Author Name: gail baker
109 oakbrook dr
columbia SC 29223
Matzah Balls to Communion Wafers: How a Not So Kosher Jewish Girl Fell in Love with Jesus (52,000 words) recounts my spiritual coming of age against the backdrop of a prominent Jewish family whose secular Judaism is defined in opposition to Bible Belt culture.
Life began to unravel when Michael, our nine-year-old son, developed serious emotional problems. Throughout his 30- year struggle to overcome depression, drug addiction and an eating disorder, our family experienced every grievous emotion imaginable. When the poison of despondency settled into my soul, I confronted it head on by looking for spiritual answers. I rested in Jewish understandings for a time, before realizing that only the Christian worldview could give meaning to our grim reality.
The day I told my Dad that I had embraced Christianity, he said, “If you were younger, I would put you over my knee and spank you.” At 37, I had insulted my Jewish family and every generation preceding them. Remarkably, over the last 30 years, I have assimilated faith with my personal identity and have resumed a peripheral involvement in Jewish life.
I have obtained a forward from Philip Yancey who writes, “Gail Baker has a unique and richly inspiring story which she tells in compelling fashion. I’ve long encouraged her to get this memoir written, and I believe it stands out in the in its genre for its honest realism and its potential to bring redemptive insight at a time of great cultural division.”
What makes my story unique is that I’m the “unexpected Christian,” the kind that religious people have a hard time with. Yet, this is just the kind of person that Jesus draws in, time and again, in the Gospel accounts.
I have obtained excellent endorsements from Kirkus Review, Pacific Review, Tulsa Review, Seattle Review, Manhattan Review, and San Francisco Review
I have published the following articles in Mockingbird, Patheos, Raven’s Perch, Episcopal Cafe, and the Manhattan Book Review:
Facebook: Gail Baker @ Gail Baker Author
Baker writes with a deeply felt spirituality, her prose often elegantly taking on the form of prayer. . . . She artfully braids revealing, confessional memoir with thought-provoking reflections on the nature of her spirituality, which dwells in the convergence of mystical Judaism and Christianity. Her search for faith is a rigorously intellectual one, conducted through the meticulous study of not only the Bible, but also philosophy and theology. Still, her remembrance never devolves into an arid, scholarly study. . . . With great nuance, Baker describes the profound consolation that she found in Christ as a Jewish woman, and in the process, she makes a valuable contribution to a deeper understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition. . . . A beautifully written and provocative account of a woman’s spiritual journey.
It’s easy to go along and accept what one has been taught. Gail has sought God on her own terms. It’s a path of discovery from which only good can come.
Orthodox Rabbi Hesh Epstein
Forward by Philip Yancey
I read this book on a trip to Eastern Europe. In Belarus I visited a pit where, in 1942, Nazi soldiers lined up 5,000 Jews from the Minsk ghetto and shot them, in plain view in the center of the city. In Hungary I toured the largest synagogue in Europe, mostly empty now after the extermination of half a million Jews. During one two-month period, 12,000 Hungarian Jews per day arrived at Auschwitz in cattle cars, destined for the crematoriums. Winston Churchill said, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”
I am still haunted by my visit to Babi Yar, a grassy ravine in Kiev, Ukraine. Now a memorial park, this peaceful setting was the site of Hitler’s first large-scale massacre of Jews. The entire Jewish population of Kiev was ordered to report with their belongings and warm clothes to a train station, from which they would be transported to a better place for resettlement. Instead, soldiers herded them behind barbed wire and stripped them of all their belongings, including clothes. Divided into groups of ten, the Jews, naked and terrified, were marched to the side of the ravine, and machine-gunned. The killing went on from morning to night for two days: 22,000 died the first day and 12,000 the second. German guards strode atop the bodies in the gully and shot in the neck any who showed signs of life.
On this trip, and on others to such places as Auschwitz, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen, I have confronted the long history of animosity toward the Jewish people. The Holocaust has become our central metaphor for evil, but it was only the most dramatic eruption of history’s pattern of hatred and persecution directed against the Jews.
