I was born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 23, 1949, to a Jewish mother and gentile father. When I was two, they divorced. My mother, Harriet, was very liberal and not very interested in Judaism. She cooked bacon, ham and sausage. She read the Bhagavad Gita and books about Zen Buddhism. We even celebrated Easter and Christmas!
When I was very young, I drew a picture of Jesus on the cross and hung it up in my bedroom. Then when I was seven, my grandmother wanted me to start going to Sunday school at her Reform synagogue to get some Hebrew religious training. I was paranoid that the Sunday school teacher was going to march down the street to my apartment with all the little Jewish kids and rip down the picture! So I took it down!
When I was ten, my mother remarried, this time to a Jewish man, Victor Cohen, and we moved to Maryland. He legally adopted me, and from age ten to seventeen, I was raised in a few different Jewish neighborhoods in Baltimore. My mother and stepfather had two children together, Larry, in 1961, and Barbara, in 1963.
My stepfather’s father was Orthodox and went to shul every day. But when Victor married my mother, he didn’t remain Orthodox. In fact, they were married in my grandmother’s (on my mother’s side) Reform temple in Chicago. Victor went along with whatever my mother did. My mother only attended synagogue on the High Holidays, so that’s what my stepfather did, although occasionally he went to shul on his own. But my mother and I did stop celebrating Christmas and Easter!
When I turned eleven, my parents sent me to Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore. I attended until I was bat mitzvah at age thirteen. I dropped out after that and only attended synagogue on the High Holidays.
My real spiritual journey—when I was self-motivated to seek out truth—began when I was seventeen. During spring break of my senior year in high school, I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, the story of a Hindu Brahman man who finally finds peace by becoming a river ferryman. I was much impressed by this book.
I decided to do a research project on Buddhism. While doing this project, I was having a hard time at home with my parents. I was very jealous of my stepfather; I thought he took my place in my mother’s affections. I had also broken up with my boyfriend; we had been inseparable, so I had to get to know my parents all over again. I felt so alone and scared. I prayed to God to help me, and I added something like, “I believe in Jesus, too.”
Here I was, a senior in high school, with no plans for my future. I called my best friend in Chicago, and she encouraged me to apply to California colleges because I was always talking about how much I wanted to live in California. So I applied to three California colleges.
Although I forgot about my prayer to God, things did get better. I was finally content. I got along with my parents. I loved them and my little brother and sister, too. For the first time in my life, I had self-confidence. I did better in school. I had a new boyfriend.
Then, about a month and a half later, I was shocked to hear a voice in my head saying I was no longer worthy to enjoy life. I somehow felt I had “sinned,” a term we really didn’t use in Judaism or in my home. It was as if a dark curtain had fallen across my mind. All I could think of was how guilty I was, and I lost all my peace. It turned out that was the beginning of my life-long struggle with mental illness.
I was accepted to the California colleges, and I prepared to go to San Francisco State College. This was in 1967, the infamous “Summer of Love,” when thousands of young people migrated to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to party and get high on drugs. That’s exactly what I wound up doing. The only reason I got so heavy into drugs was that I wanted to stop thinking about how guilty I felt by “blowing my mind.” In mental health circles this is called “self-medicating.”
As a result of taking drugs, I got a bad case of hepatitis. I took an airplane home to Maryland and was in the hospital for twenty days. When I got back home, I went to our rabbi and asked him how I could be forgiven of my sins. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that his advice didn’t help me.
Then I started having delusional thoughts. My rabbi referred me to a Jewish social worker, who told me I needed to be hospitalized. So in February 1969, I entered Spring Grove State Hospital, and I was there, mainly in a locked facility, for six very long months. I was told I had paranoid schizophrenia and needed to stay on medications for the rest of my life.
After being discharged in September 1969, I moved to Chicago, to my girlfriend’s parents’ house. I took my medications and didn’t do any drugs. I was still searching spiritually. I read books by Norman Vincent Peale and books about Hinduism. I had a resurgence of interest in Judaism and went to my grandmother’s Reform congregation every Friday night. One day I went to a Catholic church and asked the priest if he could forgive my sins. He asked if I was Catholic. I told him I was Jewish, and he said, “Oh, you must find out if Jesus is your Messiah.” His words stayed with me.
In January 1970 I came back out to California. I went off my meds and got involved in drugs again. One day I met a visiting Indian guru at Stanford University. He gave me a mantra to say. Every day, for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon, I meditated in the back yard and said the mantra, over and over, in my head.
Then an odd thing happened. One day when I started to meditate, the picture of a white Bible that someone in Baltimore had given me came into my mind’s eye. This happened several times.
Not long after that, I was sitting on a bench at a nearby park, and a gray-haired woman sat next to me. We had a discussion about God, and Millicent gave me her phone number. She was a Christian, and I wound up living with her and her family. Millicent gave me a pamphlet to read titled, “Rabbi Asher Levy Speaks to this Generation.” It was the story of a rabbi who came to believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah. The pamphlet also contained prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the Messiah and the New Testament Scriptures telling how Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. In July 1970 I said a prayer with Millicent, asking Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart.
Jesus has been my best friend ever since. I can tell him whatever I’m feeling. Sometimes I do things that people think are a little strange. But I can confide in Jesus about that, and it doesn’t bother me that much, because I know he loves and accepts me.
Medication has helped me, but my relationship with Yeshua has helped me even more. He has given me the determination to work rather than to collect Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), for which I could have qualified. I have worked at various jobs over the years and have been at my current job for fourteen years. I’m a lowly “cashier” (remember Siddhartha and how he became a river ferryman?). But I am at peace now, knowing who is in charge of my life.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… . Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).