My Resilient Jewish Soul.
In a dysfunctional home in the Bible Belt, a young woman discovers she’s Jewish.
I was born the eldest of five children and raised in the Bible Belt. My mother was Jewish and my father was a gentile. During my adolescent years, I became aware that Jews were not well received in the Deep South. I learned that if you were Jewish, it was best not to draw attention to the fact.
My mother could trace her roots back to a Northern province of Prussia called Bromberg. Her family later immigrated to Germany, where tragically she lost most of them in the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. Those who escaped the Holocaust would later sail to America and make landfall in Galveston, Texas. They chose the Gulf Coast of Texas hoping to draw as little attention as possible as they became full-fledged Americans. They achieved their goal of assimilation to the point that, by the time my mother was born, little of her Jewish tradition remained intact. That lack of connection to her Jewish roots pre-empted any doubts she might have about marrying a gentile. But things took a curious turn when she decided to marry a Catholic.
In order for her to marry my father, my mother had to sign a contract with the Roman Catholic Church stating that any children born of their union would be raised Catholic. Nothing Jewish was to be allowed or spoken of in the family. She signed the agreement.
Our own familial brand of anti-Semitism was always prevalent. By the age of four, I began associating my maternal grandfather's visits with breakfasts of bacon, ham and sausage. It was the only time my father would cook all three for breakfast. My grandfather would come in, kiss us all and excuse himself to go for a walk. Sometimes, I was lucky enough to join him. Those walks were full of conversations about Judaism. At the time, I couldn’t fathom what he was sharing with me. I just thought he was getting old and confused.
Despite my mother’s enthusiasm, I openly questioned the tenets of Catholicism.
My mother was committed to keeping her agreement with the Catholic Church. She made sure we learned Catechism on Wednesday afternoons, went to confession on Saturdays and church on Sundays. Despite my mother’s enthusiasm, I openly questioned the tenets of Catholicism and spent more time sitting in the hallway than in Catechism class.
My Murderous Father
My restless Jewish soul cost me dearly. But it cost my mother her life. In the South at that time people thought all the Jews were filthy rich. My father was insistent that my mother get some of that wealth from her parents. But there was no money to get. In anger, my father lashed out physically, hitting her in the head with an object. At age 36, she died at the hands of my father.
My eleven-year old mind reeled. It was too incomprehensible. I couldn't understand why God would allow five young children to remain with a man who was able to commit such an act. My father should have been locked up, but the attending physician warned my maternal grandmother that if the death certificate showed the actual cause—a fatal blow to the head—her five grandchildren would be placed in foster care and, more than likely, sent to separate homes. Oddly, she agreed, somehow believing that splitting up the family was worse than staying with a man who had brutally taken the life of her daughter. He wrote that the cause of death was essential hypertension.
The author at age 16.
My father went from being a social drinker to a full-fledged alcoholic and prescription drug abuser after my mother's death. The adults in my life pretended that everything was okay. My mother was never spoken of and my father’s issues were never discussed. It was easier for them to ignore the problems but it left me, an eleven year old, completely in charge of four younger siblings.
Though I bore most of the burden, my father’s frustration with his plight caused him to consider extreme options. One day as I stepped off the school bus, I heard someone say loudly to me, “Don’t go to sleep tonight!” I looked back at the bus driver but he was speaking to another student. As the bus pulled away, I looked for someone who might have said this to me but no one was around. As I entered my house, I felt something eerily wrong.
At dinner that night, my father pulled out a bottle of pills and demanded that we each take one. As he made each child swallow a pill, I got up and went to the kitchen so that I would be last. He was checking each child’s mouth to make sure they had swallowed the pill. When my turn came I was able to get the pill far enough under my tongue that it was not visible.
My father stumbled toward my bed brandishing a pistol.
I rushed the kids off to bed spitting out the pill on the way. The five of us slept in one room, my bed was closest to the door. As I lay awake fighting exhaustion, I asked God to help me not fall asleep. About three a.m. I heard shuffling outside our bedroom door. My father entered stumbling toward my bed. Through the blinds was a glint of moon light that shone on the pistol in my father’s hand. Without even thinking, I jumped straight up to a standing position on my bed and screamed, “What do you think you’re doing?!” He was so surprised that he dropped the gun on the floor and stumbled out of the room. Grabbing the gun, I locked the door, hid the bullets in one place and the pistol in another. I did not close my eyes the rest of the night.