Shylock, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, voiced his bewilderment:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die, and if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?
Anti-Semitism is especially grievous among Christians, for we share the same theological heritage. “Inside every Christian is a Jew,” Pope Francis has said. Both groups accept the Hebrew Bible as a revelation from God. Indeed, for the first few decades Christian converts were expected to follow Levitical laws governing such matters as circumcision and kosher foods. The Book of Acts and Paul’s letters detail the controversy that arose when Christians chose a different path.
I marvel that, in view of our violent history, any Jew would convert to Christianity (just as I marvel that so many African-American slaves adopted the Christian faith of their owners). Gail Baker has given us a step-by-step account of what the journey involves for a modern Jew who decides to follow Jesus. Hers is no blinding-light conversion story, but rather a process spanning years of struggle and anguish, years that echo twenty centuries of misunderstanding between Christians and Jews. She writes, “Exploring ultimate issues opened my eyes to the innocent suffering at the center of the universe. An anguish that could have destroyed me became a portal into a realm with the only voice capable of stilling it.”
All the while, a tangled subplot has been unfolding in the background. Gail’s Jewish family and community are scandalized, her husband is perplexed, and her son who suffers from depression and an eating disorder goes on to develop an addiction to cocaine. Throughout the years of his healing, her faith enables her to let go of pessimism and live a life tempered with gratitude.
Gail recounts her own bafflement over anti-Semitism. How to explain it? One by one, she examines key doctrines—the nature of God, Jesus’ divinity, the problem of evil, the Trinity, atonement—and describes how she has come to terms with each. She ultimately yields, not to one single illumination, but to many incremental points of light. In a final act of surrender she prays, “I’m sorry you had to go through so much in proving yourself to me. I am yours forever—and, as fair warning, I am high maintenance.”
The novelist Walker Percy used to say that the story behind his faith could be expressed in four words: God, Jews, Jesus, Church. In a memoir both intellectual and personal, Gail has accepted the challenge of linking together those four words.
The biblical prophets speak of Israel becoming a blessing to the whole world, a light to the Gentiles. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann has pointed out that Israel’s “No” to Jesus had an unintended consequence. “Without Israel’s ‘no’ the Christian church would have remained an inner-Jewish messianic revival movement. But because of the Jewish ‘no,’ the Christian community had a surprising experience. It discovered that the Spirit of God comes upon Gentiles so that they are seized by faith in Christ directly, without becoming Jews first of all.”
In her tortuous quest, Gail learned that not all Jews said No to Jesus. As she told her family, “I am the very person you knew so many years ago. I do not worship the church or other Christians. I worship a rabbi who cried over Jerusalem and who lived and died a Jew. I have not gone over to the other side—rather, Jesus is one of us.”
SETTING THE STAGE: AN IMPERFECT LIFE
By the time I reached junior high, I’d had my fill of Christians and Christianity. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, smack in the center of Bible Belt country, many targeted me for conversion. The last unfortunate episode occurred when my friend and I returned to my house after a date.
Parked in my driveway in his new ruby red Ford Mustang. Silver streaks extending the sides of the body, made it look poised for takeoff. I took in the aroma of leather as I peered at the high-tech widgets on the dash. I said, “Congratulations, Bill. The seats are just gorgeous—so soft and luxurious.”
Trying to hide peacock pride, he pursed his lips, saying, “Yeah, I think I’ll keep this one better than the last. Anyway, I’m glad you like it.” After a long pause, he cleared his throat and stammered out, “Gail, I need to talk to you about something very serious. I’ve known you for a long time, and you know how much I care, so I’ll just come right out and say it.”
Looking at him curiously, I asked, “Bill, what in the world is it?”
He said, “Well, it’s about your salvation.”
An immediate barrier came between us, and I snarled, “I just can’t believe you!”
