by Van “Zev” Wallach (Stamford, CT)
I wear a chai — the Jewish letter symbolizing life — around my neck. I’ve studied Hebrew and Yiddish, have visited Israel, subscribe to Jewish newspapers, and have been told I look rabbinical. In fact, my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Schwarz, was the first ordained rabbi in Texas.
Hearing this religious background, you would never imagine my spiritual journey began as a New Testament-reading, hell-fearing member of the First Baptist Church of Mission, Texas. How the heck, so to speak, did that happen? And how did I return to Judaism?
The story began when my mother’s German ancestors moved to Texas in the 1870s, settling in small towns amidst Christians who enjoyed nothing as much as hectoring Jews until they saw the light. My mother married my St. Louis-born father, son of Russian immigrants, in Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas. They moved to France, where their union produced two sons.
As in other spheres, the Russians and the Germans couldn’t get along, so my parents divorced and my mother returned to her hometown of Mission, on the Mexican border. My father remarried and moved to New York, and I saw him one weekend in 10 years, a gap lasting from 1962 to 1972.
Shards of Jewishness lodge in my earliest memories. While my mother had no outward interest in any faith, she had bucked the family trend toward intermarriage and then provided, for reasons I cannot fathom, some aspects of a Jewish home. I like to think that a spark of the neshama, or soul, of Rabbi Schwarz remained in her and she unconsciously passed that along.
Once we went to Temple Emanuel, although my brother Cooper and I didn’t like it. Mom taught us the essential Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma. We had a menorah in the house, the Union Prayer Book, and The Wit and Wisdom of the Talmud, printed in the 1920s. Mom kept a bottle of Manischewitz concord grape wine in the refrigerator, forever skewing my taste toward nauseatingly sweet kosher wines.
I remember Mom sobbing when she watched Judgment at Nuremberg on TV. She saved her ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract. But we never had a Shabbat dinner, nor a seder, nor Hanukkah celebrations. An unexplained rift with the Jewish community in nearby McAllen ended almost all contact with other Jews in the area.
Isolated and indifferent to Jewish practice, my mother left religious instruction to our Southern Baptist neighbor, Mrs. D. Her basalt-hard faith reflected the Baptists’ smothering love of and barely concealed disdain for “the Jewish people” to make our family a natural target for intense spiritual cultivation.
Every Sunday, Cooper and I got carted off to the First Baptist, and in the summer we attended Vacation Bible School. My search for identity in an overwhelming non-Jewish world flowed toward Christian belief. From a young age, the hellfire messages of Baptist preachers terrified me into unease, guilt, and finally acquiescence.
I accepted Jesus to relieve the gnawing fear of damnation and was duly baptized on Super Bowl Sunday 1972. That’s also the day the beloved Dallas Cowboys, coached by Mission’s own Christian gentleman, Tom Landry, beat the Miami Dolphins 24-3. Thank you, Lord!
And yet, we remained the town Jews. My mother’s family moved to Mission in 1925; everybody knew who and what we were. Mrs. D called Cooper and me her “Jew-els.” When golf-obsessed Cooper wanted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school, the adult sponsor exclaimed, “Why, Cooper, you can’t join the FCA. You’re a Jew!”
Meanwhile, a kernel of curiosity about our heritage sprouted in me. I listened to a San Antonio radio show, The Christian-Jew Hour, and read literature from the so-called Messianic Jews to try to square the circle of irreconcilable belief systems.
The circle would be broken when Cooper and I finally visited our long-absent father in Manhattan for a week in 1972. A self-employed engineer with WASP pretensions, he attacked my religious beliefs and most aspects of our small-town Texas upbringing, which he loathed. In his ham-handed way, he showed me I didn’t have to be a Baptist. He pried a few fingers from my death grip on the King James Bible.
Doubts, like weeds, cracked the concrete of my faith. Bit by bit, I became disenchanted with Christianity. It felt less organic, more imposed on me. As a high school sophomore I was nervy enough to talk to the rabbi in McAllen, although I could not admit my Baptist background. I even attended Rosh Hashanah services in 1974, my great act of teenage rebellion.
When I told my mother what I was going, she started crying. “Van, I didn’t know you were interested,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think you would understand,” I said. I was 16 years old.
I stopped church but lacked the strength to start going to temple. By 1975 my identity and belief as a Southern Baptist had vanished. My Jewish self-education started as I read books like This is My God by Herman Wouk and Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg.
I liked what I read about Judaism, the faith’s simplicity and self-acceptance versus the devouring anxiety I felt as a Christian, where I always wondered if I measured up to perfection, whether I really believed. Trust me on this – Jewish guilt is nothing compared to the fears of a doubting evangelical. The last time I ever attended the First Baptist was to get a graduation Bible as a high school senior in 1976.
I first met Jews outside my family as a freshman at Princeton University. I checked out Hillel activities during Freshman Week and signed up for Hillel classes. But while I had left the Baptists, they hadn’t left me. My heritage dogged me, along with my utter lack of familiarity with Jewish practice and culture (getting the jokes in Annie Hall doesn’t count).
I had never attended Hebrew school, never lit Hanukkah candles, never had a Shabbat dinner, never attended a Passover seder. The Jews at Princeton seemed so East Coast smart and at ease, even jaded, in their faith. I felt shame at my ignorance. Book learning could not replace the experiential void. I yearned to know and be accepted, but I had no way to do that. Like the simple son at the seder, I did not know to ask.
