You Are Going to Hell: Growing Up Jewish in a Small Canadian Town
I was keenly aware that I was different than the non-Jews around me. It didn’t help that my best friend often reminded me that I was going to hell because I was Jewish.
Growing up Jewish in the small town of St. Catharines, Ontario I was keenly aware that I was different during the Christmas season.
All around me houses were aglow with the sparkle and glitter of lights while our house sat in comparative darkness. As a child, I would imagine how beautiful our home would look lit up by colorful spotlights like our neighbors next door. The only lights we would have would be the tiny, flickering flames of the Hanukkah menorah.
Next door to me lived my best childhood friend, Susan McCarthy. We met when I was four and our close relationship continued through high school. Susan came from a family of devout Baptists. They were the most religious people I had ever encountered, saying blessings before eating, dressing modestly which included no wearing makeup, attending church regularly and being a fine example of all things ‘wholesome’.
Susan and I had many serious discussions about religion. “If you want to go to heaven,” she explained, “you have to be saved and accept Jesus into your heart. Otherwise, you are doomed!”
Susan insisted that I must be saved. I wondered, What is it exactly I am being saved from?
I just didn’t get it. From the little bit of Jewish theology I had picked up at home, I knew that all moral people, Jew and gentile alike, go to heaven. The most important thing is that you are a good person.
But Susan insisted that I must be saved. How do you get ‘saved’ and what is it exactly I am being saved from? I wondered.
A Visit to the Church
Susan was thrilled when my sister and I agreed to accompany her to church one Sunday afternoon for Daily Vacation Bible School. There were lots of children of all ages and we were split into groups and got busy with an art project. Soon after, everyone was called to gather in the meeting hall where chairs were set up in front of a stage. My sister Rebecca and I sat next to each other in the front row and watched in amazement as a passionate preacher invited members of the audience to come up and accept Jesus into their heart and get ‘saved’.
People were leaping out of their seats and Bec and I were nervous. “Should we go up? Do you think we will get candy or a prize if we do?” We sat very still, hoping no one would notice that these two Jews weren’t budging.
As anxious as Susan was for me to ‘get saved’, I was eager to teach her about all things Jewish. “You need to get a meat fork from that drawer. We don’t eat milk and meat together,” I explained. I loved teaching her how to read Hebrew, sharing my knowledge from after school Hebrew school. Susan would diligently practice her letters and sounds. She would also be a guest at our Friday night Shabbat table where we sang Hebrew songs and ate a sumptuous meal beginning with kiddush and the hamotzi blessing over challah. We recited A Woman of Valor in English in praise of Jewish moms everywhere.
Susan and I walked to school together every day. One morning she was particularly nervous because she would be reading from the New Testament in front of the whole school during morning ceremonies and suffered from stage fright. I would be the M.C. and introduce her.
He That Shall Not Be Named
Reading from the New Testament was something I would never be called upon to do since my mother made it clear to my teacher that it is against our religion. In Canada there wasn’t much separation of church and state in those days. This reading was followed by the singing of hymns and recitation of prayers which we were all expected to participate in. This meant saying the name Jesus that I thought as Jews we must avoid saying even on pain of death.
We weren’t exactly sure what would happen if we did utter that name but no one wanted to find out.
With great urgency the message traveled through 5th grade down to kindergarten like a telephone wire on fire. “Don’t say it!” we whispered to each other emphatically. We weren’t exactly sure what would happen if we did utter that name but no one wanted to find out.
Mr. McGregor, our principal, enthusiastically led the singing, his arms waving wildly as we sang, “There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood, a wonderful place in the vale.” We ended with everyone’s favorite, “Jesus Loves Me This I Know”. During this hymn, I would always think of my older brother, who had made up his own version of this song. He would sing it at the top of his lungs, while swinging back and forth outside, loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear. “Jesus Hates Me, This I Know, All the Rabbis told me so.”
That’s me in the red happy face shirt. Always one to stick out!
My father would always point out that Jesus was Jewish and were he to come back to life and discover millions worshipping him as a god, he would be shocked! As a Jew, he would be much more inclined to light Hanukkah candles and make a Passover seder than celebrate the Christian holidays. Susan was going to have a hard time convincing me to get saved through Jesus the Jew.
Converting a Jew to Christianity was the greatest feat any missionary could hope to accomplish. It was like winning the gold medal so Susan would not give up so easily.
Going to Hell?
Our conversations continued for years. When we were teenagers, I challenged her with a question. “You mean to tell me that all those Jewish people who died in concentration camps went to hell?”
“Yes,” Susan confidently replied. “If they didn’t get saved then that’s what happens.”
“So, you mean to tell me,” I asked incredulously, “that kind, caring, compassionate Jews, men women and children who never hurt anyone went to Hell, while the church-going Nazi murderers responsible for the cruel, merciless deaths of countless numbers of my people, went to heaven, so long as they were saved from sin through Jesus?”
Susan nodded, “That’s the way it is.”
“Well, if that’s what your religion believes,” I responded, “I can never accept it.” That was the end of our discussion in my mind . . . for good!
My Mother’s Kindness
Sitting on the curb outside my house, Susan and I watched as a city worker lined the street with tar. “Don’t touch it,” he warned. “It’s boiling hot.”
As soon as he turned his back, Susan dipped her pointer finger into a bubble of burning tar. She screamed in pain and we raced into my house where my mother grabbed Susan’s hand and placed her finger on a piece of ice.
For years, Susan would proudly display the tiny scar on the pad of her index finger. “Mrs. Monson is so kind! She saved my finger!”
Thanks to Susan McCarthy, a bible-thumping Baptist, I am an observant Jew today.
When I heard these words, I wondered if by saving Susan’s finger Mom still needed to save herself? Could this great and heroic act of kindness merit entrance into the pearly gates or was she still destined as a damned soul to go in the opposite direction? I was afraid to ask!
With hindsight, I realized that Susan was one of the lights on my journey in search of the truth, who led me to ask deeper questions in search of my own roots. On a bumper sticker popular at that time on cars driven by born again Christians was the saying, “I FOUND IT!” In response, some Jews posted a bumper sticker that read, “WE NEVER LOST IT!” It was a message that gave me strength.
I think Susan would be pleased to know that I am saying blessings, dressing modestly and attending synagogue regularly. I am part of a thriving Jewish community of proud Jews who take the practice of religion seriously. Thanks to Susan McCarthy, a bible-thumping Baptist, I am an observant Jew today.