Defensively, he said, “I know how much Judaism means to you and your family, but the fact is, if you died tomorrow, Gail, you will burn in Hell.
I saw no tears of genuine agony over my supposed destiny. To make matters worse, he belonged to Forest Lake Country Club, at the time a bastion of anti-Semitism and elitism. Usually I stopped these conversations short, but this time I took a different tack.
“Listen, do you believe Jesus is coming back?” I asked.
“Yes, of course, I do.”
“Do you think He could come back next week or next month?” I asked.
“Well, yes. He told us to expect Him any time, but what’s your point?” he asked.
I continued, “Do you realize that if He comes soon, he can’t even dampen the back door of your country club?”
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “He’d be welcome at Forest Lake anytime. After all, He started my church.”
“Bill, I think you’re missing something here. Jesus was Jewish,” I said.
He blurted, “Well if that’s true, He must have converted. I’m not stupid, Gail. I know Jesus was a Christian.”
“No” I said emphatically. “In fact, Jesus remained a Jew until the day He died. What’s more, His followers were Jews too. You may have even heard of them—Matthew, Mark, and John. But don’t worry, Bill—you wouldn’t recognize Jesus if He stared you right in the face. He’d look more like Yasser Arafat than that blasted blond picture on your Sunday School wall.”
His face blanched, and his eyes turned bloodshot. Ignoring any semblance of church-like decorum, he raged, “Dammit, Gail, you don’t know what the Hell you’re talking about.”
I wasted no time in getting out of his car. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and sped away faster than I could say, “Jesus Christ.” I heard his tires screeching several blocks away, feeling assured that I’d never have trouble with him again.
I have always abhorred a theology that has God saying, “If you don’t love me, I will torture you.” My knowledge of the church’s long history of forced conversion gave the word proselytizean evil ring. I could never understand how someone’s nominal acceptance of Jesus, something as seemingly trivial as choosing the right door at the fun fair, could serve as a litmus test for Heaven. Wanting no part of a God who devalued freedom of conscience, I grew up convinced of a huge divide between Christian and Jewish values.
Eighteen years later, I walked toward the back entrance of our neighborhood mall. I tightened my parka and watched the last vestige of fall color—vermilion, rust, and yellow leaves dancing and swirling their way to the ground. Inside, I made my way through the crowds, adjusting my hood to disguise my profile. Then, as though it happened every day, I crossed the threshold into my first Christian bookstore.
The store had the appearance of a cheerful Hallmark card shop with signs indicating directions—Bibles, devotionals, commentaries, biographies, and guides to moral living. I saw language like “steps to salvation,” “the four spiritual laws,” and “how to find peace with God,” simplistic notions that flew in the face of my secular, analytical upbringing. Having recently studied the Holocaust, I had little tolerance for tidy resolutions about who deserved heaven or Hell. Though I felt safe from prying eyes, technically I should have worn special gear or a breastplate of armor, such was the nature of the spiritual battle I had just commenced.
A year prior to this, Michael, our nine-year-old son, showed signs of serious emotional problems. The sudden onset of insidious, impossible-to-manage symptoms confounded me and my husband, Steve. His attitude turned sullen and belligerent, and he refused to cooperate with chores, complete homework, or comply with school rules.
A mysterious force had changed our lovely boy into someone we hardly recognized. Over the next thirty years, he struggled valiantly to overcome depression, anorexia, bulimia, and drug addiction. In the wake of his long travail, our family experienced every ravaging, grievous emotion imaginable.
With the onset of his depression, my healthy motherly love devolved into disabling enmeshment. The atmosphere surrounding his profound sadness became my quiet obsession. A dark dusk of melancholia permeated my very marrow rendering me practically senseless
In my codependent state, I believed for a fact that I could detect his mood by the tone and color of his skin. I marked every nuance of his eyes as they fixated on an unknown and unfathomable realm.
