When I was about five years old, I crawled into my father’s lap and touching his arm lightly, I asked, “What is that number?” Without flinching, he explained how he had been marked in the concentration camps, where very bad men treated people like numbers, not human beings. He didn’t offer much more information until I was older.
I learned that Passover in Poland was not the festive time of year I knew as a child growing up in New York, especially when it fell during what the Christians called “Holy Week,” the week leading up to Easter. It was hard to understand, but apparently people who would celebrate Jesus rising from the dead, just days before their big celebration, would be blaming his death on any Jew they happened to see.
My father, Max, had his tailor shop in the Bronx, New York, where I was born and raised. He worked six days a week, twelve hours a day in two rooms that we could walk to from my house, school and synagogue.
One December, as I was walking to my father’s store, I saw a most unusual sight.
There on the lawn of the Catholic Church stood three life-sized statues of turbaned men, each carrying a box. Lying on top of the hay was a baby doll. Above this entire scene was a wooden sign that even a seven- year-old could read: “Born Is the King of Israel.”
I stopped dead in my tracks.
As I tried to make sense of the sign, all I could think was, “The delivery people brought this stuff to the wrong address.” Our synagogue was just down the street, and it seemed obvious to me that it was our lawn, not theirs, that should house the King of Israel.
Somebody made a big mistake. OUR king is on THEIR lawn!” In a rush of words and emotions, I explained what I had seen. My father smiled and assured me that there had been no mistake, and that the baby in the manger did not belong in front of the synagogue. That king, he said, was not our king. From then on, I always wondered about this strange, strange baby whom gentiles revered as the King of Israel while we Jews did not.
By age fifteen, I saw my Jewishness in terms of a connection with the Land of Israel rather than the God of Israel, whose existence I doubted. I associated with other nonreligious Zionists. I was on a quest for truth. I tried to explain to my leftist friends that the only way to really change the world was to change the people in it. I was giving away LSD to anyone and everyone. I was not a drug dealer. I was (I thought) a revolutionary.
I started reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as books about Kabbalah. As a philosophy major I was also reading Sartre, Camus and other books that I would not have otherwise opened—such as the New Testament. I saw that once-forbidden tome as part of the plethora of books that offered truth. Besides, Jesus was not a taboo in the hippie subculture in which I had become immersed. I’d read Jess Stearn’s The Sleeping Prophet, about Edgar Casey, in which I found a “cosmic Jesus.” That allowed me to see him as something other than “the-god-of-those- people-who-hate-us-Jews.”
A friend of a friend, Joan, surprised us all with the news that she had found Jesus and that he was the true Messiah. She earnestly insisted that he was what we were truly seeking, though we didn’t know it. Slowly my friends investigated Joan’s claims and several of them, too, “burned their stashes” (destroyed their drugs) and were also following Jesus.
Not to be outdone by my newly Jesus-believing friends (whom I still loved but could no longer get high with), I decided to continue searching on my own. I began hitchhiking from New York to a commune in San Francisco. I picked up a New Testament and read it while waiting for rides. I realized that God had shown countless times that he wanted me to take Jesus seriously. I really needed to address the issue of what Jesus had done and what it meant to me. I told my friends, “This God you’re talking about—he’s real. What do I do?”
One of them suggested, “Maybe it’s time you open up communications with him.”
It was about 11 P.M. when we left to get coffee, just a block from the commune. We reviewed the meaning and purpose of Jesus coming to earth, his life, death and resurrection. I was asked if I wanted to pray, right there outside the coffee shop. I was about to give God this great excuse about the way I lived my life, but then I realized that he knew every thought I had or ever will have. The only words that could come to my lips that night were, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” That night I was filled with forgiveness.
My life was transformed. I stopped getting high within three days. Within a week I had an opportunity to have casual sex, and ran in the opposite direction. Within two weeks the commune was raided and everyone was hauled off to jail. When the charges against me were mysteriously dropped, I got out of jail and out of the commune. I moved to Coos Bay for a while, then back to San Francisco, where I spent time with Moishe Rosen and other early “Jews for Jesus”—though at the time it was a movement, not an organization. And then I went back to New York in the fall of 1971, which is where I met my wife-to-be, Melissa.
Some find the idea of grace irritating, because it implies that we can’t do anything to deserve God’s forgiveness—that it can only be received as his gift to us. Others don’t see their need of God’s forgiveness because when they look at how bad others are (like the Nazis), they see themselves as relatively innocent. But the God of the Jewish Bible doesn’t operate that way. He does not compare our sin to the sins of others. He compares our sin to his righteousness, and we are left far, far away from him in that comparison. When I realized who Jesus is, I also realized that God wants to extend forgiveness to people who earnestly understand their need for it. Until I came face-to-face with God, I didn’t expect that my response to him would be an apology. That kind of repentance can’t happen when people think of forgiveness as something they themselves do not truly need, and that others don’t deserve. Jesus had the grace to forgive those who tormented him so that you and I could be forgiven through the sacrifice he made, a sacrifice that I believe was predicted in the Jewish Bible.