This was to be one of two incidents where I was warned not to sleep because of danger to my siblings and I. The second incident played out similar to the first, but this time he used a hunter’s knife. He didn’t bother with pills, just waited until we all were asleep. When I heard him at the door, I jumped up and turned on the light. As he entered I pushed him as hard as I could out of the room, locking the door and pushing furniture in front of it. The other kids woke up crying and I told them I had just been afraid but everything was okay. They went back to sleep and I sat on the floor in front of the furniture blocking our door until morning.
As dire our as our situation seemed, the thought of asking for help outside the family was never a consideration. Fifty years ago, it was taboo to let the outside world know what went on behind closed doors.
The next seven years, I became mother, housekeeper, teacher, babysitter and protector to my four siblings. No one told me this was to be my responsibility; there just wasn’t anyone else to lean on.
Leaving the Catholic Church
By the time I turned eighteen, I was still considered a Catholic by the family. That proved to be a problem when I decided to marry my high school sweetheart who was a Baptist and had no desire to convert. Because I was ready to leave the church to marry him, the church decided to leave me. I was excommunicated. My new status brought disgrace upon my father and his family.
The marriage brought a sense of relief and I was warmly welcomed into my husband’s family. Years before the marriage, my mother-in-law had become my surrogate mother. She was a very religious woman whose everyday life truly reflected her beliefs.
My mother-in-law convinced me I wasn't going to hell for reading a Protestant Bible.
Though it took nearly a year and half, she finally convinced me I wasn't going to hell for reading a Protestant Bible. I was brought up to believe that you did not read the Bible. If you had questions you went to the priest for your answers. I still remember the big Bible on our coffee table and how it served only one purpose: to record births, deaths and marriages in the back of the book.
When I finally agreed to read the Bible, she bought me my own copy. I opened the book at the beginning and discovered that the first half of the Protestant Bible are the Jewish Scriptures. Those pages spoke to me so deeply that I re-read them again before starting on the last half. When I finally finished the last half of their bible, I didn’t respond to its text like the first half. The result was that I simply saw the text in its plain, ordinary, meaning. This created a bit of a problem when I attended church with my new family. The church taught that God had “set the Jews on a shelf somewhere” because they rejected the Christian messiah and replaced them with the Christians as the chosen people. As the congregants shouted, “Amen” to the preaching, I sat in silence wondering why the minister was teaching concepts that were nowhere on the pages of their own bible. My confusion led me to wonder if the problem was with me. I was determined to muddle through and became a card-carrying member of the Southern Baptists.
Teaching the Bible
In the years that followed, I taught Sunday school for our church’s divorced and separated women. No one wanted to teach them. They were regarded as tarnished souls who might as well have had 'The Scarlet Letter' stamped on their chest. I didn't care. I loved them and they were looking for answers.
The task of teaching Sunday school didn’t require lesson plans. We were handed a manual containing instructions on how to teach the course. I noticed a problem with the teacher’s manual on the Book of Romans from New Testament. Three chapters from Romans were inexplicably left out. I located those chapters and studied them with a Greek and Hebrew Interlinear. The more I studied, the angrier I got.
Those three chapters were twisted to demonstrate the Jews lack of belief in the messiah and that they did not choose God. The church used this to justify Replacement Theology – God set aside the Jews and raised up the Christians to take their place as the Chosen People.
I confronted our pastor, tossing the manual on his desk and asking him why three chapters of Romans were missing from the study guide. He squirmed, telling me that a theological degree was needed to explain those chapters and that he was going to teach them. I responded that no degree was needed and it had become clear to me that the church deceptively used these chapters to teach Replacement Theology.
His threat didn’t hold any meaning for me. I had already been thrown out of the Catholic Church.
The pastor sat back in his chair and quietly looked at me as I told him that come Sunday morning I would be teaching those three chapters to my class in the way I understood them, with no hint of Replacement Theology. He said I couldn't and if I insisted, I would not only lose my class, but be asked to leave the church.
His threat didn’t hold any meaning for me. I had already been thrown out of the Catholic Church. I told him that I would be teaching my class one way or another. I was shown the door.
But I kept my promise. That Sunday, the ladies joined me in my home for class and we studied those three chapters from the book of Romans.
Vendyl Jones & Righteous Gentiles
I learned throughout the years that God never leaves us out on a limb. My yearning for answers and my search for the truth came from an unexpected place. I was offered a job as the personal assistant to a Biblical archaeologist from Texas by the name of Vendyl Jones.