I thought about unburdening myself to the Hillel rabbi, but he intimidated me. Indeed, I feared all Jewish authority figures as echoes of my father who would mock rather than understand me. Christianity remained my cross to bear. While my former beliefs held no appeal, I could not find a niche in Princeton’s Jewish life.
Jewish holidays passed in silence. Nobody invited me home for seders. Had I been more involved in Hillel, able to say those three hardest little words — “I need help” — then maybe I would have been welcome somewhere. I never asked, and nobody ever answered.
That changed in my senior year when classmates Marc and Steve invited me to join their families in Brooklyn and the Bronx for Passover. These friends helped me take my first steps in living a Jewish life. They both did great mitzvot — good deeds — and I will always be grateful to Marc and Steve and their parents for welcoming the stranger in their midst.
The pace of Jewish exploration quickened after I moved to Brooklyn a week after I graduated from Princeton. Synagogue-hopping became my weekend obsession, as I sought to expand my Jewish experiences. I sampled everything from Reform to the Flatbush Minyan and for a while attended the beginners’ services at the orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue. But I could never talk about the past. I arrived at services eager and anxious, and seemingly from nowhere.
How deeply that past remained embedded in me soon became obvious. I had met a woman, Beth, who was Jewish, jolly, and from Long Island. She invited me to join carolers bringing holiday cheer to Brooklyn. I reluctantly agreed and we gathered one Saturday.
Was the first song “Jingle Bells”? I don’t remember. What I do recall is a sudden choking feeling. A wave of anxiety washed over me as I realized, I can’t do this. The songs all had meanings and childhood associations far beyond secular celebration.
“I’m sorry, I have to leave,” I told Beth as I hurried away.
I called her later to explain. While Beth saw the songs from a distance, to me they reflected a faith I had been raised in, an affirmation of the birth of the Savior. To this day I do not sing or listen to holiday music — whether the topic is Jesus, a white Christmas, or Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.
I finally settled on the conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn as my shul. I still recall my first Saturday morning service. I knew so little about Jewish customs that I recoiled and shook my head when a man offered me the honor of an aliyah during the Torah reading.
During an aliyah, you read prayers in Hebrew before and after parts of the weekly recitation from the Jewish Bible. I had no idea what to do, and I declined. Who was I to deserve this? What if I screwed up?
I had reached an impasse. Spiritually, I was at ease in Jewish beliefs and had no desire to go backward, but I saw no way forward without ‘fessing up to my ignorance and what I viewed as my twisted background. I finally decided to speak with Kane Street’s rabbi, a man I immensely liked. In this Jewish version of a confessional, I came clean – about my parents, the Baptist beliefs, the unguided drift from Christianity to Judaism, my sense of shame at what I had been.
To my surprise and delight, the rabbi was not the least bit shocked. It turned out I wasn’t the first Jew to lack a bar mitzvah or an enriching Jewish upbringing. Imagine that. Our conversation marked my fresh start as a Jew. As the Baptists would say, I got right with God. I felt relief that I had faced the facts of the past and didn’t get laughed at.
Over the last 25 years, I have built my version of a Jewish life. I have studied Hebrew and feel, if not fluent, then more aware of what’s happening during services. I was married at the Kane Street Synagogue in 1989 by a new rabbi, a woman I like to call “Rebbe Debbie.”
Since my divorce in 2003, I have dated only Jewish women, who I find intelligent, passionate, and adorable. The rhythms of Judaism seeped into me, so that I transferred the emotional response I had to Christian prayers and music to Jewish liturgy that I have heard hundreds of times – Aleiynu, Adon Olam, Yedid Nefesh, Ain Keloheynu, Kaddish and Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva.
My adult experiences are catching up to the intellectual leap I made as a teenager. I gave myself the Hebrew name “Zev” (wolf) to use when I have an aliyah, an act that rattles me only slightly now.
While I’ve made peace with my past and current beliefs, I am still aware of the split in my life. My Jewish friends remember childhood seders; I colored Easter eggs. They played with dreydls; I decorated Christmas trees. They hated Hebrew school; I liked Vacation Bible School. My childhood and adult sides are mostly separate.
The chasm yawned whenever I returned to Mission and visited with Mrs. D. My break with the past saddened her. “Could you ever believe the way you used to?” she once asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m happy with what I am now.”
But some shards of faith bridge the distance of decades. I have the family menorah and the Union Prayer Book from Mission, and books that mention that hardy Prussian on the prairie, Rabbi Schwarz.
The chai around my neck? Mom gave that treasure to me for Hanukkah 1979, four years before she died of cancer. While a Baptist preacher presided over my mother’s funeral in 1984 and she was cremated, her older sister Charlotte, a fervent Baptist, placed Mom’s tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Gonzales, Texas, next to their parents’ graves.
Whenever I’m in McAllen, I attend services at Temple Emanuel – where I feel most welcome. And I still say the Sh’ma every night, the way my mother taught me.
Van “Zev” Wallach is a writer based in Stamford, Connecticut. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. Van writes frequently on religion, politics and other matters. His interests include travel, digital photography, world music and blogging, which he does at Kesher Talk http://keshertalk.com/, where this piece originally appeared.
“Shards of Faith, Reassembled” is reprinted with permission of the author.