Rebel with a Cause
As with any human struggle, addictions are not always cured instantaneously. Victories may be followed by setbacks. Read Jesse Danziger talk about his struggle with drinking and drug use.
My parents grew up in religiously Jewish homes before moving to New York in the 1970s. They were part of the civil rights movement and of the emerging Reform Jewish movement. Just before I was born, they moved to Hollywood to be television writers, and I grew up in a typical Reform Jewish home in West Los Angeles: upper middle class, educated parents, wholly American—but without ham or Christmas.
I went to a well-off temple next to Fox Studios where I also attended Hebrew school. I remember sitting through long services on Yom Kippur, eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, stuffing myself with challah at Shabbat dinners, and sneaking enough little Dixie cups of red wine at temple to get a buzz after a long and boring service (a few cups will do it when you’re ten and weigh 80 pounds.) Some of my most pleasant memories, though, were our trips to Houston, Texas, to visit my Orthodox grandparents. We would observe the Sabbath, recite prayers, light candles and eat my grandmother’s matzah ball soup. It was a time of peace and reverence that gave me a deep sense of connection to my roots.
Back in my progressive Jewish community in L.A., however, I was much less captivated by my heritage and much more engulfed in the chaos of my parents’ divorce. I was in kindergarten and immediately developed a rebellious streak and had behavior and anger issues. For the next ten years I would be a gifted student with much potential, but plagued by struggles with behavior, authority and performance. Naturally, I began to get in trouble in Hebrew school as well, and the rabbi eventually removed me from classes. I was bar mitzvah at thirteen, with the help of a private tutor, and then decided that I didn’t want to go to temple anymore.
In school, my problems got worse. I was listening to “dark” music, bullying my sister, disrespecting my parents and grandparents, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol—stealing liquor from the cabinet at home. As my substance abuse got worse, I dropped out and spent the next two years traveling up and down California, living on the couches of friends and strangers until they kicked me out. I got into psychedelic drugs, dangerous situations and trouble with the law.
One night in Santa Cruz, California (a small beach town known for its hippie culture), I was arrested for trespassing. I was dropped off by the police outside of town around midnight and told not to come back. I ran into a guy my age—but who looked ten years older because of methamphetamine use and the stress of a hard, unproductive life—who had been arrested and dropped off that night too. We wandered around together talking, and I wondered if a nice Jewish boy like me could end up like him: burned out and fully in the grip of evil, without hope. At about 4 a.m. we were getting high behind a bush in a park, and I couldn’t escape the thought that I was no longer just a rebel kid on an adventure.
I decided I needed to get my life together, so I got my GED and headed to San Francisco to attend art school. But years of undisciplined living had left me ill-equipped to succeed. I fell back into habitual drinking and drug use and flunked out. I knew that my life’s logical trajectory was far from the hopes of my Jewish grandparents who survived the Depression, fought in World War II, and saved money for me to go to college and raise a nice Jewish family. Downcast, I decided to take a walk to St. Mary’s church, across the street from my apartment. I sat on the steps as the sun set over San Francisco. I was baffled by life, hopeless, broken, and uncertain about my future. That evening, January 6, 2005, I said a sincere prayer for the first time: I asked God to help me live my life.
When I got back to my apartment (from which I was being evicted), I was alone and anxious with nothing but an empty fridge, a couch, and an old T.V. with a cheap DVD player—no radio, no cable and no Internet. There was nothing to distract myself with but a single DVD that a roommate had left behind—Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I was enthralled watching it, hearing for the first time the words of Jesus.
About that time I called a 12-step hotline and started going to meetings, where they said that only a relationship with God would help keep me sober. In fact, since that day that I prayed on those church steps, I have never had a drink or drug. I was excited about God and about Jesus. In the 12-step program I learned the Lord’s Prayer and said it over and over and also prayed from my heart in my apartment. I got a New Testament and read it furiously, at home, on the bus and in coffee shops until I finished it. I began to believe in God, his power, and in Jesus. But I didn’t go to church regularly and had no Christian friends to encourage me. Left on my own, I got depressed. I changed schools and experimented with Buddhism, Taoism, New Age religions, and meditation, but nothing was satisfying. I was functional but unhappy, unmotivated and uninspired. Despairing, I picked up my Bible again and started going to church with a friend in search of the truth.
One day in the fall of 2010 at my college, San Francisco State University, I saw a man wearing a shirt that said “Jews for Jesus.” As a Jew who was going to church every Sunday, I thought it would be a good idea to talk with him! Rob and I started meeting to discuss the Bible. He showed me Isaiah 53 and other Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures which I had never seen. I also met a group of young Jewish people who were followers of Jesus. In my search for God I never considered that following Jesus (or any other path) would be contrary to my Jewishness, but I also had no idea that there were groups of Jewish people following Jesus as their Messiah. I quickly became friends with them, attending Shabbat dinners, and found a small young church that some of them went to. My first Sunday there, I was in tears during worship as I felt God’s presence for the first time in years. The Scriptures spoke to me like they had when I first read them, when my life depended on their weight and power. I knew immediately that I would be going to that church from then on (and I still do!).
I struggled though, with committing my life to Jesus, as I was filled with doubts, questions, and anxiety. I was a 26-year old college graduate and felt my family relationships and ambitions might be threatened by my faith in Jesus. Most of all, though, I wrestled with trusting that Jesus was who he said he was—the Son of God. As a Jew, I worried that if it weren’t true it would be the worst sin I could commit to worship him. But, after a year of much reading, research and earnest prayer, I was convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was real and found myself trusting that he was the way. On September 4, 2011, I finally committed my life to Jesus and found the peace and assurance I had always sought: that I was right with God, that He loved me, and that there is purpose in this life. I now believe that when our lives spin out of control, He is in control, using every circumstance to guide us gently—and sometimes not so gently—back home to him.