My parents, Sy and Frieda Gardner, who have passed now, were both Jewish. My mother was raised in an Orthodox home and said we were descended from the priestly Levites. Her mother and father spoke Yiddish and English, kept a kosher kitchen, regularly attended synagogue and observed all the Jewish holidays. My father’s family was Jewish by heritage, not by practice. He grew up in a home with his mother, aunt and uncle, grandmother and grandfather in a poor section of Chicago. They did not keep the Feasts and never went to synagogue.
I’m sure my parents discussed how they would raise my sister and me. I was going to have a bar mitzvah because my father never had one. We celebrated Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Purim every year, but we only attended synagogue on the High Holy Days. I don’t recall what prompted this bold statement from a man who never went to pray in the synagogue, but when I was ten years old my father told me, “Any Jew who believes in Jesus is not a Jew.” I had no idea what he was talking about.
I celebrated Hanukkah and Passover through the years as an adult but never joined a synagogue. But I strongly identified with my Jewish heritage. In 1995 my sister’s husband, a devout Jew, found Jesus and introduced him to my sister. My mother had a very hard time with this, but my father was livid. I am sure they had questions back and forth: Where did we go wrong? How could she do this to us? It took several months for my parents to come around to “whatever makes them happy.”
I was ambivalent about the whole thing; I was playing rock and roll for a living and was just into myself and not in touch with my sister much. I did have a few conversations with my parents on the subject and was reminded that “any Jew who believes in Jesus is not a Jew.” My sister and her family were now Christians as far as my folks were concerned, and any talk about Jesus was taboo. Dad would get red-faced angry if the subject was even hinted at and Mom would leave the room shaking her head.
In 1998 I was working as a chiropractor in Seattle. But I fell, fractured my spine and lost my business. I called my friend Bruce in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who said, “Come to Tulsa.” I said “Are you crazy? Tulsa?” But I actually did it. Bruce lived in Catoosa, a small town just north of Tulsa, but he failed to mention this. So when we drove to his home on five acres in the country, past a brown-grass golf course and a one-street main drag, I thought, This is Tulsa? So here I was, 45 years old, living with a family in Catoosa, Oklahoma, recuperating from a fractured spine, no money, no job and no prospects. I was questioning God as to why I was in this fix.
Bruce and his family are Christians and attended church regularly. He knew I was Jewish and we had great discussions about God, but he never pushed me towards Jesus. Yet I was asking, in my own way, what about this Jesus? If he was the Messiah, could he help me? What could it hurt? So, I said it—I asked Jesus to come into my life.
It seemed like nothing happened. I was disappointed and at the same time a little relieved that God did not strike me with lightning for breaking the cardinal rule: Any Jew who believes in Jesus is not a Jew. So what now? Life continued much as it had—until one night in November 1999 when I met a Messianic Jew [one who believes in Jesus].
This man I had never met before and have never seen since said one thing that will forever be etched on my brain and that unlocked a door that allowed me to fully embrace Jesus as my Messiah and Savior: “Jews who accept Jesus into their lives never stop being Jews. They become completed Jews.”
It was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz, where the screen goes from black and white to color. I saw the world in a new and wonderful way. I knew something had changed inside of me, though it was subtle. The next day I had a smile on my face that would not go away. Bruce asked what was up and was very happy when I relayed the events of the previous night.
Now, thirteen years later, I am married to a wonderful woman and we are enjoying the blessings God has provided. We are teaching Gentile Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith and together are walking the path before us. God has truly taken me on an incredible journey. I look forward to what comes next and am grateful for the people he has put in my life.