next day, I called two Christian friends. They were overjoyed. I was amazed at how freely I could say the name of Jesus. It had become as sweet as honey—no longer the name of an enemy, but that of my greatest friend.
Still, I had a third person to call. My parents came to my mind, but how could I possibly tell them? They would be so hurt and disappointed—they would probably think I was out of my mind. I finally got the courage to call.
When I told them I believed Jesus was the Jewish messiah, my mother announced that this was a “temporary phase.” Over the next several months, I pointed out to my parents where the Jewish prophecies in Scripture pointed to Jesus. They agreed to come to my home for a Messianic Passover Seder, which led to more conversations about my faith. Eventually, my mother realized this was not temporary as she had hoped and sadly, it affected our relationship. After she and my dad moved to Florida, we talked occasionally on the phone, but there was no denying our relationship was strained.
Following Yeshua has given me irreplaceable joy and peace, not because it removed every problem from life, but because it provides true perspective based on God’s promises. The circumstances with my family have not been easy, but I have learned to trust in God’s perfect plan.
The ancient words of King David in Psalm 27 have given constant strength through broken-heartedness and many trials:
“One thing I have asked and that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me. I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord; be of good courage and he shall strengthen your heart; wait I say, on the Lord.” (Psalm 27)
If you suspect that Jesus might be the messiah but are struggling with some of the issues I had, I hope you will find it in your heart to sort through your questions and ask God to show you the truth. If you do, I believe that you will be more than satisfied with his answer.