Despite receiving professional help, his problems lingered. I felt helpless and guilt-ridden every time I got negative feedback from teachers and other mothers. Acutely aware of the fragility of life, I lived in constant fear of great trouble around the corner. Though at first my emotions bordered on hysteria, they soon became submersed beneath the surface in a glacier-like realm. Constant worry left me in a state of blind resignation. Over time, when the swell in my heart and the lump in my throat disappeared, I found myself going through the motions of life, a ghostly figure skulking.
I broke my love on Michael as a crucible. This poignant bittersweet devotion forced me through a tunnel to the outer edges of reality. With eyes shut tight and breath suspended, I emerged from the chaos unscathed, trying to discern just how I managed to survive. As it happened, God ruled over the lesser light of night.
The First Day: Spirit’s Peaking
Finding little solace in any region of my soul, I had no recourse but to look to a farther realm. Trying to tease out the meaning of our quandary, I read extensively—eventually, morphing from secular Judaism to spiritual Judaism. I found a measure of peace but by the time I entered the Christian bookstore, angst and dissatisfaction had caused me to consider giving up on God altogether.
The morning began when sirens penetrating the night jarred me out of a sound sleep. Their foreboding shrills, like birds of prey, hovered closer and closer before stopping at a house nearby. I heard the faint sound of weeping, shrill voices shouting directions, and, finally, the slow thrum of the ambulance as it idled back onto the street and into the dark.
Looking outside of the bedroom window, I could barely detect our newly planted birch trees. A burst of air from the windowsill indicated another frigid day so I tucked the comforter snuggly around Steve, still sleeping soundly.
Whatever the outcome of the emergency, my neighbors would have wounds from the aftermath of shock. My experience with trauma indicated I had little ability to cope, much less help others.
Later that morning, after putting Michael on the bus, I sat at the kitchen table lingering over a cup of coffee. We had recently moved him to Heathwood Hall, a private school with smaller classes. My head tight from lack of sleep, I took some aspirin to stave off another headache.
The migraines began the week before when a mother of one of Michael’s playmates called. She said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, Gail, but Michael is eating us out of house and home. He went through our weekly stash of cookies and had a bad attitude when I confronted him with it. Maybe he and Edmund should take a break for a while.”
Glancing down at a stack of disorganized papers, I realized that I hadn’t yet looked at Michael’s school pictures. Opening the envelope, I noticed signs of depression that I hadn’t seen before: Lackluster, soulless eyes. Frowning brows. Limp, slumped shoulders.
Suddenly the phone rang. A voice said, “Hi, Gail. This is the headmistress at Heathwood Hall. Do you have a minute to talk?”
Breaking into a cold sweat, I said, “Sure, how can I help you?”
“Gail, Michael is still disturbing the class and not turning in homework.”
“We’ve tried everything. I’d hoped that a new environment would help. I’m going to seek professional help.”
“Gail, I’m glad you’re taking that step.”
After hanging up the phone, Linda Welsford, a close friend, stopped by for a visit. Linda and her husband, Glen, a Presbyterian minister, had ties to an evangelical outreach organization. As I discussed Michael, she could see my fragile state.
“Gail, I hope you won’t be offended, but I’d like to suggest some reading.”
“Sure, Linda, what is it?”
Timidly, she said, “Well, it’s in the New Testament. The Gospel of John.”
That very morning, in a dreamlike state, I had an inchoate sense of future harmony. Only with Linda’s suggestion did it come to my sentient awareness. I deflected it by saying “Thank you, Linda, but I’ve lost all interest in God.”
Unbeknownst to her, later that afternoon, I picked up the Gospel of John and began to read. Passages accusing the Jews of killing Jesus and calling them children of the devil confirmed my every suspicion of Christian anti-Semitism. Whatever the nature of my unarticulated hope, it vanished on the spot. Utterly disheartened and in tears, I rushed to the Christian bookstore, genuinely hoping to find a different understanding of the text.
