Tonica Marlow stood looking down into the main hall of the synagogue. She couldn’t take her eyes off the rabbi or the Torah scroll he held in his hand as he faced the congregation. What am I doing here? she kept asking herself. So many times she had promised herself never to come here again, and yet here she was again, dressed in a brown wool habit, her hair covered with a brown scarf.
“Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad,” the rabbi’s voice rang across the synagogue, and the congregants repeated after him. Tonica, too, found herself mouthing the words, though she knew not what they meant. She didn’t understand why her feet kept carrying her back here; but the more she came, the more she longed to hear those precious words again.
Her mother had been born a Jew, that much she knew. But then she’d converted, abandoning her Jewish faith at age 25 and marrying a gentile. Tonica, the youngest of five children, had been raised as a non-Jew. Nonetheless, the question cried out from her very soul: Who am I? It gave her no rest, the question; it tormented her, robbed her of her peace of mind.
Tonica watched as the rabbi lovingly replaced the Torah scroll into a wooden sculptured cabinet and drew the dark blue curtain over it. Then she hurried back to the theological college where she was studying to become a minister.
But she’d tarried too long; she was late for her responsibilities. The principal summoned her to his office. “Where were you?” he demanded.
“Why, I just popped into the synagogue for a few minutes,” she said.
“What?” the principal yelled. “I’m telling you, child, you are a gentile. I forbid you to go there.”
“I’m Telling You, Child, You Are a Gentile
A spiritual journey: from Tonica Marlow to Tova Mordechai”
I got an email announcing a beta version of the new Chabad.org website, so naturally, I clicked on the link. That’s where I found Tova’s story. I started reading it because of the provocative title (“I’m telling you child, you are a gentile”) and continued reading because it reminded me of my wife’s journey…with some differences.
Of course, my wife wasn’t studying for the ministry when she became connected to her Judaism but at the time, we were going to a church. She didn’t go to Israel for years afterwards and never lived with an Orthodox family, but the same “connectedness” was there, the same absolute “need” to be a part of the Jewish community was there for my wife as it was for Tova.
Maybe if she had started that journey at 25 instead of 45, things would have been different.
But she didn’t and they aren’t and here we are.
Tova’s story, at least as it’s rendered in this article, is very light on the details regarding her husband. If she was a Christian and studying for the ministry and she had married a Gentile, chances are that he was (and is?) a Christian, too.
I wonder what happened to him? What happened to their five children? They all live in Israel now. But who are they?
Of course, I could just buy Tova’s book, To Play with Fire, which is the chronicle of her journey from Christianity and return to Judaism. As I write these words, I realize that I probably will.
But what will it tell me about my life?
Probably not as much as I hope.
I suppose this is a continuation my previous “meditation,” Opting Out of Yiddishkeit. It contains the same themes: identity, Judaism, intermarriage, interfaith, connectedness, and “just what the heck does God want from me, anyway?”
I was talking to my son this morning after our workout at the gym. He was asking how my Thursday afternoon “coffee meeting” went. I had taken him to one such meeting a few weeks ago with interesting results. Since the men I meet with are all believers, I think my Jewish wife thought I was trying to turn our Jewish son (though he’s not observant in the slightest right now) into a Christian.
That would not sit well with her.
I told him that his mother would be very happy if he’d start going to synagogue again, and asked how his wife would take it, since she (his wife, not mine) is seriously considering returning to church. He tells me that it would be fine with her, but then I brought up my grandson. At only age three, how confusing would it be to have his parents going in different directions?
But that brings me back to my own family and my own situation and the answers just aren’t getting any clearer. Some people would say that Messianic Judaism is the answer as the nexus of Christianity and Judaism, but it doesn’t really work that way. Why?
Sid (played by John Leguizamo): Then why are you trying so hard to convince her she’s a mammoth?
Manfred (played by Ray Romano): Because that’s what she is! I don’t care if she thinks she’s a possum. You can’t be two things.
-from Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006)
You can’t be two things. I don’t mean that you can’t be Jewish and have a deep, abiding, and real faith in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Christ). I mean that your identity, your culture, the very fabric of who you are, right down to the DNA level is either Gentile or Jewish. Just like Tova discovered; just like my wife discovered, you’re either one or the other. You can’t be both.
Most “Messianic Jewish” congregations aren’t all that Jewish, at least as far as I know. There are very few that have a completely Jewish synagogue identity and practice. Many, probably most, employ some aspects of a Jewish synagogue service, but largely, their identity as individuals and as a group are Gentiles who come from a strong, traditional, Christian background.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but then using the term “Jewish” becomes a misnomer. They may be a group who acknowledges the Jewishness of Jesus as the Messiah, who loves Israel, who honors the Shabbat and believes that the Torah continues to be alive and strong and incredibly present in the lives of the Jewish people today, but they aren’t Jewish.
Beth Immanuel Shabbat Fellowship is probably the Messianic congregation I’ve attended that has come closest to achieving a true Jewish synagogue identity, but I suspect that the majority of the members and the staff are still non-Jewish. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but what if you’re Jewish and you not only want, but you absolutely need to worship with Jews, be around Jews, and belong to a Jewish community?
I suppose like Tova, you stop being Christian and move from being Tonica Marlow to being Tova Mordechai. Or you move from being Lin to being Yaffa (my wife’s given and Hebrew names). Or, like my friend Gene, you maintain your Messianic faith, but you regularly worship with an Orthodox Jewish community.
