On my eighteenth birthday, I returned from the college library to encounter a small gathering outside my dorm room. It occurred to me that they might be planning to surprise me with a small party. I entered and set down my books. Some of the guys pushed their way through my door. I expected them to yell, “Happy Birthday!” To my great horror, I noticed a poster on my wall. Someone had scrawled in dark red letters, “If I had known it was your birthday, I would have baked you a kike.*” Turns out my roommate, a “friend” from high school, had let everyone in and helped them “decorate.” The fight that erupted left me with two broken ribs. I spent the rest of my birthday in the infirmary…
My great-grandfather was murdered in the town square of a village in Byelorussia in the early 1900s. His death was meant to signal everyone in the area that Jews were no longer welcome. Out of desperation, my great-grandmother sent my grandfather and two of his brothers to North America.
When my father was born, he was given the name Abraham “Abe” Zaretsky. In an attempt to blend in, however, he later took the more common name “Al.” He and his family then changed their last name to Carsen, and that is how a Jew of Eastern European heritage became known as Dr. Albert Carsen.
I was born in 1947 in San Jose, California. My parents gave me an American first name, Lloyd, along with my Hebrew name, Tuvya. Our home was in a mostly gentile (what we called “Christian”) neighborhood. Yet my parents socialized almost exclusively with Jewish friends and family.
On Sunday mornings I went to Hebrew school. In the spring of 1960 my entire extended family came to California for my bar mitzvah. One night my grandfather and grandmother held a ceremony in our living room. With great solemnity—in front of my entire family—they presented me with the yarmulke and tallis that I would use for my bar mitzvah.
After my bar mitzvah, my perception of what it meant to be Jewish in a mostly gentile neighborhood changed. What my parents had told me about the anti-Semitism they had encountered in their past was no longer remote—I began to experience it personally. Once, I was eating lunch with some middle school classmates when another student came over and asked them if they knew that they were eating with a Jew. My lunch mates looked back at him, as if to question whether, in fact, they were doing something wrong. I was humiliated when they ignored me after that. I even sat through a meal once at a neighbor’s house while the father made comments about Jews having “killed” Jesus. I kept close to my Jewish friends in high school, not merely to be with them, but to be away from others.
After classes, I often hiked alone in the nearby mountains. In those beautiful surroundings I found the peace to focus my mind on God and began seriously seeking His presence through prayer.
I dealt with my loneliness by turning to drugs later in my college career. I received my M.A. and eventually became a counselor at a local drug abuse clinic. It made me face the fact that I was a hypocrite—telling others to stop abusing drugs, while secretly I used them to numb my own pain. I hated my hypocrisy. I wanted to live as I knew I should.
I had a true desire to help those I was counseling, so I often looked to others in my field for advice. That is how I came to know Jean Zeller. Somehow she always seemed to bring the conversation to a more personal level. I knew she was a religious Christian, and I never hesitated to show my true feelings about her “people.” She never seemed to take offense at my blunt remarks, and we shared a mutual respect and appreciation.
Around that time, someone gave me a book, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. As I began reading it, I was enraged with Lindsey’s view of the Scriptures. He was trying to tell me, a Jew, that the Jewish prophets made reference to Jesus. But my rage gave way to curiosity.
If Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, my whole frame of reference—my reality—was wrong. There was no category in my understanding for a Jew who believed like a Christian. I knew that if I believed like that I would become a minority among my own people—an outcast! I knew firsthand what people who (I thought) were Christian did to Jews, and I couldn’t even imagine why I, or any Jewish person, would even consider their Jesus. Even if Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, I thought, there is no way I will believe that and be counted among the “Jew-haters.” Nevertheless, I was driven to find the truth.
So when I saw a sign on campus the next day advertising: “Hal Lindsey, Author of The Late Great Planet Earth: Here Tonight!” it seemed way beyond the realm of coincidence. I sat in the back of the meeting so no one could recognize me. I was terribly frightened that his message might be true. How could our rabbis be wrong? How could everything that I’d heard from my people about Jesus be wrong?
I either had to pursue what I suspected was true or else turn away altogether. I pursued my growing “suspicions” by reading the Gospel of John in the New Testament. I was astounded at how believable it was and how credible Jesus was. I’d heard that the Gospel was anti-Semitic, but instead it was an incredibly Jewish account of the Messiah’s entry into Jewish society 2,000 years ago! There was no way I could logically dismiss what I was reading.
I went for a hike in the mountains, this time with a Bible in my backpack.
Sitting in my tent surrounded by snow-covered wilderness, I read the Gospel of John again. Everything I read about Jesus convinced me that he was the Messiah. In him, I saw the fulfillment of the Scriptures. He lived as a Jew and understood Torah as God intended it. He taught it like no other rabbi I had known. I started reading by evening light. I finished by flashlight, and when I finally hiked down the mountain the next morning, I knew I had encountered the Messiah of Israel. I was exhilarated. I had finally found what I’d been looking for. But I was also chilled by the fear of what it might mean to follow him.
A few days later, I talked to God about my broken life. I told Him I was afraid of being separated from Him forever and from my people if I followed Jesus. As I told God my fears, I was comforted by His forgiveness in Jesus and by the thought that God was there with me. That night I encountered God himself, Emmanu-El—God who is with us.
I bowed my head and told God that I wanted to turn from my sin and receive salvation through the Messiah, Jesus.
Two things are clear to me today. Anti-Semitism that is done allegedly in the name of Jesus doesn’t change the truth of who he is—the Messianic savior. And, despite the broad Jewish confusion about Jesus, I am not ashamed of his message and am privileged to say I trust in him!
*A thoroughly offensive term for a Jewish person, akin to calling a black person the N-word.