In my browsing, I found Philip Yancey’s book Where Is God When It Hurts? Seeing a brilliant red rose on the cover, I expected a trite treatment of a very serious issue. Much to my surprise, Yancey, scholar, mystic, and philosopher, presents the Christian theology of pain in a clear and nuanced manner.
Over time, as I grappled with these ideas, a force drew me outside of myself—or perhaps toward my true self—into the life of God. Though our grim situation didn’t change, the Christian worldview provided meaning and allowed me to move forward. As I developed intimacy with a God who offers tangible hope, even in an age of Auschwitz, my emotional terrain evolved from insubstantial and uncertain to settled and firm.
During Michael’s drug years, the counselors who survived addiction themselves conveyed the most hope. As Michael shared his experience with them, they could stand in his shoes. He, in turn, could identify with their successful recovery.
I can apply this to my journey of faith. In my Jewish walk, a non-observant one, God availed Himself to me in personal, intimate ways by sustaining my prayer life. Yet, despite grasping His infinite nature, I discerned limits on His ability to inhabit my heartbreak. Jesus, as the God-man, served to bridge this gap. When God entered humanity, He identified with me, as both fellow traveler and counselor, intuiting every aspect of my variable, savory emotional life and pointing me toward final victory.
Jesus experienced unspeakable sorrow every time He witnessed a loved one in agony. In my struggle to overcome my addictive enmeshment with Michael, Jesus shouldered the full burden of my grief, that which I couldn’t bear and remain healthy.
Jesus’s experience of God-forsakenness on the cross tells me that my spirit can never sink so low that God has not gone down deeper still. I often employ a folksy way to say this: “Jesus may not take away the pain, but He sure is good company.” Later, in dealing with the horrid pangs of legitimate remorse, personal experience and research convinced me that Christianity affords greater power for forgiveness than Judaism.
I might have ended up a shallow shopaholic had I not come up against this impenetrable wall of pain. M sheltered suburban upbringing kept suffering at a distance. It left the impression that nothing could ever touch me. I assumed that if I played by the rules and met realistic standards, I could control my destiny. Like many in my immediate circle, I lived life on the surface, content with my lucky status. When in my thirties, consumed with the simple goal of making it through the day, all easy assumptions fell away.
Exploring ultimate issues opened my eyes to the innocent suffering at the center of the universe. An anguish that could have destroyed me became a portal into a realm having the only voice capable of stilling it. I came to understand the sacred meaning of sorrow in its full array of drama and redemption. Eventually, I could let go of pessimism and enjoy a life tempered with gratitude.
My shocking radical turn, the most practical decision of my life, entailed breaking away from the only reality I had ever known, the collective conversation of which I was a part. It forced me to let go of expectation, ego, and the conventional wisdom of a lifetime. Though I see my epiphany as a seamless progression of my values and disposition, for many of my loved ones it remains a complete anomaly. I took to writing as a means to bridge this gap.
If living on the boundaries of two cultures is grist for the mill, I trust I’ve gained a creative edge. At the very least, I understand the power of words, how a certain turn of phrase can either afflict or heal. My own efforts here have led me to conclude: When the story of Jesus is framed in the context of leaving one’s tradition, very few Jews will consider it. But, when it becomes framed in the context of a loving God who takes on the pain of all who suffer innocently, the paradigm shifts from one of tradition to truth.
Living in the world as I do, I will always have a level of conflict. However, conflict is different than confusion. During the time my faith was incubating, I experienced crushing anxiety due to conflict and indecision. Reflecting on how I came to resolve these doubts, I see a pattern of dissonance and renegotiation. I will always understand the Jewish sensibility—that of a minority group trying to protect itself. Paradoxically, as I began contemplating leaving a civilization always on the edge of survival, pride in my identity became strengthened and chiseled, honed as if on a rough-edged stone. Without pretense, I can state that the Jewish mystique, with its timeless unfolding in the blood stream of history, is writ large upon my psyche.
Three years after entering that Christian bookstore, I committed my life to Christ in an informal prayer. Years later I was baptized. Remarkably, today, after 32 years of belief, I have successfully assimilated faith with my identity and resumed peripheral involvement in Jewish life.
