“What did you get?” my friend Jody asked. It was Hanukkah, 1971, and I was ten. Just about every kid I knew, including Jody, was bragging about what they had received each night from their moms and dads. I remember her gifts being wonderful: a dress, a coat, a scooter, a stereo. One gift was traditionally given for each night of Hanukkah, each more fabulous than the next.
|Lynn and her twin brother at an Orthodox
synagogue for a baby-naming service
We lived in a neighborhood of upper middle class professionals just outside of Hartford, Connecticut. My dad was a mailman. He was a hard-working man, stretching a budget to raise five kids. My mother, like most women in those days, stayed home with us kids. Living on one salary was not easy. Gifts were not a priority in my home. I would get one gift for Hanukkah, usually a hand-knit sweater or a doll of some kind. So when Jody would brag, I would be silent, too embarrassed to tell her the truth. The holiday of Hanukkah was not the celebration I thought it should be, and it became a painful time in my life.
We were Conservative Jews attending an Orthodox synagogue. My dad was an officer there, and we spent nearly every Saturday in services. After my grandparents died, just a few months apart from each other, we no longer kept kosher. The only time the name of Jesus came up in my home was when my father swore.
I would watch my “other” neighbors, who were not Jewish, string up their Christmas lights outside. Our house was one of several on our street that remained without them. We had a tradition of driving around to look at all the decorations and the trees our neighbors so proudly displayed in their windows. This year, my brother Howard, who had just graduated from the University of Connecticut, was invited to a Christmas tree trimming party. My mom and dad got ready for their best friends’ Christmas party, and I could smell the knishes baking in the oven. They were Mom’s contribution to the party every year.
Each year we would go to the Constitution Plaza in Hartford, where thousands of lights were lit. We laughed at how funny it seemed for people to sing about Santa and his reindeer. I heard the Christmas carols coming over the loudspeakers, but barely paid attention to the words. These were not, after all, “our” songs. But the words of one song, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” struck me that cold night at the top of the Plaza:“Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!'”
I did not realize that those words had settled in my heart that night. My mind had forgotten them. My heart, however, had tucked them away until the spring of 1978. That was when Aunt Sylvia called to tell us my cousin Phillip in upstate New York, then 26, was very ill. He was on life support, dying of what they thought was hepatitis. It wasn’t until years later I discovered that some of the earliest AIDS cases in the United States were diagnosed in the mid-to-late 1970s in upstate New York, and this was likely what he succumbed to.
I was seventeen, old enough to want to say something to give my aunt hope, as she was about to lose her son. The words came out of my mouth, “I’m so sorry. Maybe he’s going to a better place.” To my aunt, those words were like acid poured on an open wound. It was as if I had cursed Phillip and wished him dead. My mother took the phone and tried to calm my aunt down. How dare I say such an awful thing! There was no concept of an afterlife in my family. When you die, you are buried, and that is the end. Everything within me wanted to shout, “No, it’s not the end. There’s something more. There has to be!” But I did not say it. Phillip passed away, and my aunt refused to speak to me for four years.
|Constitution Plaza, where Lynn first heard
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
The following year I was getting ready to graduate high school and attend college. The financial burden of tuition was weighing heavily on me. My original plan was to become the next Stephen King by attending the University of Maine, where he was teaching a writing class. Phillip’s death caused me to rethink those plans and to think more about what was beyond this life. I began to read books like Life after Life by Raymond Moody and other stories of people who had clinically died but were subsequently revived.
I made a decision that in the fall I would attend the University of Hartford. That way I could save money by living at home. But what was I going to declare as a major? The questions surrounding the death of my cousin continued to take up most of my thoughts. I realized that I wanted to help people like Phillip as they were dying, perhaps by working in a hospice. That’s when I decided to major in psychology at the University of Hartford, where B.F. Skinner’s daughter taught. It didn’t occur to me until later how ironic it was that I wanted to help people deal with their impending death, facing their own eternity, and yet I didn’t know for sure that there really was something beyond this life. But there had to be! This could not be all there was, could it? That question stirred in my mind over and over again.
A year and half later, in the winter of 1980, my friend Susan and I had tickets for a Harry Chapin concert in Hartford. For those too young to remember, Chapin was a folk singer who sang ballads like “Taxi” and “Cat’s in the Cradle.” We decided to attend the ceremony of the lighting of the Christmas lights on the Constitution Plaza, held the evening before the Chapin concert. I was looking forward to seeing the lights as they were lit by the flick of a switch. There was always someone well known given that honor, and that year it was Harry!
So there I was, a nice Jewish girl from Hartford, Connecticut, raised in a semi-Orthodox home, just a few feet away from Harry Chapin, who led us in several Christmas carols. I found myself joining in, and as he sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” without warning, the tears began to flow. I tried to wipe them away, but they just would not stop. What on earth was this about? I didn’t realize why until years later. The Scriptures in those songs were seeds planted in my heart.
As I continued in my studies for the next two years, poring over textbooks in search of answers to what was beyond, I began to also look into other religions. I attended Buddhist, Bahai and Christian Science events. It never occurred to me to read the New Testament. As a Jewish girl who grew up going to synagogue, exploring Christianity was just not an option—until just a few months before my graduation in 1982. It was then that I accepted an invitation from a friend with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to attend an event at the University of Hartford.
|Lynn’s Christmas tree, decorated
with musical instruments
The event featured a bizarre group called “Jews for Jesus.” I’d never heard of them, and the thought that a Jew could believe in Jesus was just ridiculous to me. Yet I decided to go, along with several of my Jewish friends. They were there to heckle the speaker, Tuvya Zaretsky, so I went along. But the truth was, I was intrigued, and I wanted to know what this was all about.
I walked in smoking a cigarette and looked around for an ashtray. I grabbed the first thing I could find to extinguish my cigarette. I had no idea it was part of Tuvya’s notes! I’ll never forget the look on his face, nor the challenge by Tuvya that afternoon. It was a challenge to look at the evidence for myself and to consider that God wanted a personal relationship with each one of us. He wanted to “set eternity in our hearts,” and, Tuvya said, the only way to get that eternity was through His Son, Jesus. The Christmas carol suddenly made sense, “Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.”
As he said goodbye to me that day, Tuyva handed me a book, Yeshua: the Jewish Way to Say Jesus. I read that book three times, cover to cover. Within the month, I visited with a Jews for Jesus volunteer who led me in a prayer of commitment to Yeshua. As I told my family about my faith, one by one they said they did not want to hear about it—except for my sister Paulette, who just two weeks before me had become a believer in Jesus herself!
Our first Christmas together as believers, my sister and I held hands as we walked into a church service and sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Christmas will always be a special time for me. I love to trim a fresh tree and decorate it with musical instruments. My husband and I rarely exchange gifts, however, because it’s all about Yeshua, the greatest gift we’ll ever receive, and much more than we deserve.