Vendyl was a maverick and as controversial as he was colorful. He toiled over Greek texts hoping to understand the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, only to be handed more books after graduation. These additional volumes were full of explanations of how the Bible states one thing while it really means another. They were distorting scriptures to serve an agenda. He tossed the books and moved his family to Israel in the late 1950s. He wanted to learn Hebrew in order to comprehend the original Jewish text.
I went to work for Vendyl in the early '80s and witnessed his metamorphosis from a Southern Baptist preacher to a Righteous Gentile. During those years with him, I experienced phenomenal things; however two events are most close to my heart. I will never forget working with Vendyl and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Israel at the time, in the drafting and signing of a declaration reinstating the validity of B'nai Noah. The other memorable experience involved archaeological digs with Vendyl at Qumran, near the shores of the Dead Sea.
B'nai Noah seemed like a logical place for me. Vendyl had already knocked on many an Orthodox Rabbis' door, asking that Gentiles be allowed to learn Torah. He saw a lot of doors shut in his face. It was the genuine respect for Torah, expressed by many gentiles like Vendyl, as well as a sincere search for truth that eventually caused some rabbis to change their thinking. They saw people who weren't trying to convert but only wanted the truth about monotheism.
Vendyl announced one day that he was making a trip up to Crown Heights. “What on earth for?” I said in shock. “To get a dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe!” he admitted. By then, I knew not to argue and just book his travel arrangements.
Like hundreds of people that day at 770 Eastern Parkway, Vendyl waited in line to see Rabbi Schneerson. When his turn finally came, Vendyl silently reached out to accept a dollar bill.
But the Rebbe held on to the dollar. Unblinking, he looked directly into Vendyl's eyes, “You are doing a very important work; it won't be easy but don't give up.”
Vendyl, too shocked to speak, simply nodded and walked out. When he returned from New York, Vendyl was still basking in the glow of his memorable meeting with the Rebbe. For him it was a confirmation that the B'nai Noah movement should become a modern-day reality.
Working with Vendyl and witnessing the re-emergence of B’nai Noah was a good starting place for a Jewish girl who didn’t know much about being Jewish. Little did I know that God had other plans for me.
The archaeological excavations we conducted at Qumran were a direct result of Vendyl’s extensive research into a little-known, but very unique item, found among the Dead Sea Scroll caves: an eight foot long scroll made of copper. Aiding Vendyl in his translation of the Hebrew inscription on the Copper Scroll was a linguist, who was also an Orthodox Rabbi. I spent many hours, with the rabbi assisting in the Copper Scroll project.
One day, sitting in his crowded study, surrounded by stacks of books, the rabbi eyed me curiously, “Nu, what about your family? Were they Christians?”
“What about my family?” I said.
“Well, I'm half and half.” I responded
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“You're not half anything! You're Jewish!”
I told him that my mother was Jewish and my father was a Roman Catholic, so I was half and half.
The rabbi stood up, proclaiming dramatically, “You're not half anything! You're Jewish!”
I didn’t understand. After 45 minutes of explanation, he got through to me. I finally understood that my Jewishness was not an ethnic thing. I had a Jewish soul because my mother had a Jewish soul. He retrieved books from a shelf and instructed me on what order I should read each book, “And after you finish these, come back for more!” he demanded.
That weekend, I read non-stop, day and night. Then, I started to cry.
All my life I was convinced there was something wrong with me. I couldn't fit into any of the boxes shoved at me. Finally, I understood. As this new realization took hold, I welcomed the knowledge that G-d had truly given me a Jewish soul. But a soul has to experience change and challenge to grow. And the changes came. My eighteen year marriage, already failing from other stresses, fell apart. My new awareness couldn’t save it. Around that same time, my association with Vendyl came to an end as I pursued a path to recapture my Jewishness.
The author today, in Israel
I became a member of an Orthodox baal teshuva synagogue, Ohev Shalom of North Dallas in 1997. Rabbi Roden and his wife Henny were the only members who were frum (Orthodox) from birth. It was a wonderful place, full of excitement. We were too busy discovering the riches of Torah to care about gossip, or who was wearing what.
My stay with the synagogue was short lived. I went on to marry a Jewish man in 1998 and lived a Torah life. We would make aliyah to Israel in 2005. I have been an Israeli now for over ten years and continue to live a Torah life.
As I reflect back on where I began and look at the life I have ended up with, it is evident that I am not the same person. It took everything I had to endure to become the person I am today and I am thankful that God has allowed me the privilege of living out my years in the Holy Land.