A Bridge over the Chasm
I am from a family of Iranian (Persian) Jews. I once asked my grandfather how long our ancestors had lived in Persia, and he said, “Forever.” As far as he knows, we have always been there—from the time of Nebuchadnezzar through the time of Cyrus and Darius until this past century.
When my grandfather immigrated to the United States, he had to pass through France. He didn’t have a last name. He was Rahim, son of Solomon. The immigration clerk told him, “You have to have a last name.” So he said it was Koh-e-Toor, which in Farsi is Mount Sinai. The clerk shortened it to Tour.
My father, Eli, immigrated to New York City in 1946 when he was sixteen. On Yom Kippur he went to the synagogue, and the man at the door said, “Do you have a ticket?” My dad said, “No.” The man said, “Well, if you don’t have a ticket, you’re not getting in.” And my dad never went back there.
My mother, Hedy, emigrated from Iran when she was twelve, lived in France for a few years, then moved to New York City. She and my father had been neighbors in Tehran and got reacquainted in New York. They married when he was about 21 and she was 19. They had my sister, my brother and then me.
I was born in New York City, but I grew up in White Plains, 40 minutes north of the city. My father was a pharmacist, and my mom mostly stayed home and took care of us. We only went to synagogue on the High Holidays. We celebrated Passover with the extended family, and my grandfather recited the prayers in Hebrew.
Our family never really talked about God. But when I started working at the age of fourteen at a gas station along the Hutchinson River Parkway, Christian customers traveling in and out of New York City would give me tracts. It was lonely during the night shift, so I used to read them. Then for some reason I bought a flattened penny that had the Lord’s Prayer embossed on it. I kept that on my keychain.
I graduated high school and enrolled at Syracuse University to study chemistry. One day in August of my freshman year, I was in the laundry room. There was another young man there, and we got to talking. He was a quarterback on the football team, so I asked him if he wanted to play pro ball when he graduated. He said, “Oh, no, I’m not good enough for that.” So I asked him, “What would you like to do?” He said, “I’d like to go into lay ministry.” I had no idea what that was. He explained that a lay minister is like a missionary. Then he told me he’d like to give me an illustration of the gospel, and I was not sure what he meant, but I told him to go ahead. As he spoke, he started drawing a picture, and he said, “People are on one side, God is on the other, and the only way to get to God is through Jesus.” He opened up his Bible and had me read a series of Scriptures. And the things that Jesus said 2,000 years ago really impacted me, so much so that I really wanted to get to God over this chasm.
Then on the night of November 7, 1977, I was alone in my room in the Lawrinson Hall dormitory. That young man had told me about Jesus in August, and I had been carrying a burden of sin from August until November. As a Jew I never thought about sin. We go to synagogue once a year on the High Holy Days and we are set. Christians think about sin all the time: Uh oh, I had this bad thought. I did this wrong thing. Uh oh. Jews are different than Christians in that way. But once I was confronted with the impact of the words of Jesus, I was carrying a burden of sin.
So I got down on my knees in my dorm room. This was never demonstrated to me in Christianity or Judaism. Most Christians sit when they pray. Jews stand when they pray. But for whatever reason I got down on my knees and said, “Lord, forgive me, because I am a sinner. Forgive me, and come into my life.”
When I did that, this burden of sin began to lift and then a presence filled the room. The presence was so strong I thought someone was standing in my room. I opened my eyes but I saw no one. But this presence was so real. And I just started weeping, something that was very unusual for me at that time in my life. I didn’t want to get up because the presence was so beautiful. I felt this forgiveness and closeness with God.
I didn’t tell anybody about this experience for two weeks. But I knew something had changed. Then I saw the guy who had talked with me in the laundry room, who I later learned was part of the Navigators campus ministry. He said, “Jim, have you asked Jesus into your heart?” I replied, “I think I have. Why do you ask?” And he said, “You haven’t stopped smiling for weeks. You’re different.” And I really did feel different.
I began to read the Scriptures every day. For more than 35 years I’ve been reading the Bible every day systematically, from Genesis to Revelation, and then I start again. I just work my way through, over and over again, because I wanted this closeness to remain. And I have found that by reading the Bible every day, I stay close to God. And there are real blessings coupled with this.
The greatest blessings are my family. I met my wife, Shireen, while I was attending Syracuse University. We have four grown children leading productive lives, and two grandchildren.
When I told my parents I had come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, they didn’t respond much. They thought it was a just a phase that would pass. Years later, though, they told me how much it had hurt them.
When I was in college at Syracuse, I said to my mom, “Why don’t you read the New Testament to understand all about this?” My mom is a voracious reader. No particular genre. Any book you put in front of her, she’ll devour. And she reads very slowly and deliberately. So she read the entire New Testament. I asked her, “What did you think?” She told me, “I don’t blame them for killing Jesus after the things that he said. Who is he to say the things that he did to these men who have devoted their lives to instructing people? And he comes, this young man, and starts telling them that they’re like whitewashed tombs!” That’s actually a very good analysis. That’s exactly what Jesus did. If you don’t accept him as God or a prophet, how dare he say the things that he did to these rabbis?
So then I suggested to her, “Why don’t you read the Hebrew Scriptures?” So she read the entire Old Testament. This took her months, reading carefully, underlining everything. Then I asked her, “What did you think?” She said, “The Jews deserved everything that ever happened to them.” So she clearly would offend a Christian by what she said about the New Testament, and she clearly would offend a Jew by what she said about the Hebrew Scriptures. Both of her summaries were extremely accurate and told me that she had read the Scriptures carefully.
Years later, when my oldest daughter, Ambreen, was fifteen, my mom and dad came to visit us in Houston. My mother spent an hour and a half talking in the bedroom with Ambreen, who is very scholarly. In fact, Ambreen is now fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, lives in Jerusalem, and is a mediator between Palestinians and Israelis. When my mom emerged from the bedroom, she told me, “Wow! That’s quite some girl you’ve got.” So my mom, who was then 72 years old, started reading the New Testament again, along with The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and an InterVarsity devotional. Then she called me up one day and said, “Jimmy, I’ve got to tell you something. I believe Jesus is the Son of God.”
My father has not yet reached the same conclusion, but my relationship with both my parents is very warm, and they’ve seen the goodness of God in our lives and the lives of our children. I am deeply indebted to Jesus for all he has done for me.