I check the statistics for this blog and frankly, personal explorations such as this one just don’t capture a lot of reader interest. I don’t know why, since the stats only provide raw numbers without the attendant human motivation.
However, one of the “meditations” I wrote seems to be getting some attention recently: Fearfully in the Hands of God. Near the end of the blog post, I wrote this:
I know this sounds dismal and depressing, especially on the day when the vast majority of the Christian world is celebrating the birth of the King of Kings, but lest we imagine that God is obligated to grant us a perfect, stress free existence, the counterpoint is that we are but dust and ashes; we are grass that is growing today, and tomorrow, is withered and thrown into the fire. In the end, we can try to live healthy lives, lives of faith, devotion, charity, and study; we try take care of ourselves and others, but still, no one knows the hour of his own death.
In those moments of hideous uncertainty or in that final ”moment of truth”, we can only summon whatever trust in God we may possess and cry out to Him for His infinite mercy. If he should turn the hand of sickness and death away, we rejoice, and if not, we are with Him.
When a Christian cries out to God, we just cry out. But a Jew does something different.
Tova relates that some years ago her mother was lying on the operating table before undergoing life-threatening surgery. From the depths of her mother’s soul, a desperate cry shot forth, “Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad.”
The Shema is the first prayer taught to children and it is the prayer at is on the lips of any Jew who is afraid they’re about to die. In some way we non-Jews don’t understand, it is a special conduit between a Jew and God.
Most Christians are baffled why Jews don’t convert to Christianity. Those Jews who come to faith in Jesus but express that faith within a Jewish Messianic context are thought by non-Messianic Jews to have converted to Christianity. Christians generally don’t think so and either publicly or privately, wish those “Messianic Jews” would stop “denying the power of Christ’s death on the cross” (as Pastor Tim Keller might say), and actually come to a “true faith” in Jesus Christ; that is, convert to Christianity.
But as you, my readers, already know…it’s not that simple.
And it’s not right. It’s not right to finish the job that the Holocaust started. It’s not right to cooperate with terrorists who are hurting and murdering Jews to his very day. It’s not right to try to reduce the Jewish population of the world to zero.
Most Christians and even most atheists would say that it’s a sin and a crime to commit genocide, to try to eradicate an entire race, population, or nation. “Ethnic cleansing” is considered barbaric and monstrous by every one except the barbaric monsters who are committing those acts…except when it happens to Jews. Then the world, including most of the Christian world, just doesn’t give a damn.
That’s why I have to support my Jewish wife being Jewish. That’s why I have to support my son returning to davening with a siddur and praying the Shema (though he’s not very close to this point at the moment). And that’s why Christian Tonica became Jewish Tova and currently “lives in Tzfas (Safed), Israel, with her husband and five children.”
I’m sure each interfaith marriage is different. I don’t doubt that each one has its challenges and even its heartaches. I do know that I have my own journey to travel, both as an individual of faith and as a Christian husband married to a Jewish wife. I know that journey is not as simple as converting to Judaism or simply abandoning Christianity for atheism, just for the ways of peace.
I keep asking the question, where do I go from here? I keep answering the question, I don’t know. Except I do know, albeit in an extremely limited sense. I keep going forward, day by day, moment by moment. Yesterday afternoon, I had coffee with a friend and then I went home. I made hamburgers and talked to my wife about her day. My daughter came home and we talked with her for a bit. Then I read for a while and went to bed.
Life is normal. Being married to the girl with the Jewish soul is not really fraught it anguish and troubles all of the time, at least not on the surface. Somewhere beneath the surface of the blue crystal waves, God waits and He’s doing stuff I can’t see. So I walk or I sail or I swim as best I can in the direction I think God wants me to go.
And maybe God has a few surprises left for me on this path I’ve chosen (or did He choose it for me?). I hope they are surprises I can take.
There is an easy path to fulfill the Torah as it is meant to be fulfilled. Not by forcing yourself, nor by convincing yourself, but by achieving awareness:
A constant awareness that all you see and hear, the wind against your face, the pulse of your own heart, the stars in the heavens and the earth beneath your feet, all things of this cosmos and beyond . . .
. . . all are but the outer garments of an inner consciousness, a projection of His will and thoughts. Nothing more than His words to us, within which He is concealed.
And the Master of that consciousness speaks to you and asks you to join Him in the mystic union of deed and study.
In such a state of mind, could you possibly choose otherwise?
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
It’s probably too much to ask that they be surprises that make me happy.
2 thoughts on “Cherishing Her Yiddisher Neshamah”
Thanks for sharing this Jim. I think there are many of us who are being called back home, even if we didn’t grow up there. I believe G-D has placed something into us , like a beacon that draws us . It’s so hard to convey how it overtakes you .You can’t deny the overwhelming need to return , it’s as if you can’t breath until you’re home. I’m still trying to figure out in my own life how to make this work for my family and the feelings of being unsettled bring me to tears many days.
I know what you mean. I’ve seen all of that in Lin. As far as I can tell, it’s sort of like a “homing signal.” At a certain point in a Jew’s life, God turns it on and the need to return to who you are becomes overwhelming. That said, I think it’s a long process, so please be patient with yourself. Let the hubby in on what’s going on, and then follow where the path leads you.
Being Jewish (and I say this as a non-Jew) is many things, some of them sorrowful (especially now as the fast of the Ninth of Av approaches), but being Jewish is also a joy. Don’t forget about the joy.