Monday, February 23, 2009

Journeys of Faith: Coming to St. Paul's from a Jewish Background

by Barb Levy
I grew up as a secular Jew, simply defined as “a person of Jewish heritage, but not observant of Judaism.” My mother always said that there were four types of Jews: orthodox, conservative, reform, and unaffiliated. We were unaffiliated Jews. But even though I didn’t study the 613 commandments, my Jewish identity was not simple to define:
  • My father’s mother spoke Yiddish and witnessed one of the Kishinev pogroms before fleeing to America. (The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [were] a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter.)
  • Some of my Jewish friends felt I was “not really a Jew,” since I didn’t go to Hebrew School or have a Bat Mitzvah.
  • My father was a navigator in WWII; Jews were not allowed to be pilots.
  • He and my mother were both turned down for jobs because they were Jewish.
  • A family member on my mother’s side became a Christian and was never spoken of again.
  • Most of my family’s friends were Jewish. They were passionate, political, intellectual, caring, and funny.
My idea of a Christian was an amalgam of a televangelist, Jehovah’s Witness, Anita Bryant, and the WASPs at my prep school. (A WASP was, to me, a privileged white person who could trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower, or to some country of fair-skinned people. I never would have guessed that I would spend almost every Sunday with Anglicans!)

I am often asked, when I say I am an Episcopalian from a Jewish background, ‘But were you a religious Jew?’ as if becoming a Christian is not such a big deal if you aren’t leaving the religion of your people. On the contrary, reactions I’ve had from relatives and friends (whether Jewish, feminist, or both) made coming out as a lesbian seem like a picnic.

Notwithstanding the reactions of those around me I felt drawn, with the help of clergy and spiritual friends (who later became sponsors) at St. Paul's, to wrestle with my many intellectual, historical, and emotional barriers to Christianity. I began to question, resist, surrender, and journey—at my own pace—amid the stumbling blocks.

I witnessed other adult baptisms, endured a long catachumenate, and was fully immersed in baptism at the 1992 Easter vigil. To this day the memory of my baptism, along with the extraordinary music, liturgy, and breathtaking sense of awe and mystery that can be experienced at St. Paul’s on any Sunday, keeps me coming back to a sacred home I never imagined I would enter. St. Paul’s, with its remarkable assortment of family members and customs is a profoundly blessed community.

Christianity is still rife with anti-Semitism, and the patriarchal language and images of God still trip me up. I still struggle with split identities. When the sign of the cross is made on my forehead with ashes or anointing oil, it traces the crosses carved into the foreheads of Jews during pogroms. I can’t hear the lyrics “keep them from the strangers’ ways” from Fiddler on the Roof without desperate sadness.

But somehow when I close my eyes and pray, bow, kneel, genuflect, and participate in the Eucharist, I know that my prayers are rising upon clouds of incense or wings of song to the same One Holy God beyond definition who loves us all beyond our comprehension.

Lent (which I describe as “a six week Yom Kippur”) is almost upon us. During these forty days in the wilderness, we recall Jesus’ temptations and agony, act out the disciples’ fear, denial, and betrayal, watch or sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, and ultimately experience another wondrous Easter. In my own way, I will connect once more to first-century Jewish Christians, whose roots lie tangled somewhere with my own.

This is a place like no other. Thanks be to God!

Barb Levy is webmaster at St. Paul's, and owner of Stepping Stone Graphics. Her blog entry on Gay Pride and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul may be found here.

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