I’m sure most people have heard of the Corn Belt, the Wheat Belt and the Bible Belt, but I wonder how many have ever heard of the Borscht Belt. For the uninitiated,” borscht is a sweet and sour beet soup favored by many Jewish people, especially those of Eastern European heritage. The Borscht Belt is the Catskill Mountain area of upstate New York, where many Jewish people live. That’s where I grew up.
Everyone I knew was Jewish. Being Jewish was simply an unquestioned fact of life. It was my identity. When I was young, I used to go with my parents quite regularly to the Orthodox synagogue. I sat upstairs with my mother and the other women, segregated from the male worshipers. It was not so much that we were Orthodox, but this was the only synagogue in our small town. My mother instilled in me a reverence and fear for “someone” or “something” greater than myself, but I was never told that God was someone with whom I could have a personal relationship.
The first time I ever really thought about Jesus was when I was 13. I was a Girl Scout and we used to meet in a church. There was a crucifix in that church, and I could not take my eyes off of it. Somehow I knew that Jesus’ death on a cross was real. Yet at the same time I felt it just did not pertain to me. I was Jewish and Jesus was not an option for me.
Twenty-six years later, someone finally told me that believing in Jesus was an option for me—actually, more than an option, a necessity. At first I protested that I was Jewish, and we Jews simply did not believe in Jesus. Truthfully, by then the reverence and fear of God my mother had instilled in me had been replaced with disappointment and bitterness. Besides, I told my Christian friend, I was not a sinner, so why should I want a savior? l was now residing in New York City and living out my childhood dream. I was in theater. If I was feeling disappointment and bitterness, it was probably only because I was not successful enough in my career.
Despite all the defenses I had mustered, I couldn’t help but notice that when my friend spoke of God, he spoke of someone he really seemed to know, and when he prayed, he really seemed to be speaking to someone who was real. I then began to see myself and the world around me quite differently. The bottom seemed to fall out from under me. All the reasons I had used to justify my “goodness” just didn’t seem to wash anymore. Without these illusions, I was left looking at total meaninglessness. I was getting older, my mother had become ill, and I could no longer look at a flower or even a baby without realizing that, by their very existence, they were already in the process of dying.
I became a very angry person. If this was all there was, this meaninglessness, then why not just have a good time? Why not just “party”? I quickly realized that no amount of partying could ever fill the gap in my heart. Then I became very scared. I felt like I was literally walking on the edge of something, and below me was a great pit. Reading the Bible didn’t help. I would randomly open it, hoping to find consolation, but could find nothing there at the time that seemed to relate to my pain.
I finally confessed this to my Christian friend. He told me that I didn’t have to be feeling these things and led me in a simple prayer. I confessed to God that my sin did indeed separate me from him, and I invited Jesus to be my personal Messiah. I now knew how much I was in need of a savior, and I thanked God that he had provided one. The next day I awoke with a new hunger for his Word. I began again to read the Bible, beginning with the Gospel of John, and found now that every word related to me.
I have been a believer for a little over one year, and during that time I have learned many things. One of the most precious lessons I have learned is that believing in the Jewish Messiah really is Jewish—more Jewish than eating borscht!