As expected, when I shared my new resolve with my parents, they reacted with swift antagonism. I had crossed an intangible line, dishonoring the memory of my grandparents and every generation preceding them. I recall Dad’s telling remark: “At least if you were younger, I could put you over my knee and punish you.”
Living in such close proximity to my parents I guarded my privacy for over fifteen years. I did this out of respect and because, at the time, I had little confidence in my ability to effectively communicate the depth and richness of what I had come to know.
Looking back, I can still see my grandparents faces. Sadly, they may see mine as one clouded by anti-Semitism, violence, and misconceptions. Though I understand why the mere mention of Jesus would cause them to bristle, I long to tell them: “I am the very same person you knew so many years ago. I do not worship the church or other Christians. I worship a rabbi who cried over Jerusalem and who lived and died a Jew. I have not gone over to the other side—rather, Jesus is one of us.”
EARLY RECOLLECTIONS AND FAMILY CHARACTERS
Looking back reminds me of dismantling the foundation of a longstanding house. Only from the vantage point of 69, can I even hope to reassemble the building blocks. One thing remains certain: God used the best and worst of my life to weave a tapestry foreshadowing spiritual renewal.
Henry David Thoreau, analyzing the pitfalls of autobiography, suggested that the writer resembles one who looks backward to see his shadow. The head, the most rational part, can never be viewed in its entirety. Similarly, I find it difficult to separate the most important elements of my journey from the overall backdrop of my life. Like the forest for the trees, my very omissions may speak volumes.
As the oldest of three girls belonging to Pat and Lee Baker of Columbia, South Carolina, I often wonder what my early years would have looked like under the gaze of God’s radical acceptance. So much fallen confidence wasted. Today, a new creation, I now salvage light where before I could only find emptiness. How often I could have relied on these words from the psalmist:
For thou, O Lord, art my hope,
my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon thee I have leaned from my birth;
thou art he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of thee. (Psalm 71:5–6)
As a diffident child with performance anxiety, I feigned sickness in grammar school every time I had to give an oral book report. I savored the time at home with Mom and our longtime housekeeper, Loretta. They attended to my needs with merry ebullient chatter and organized the odd and sundry items in my blue and white French Provincial bedroom. Mom made the delectable, old-fashioned family remedy called “orange and albumen”—orange juice with a thick, sugary meringue topping.
Taking in their chitchat and healing ministrations, I gazed longingly at three impressionistic-style portraits of Kleenex-brand beauties. Coiffed in tones of blonde, brunette, and auburn, they hung on the wall above my dresser—the one designated as Queen for the month always in a prominent position.
We listened to Mom’s favorite music—either Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite” or Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony Number Two.” I relished the order and ritual of this drama as well as the cheerful fawning. But most of all, I took comfort from the fact that I had orchestrated a credible ruse, never having to fear giving another oral book report.
Even from an early age, I felt a level of discomfort in groups. My dreamy, abstracted nature elicited teasing for reasons I could never understand. Only later, when I recorded my daydreams, did my teachers affirm that I had a deep imaginative capacity. As personality rolls out when least expected it, mine appears funny, despite myself. Once, a friend complained, “I’m so normal. I need to add some zip to my personality. Tell me, how do you do it?”
I responded, “Trust me, I tried being someone else, once, but it didn’t work.”
Lacking even slight athletic ability, I dreaded the playground experience. In the cafeteria at lunchtime, I search long and hard to find friends to sit with. Though I made above-average grades in math, I had difficulty calculating numbers in my head. When I realized that others didn’t count on their fingers as I did, I developed math phobia.
Once, I asked Mom the secret to being popular. After waiting for some magical formula to turn my life around, she, said, “Honey, the surefire way to having lots of friends is to always be yourself.” If I’d hoped for another gem, I didn’t get it.
It would take many years for me to reach the level of self-acceptance that Mom so deftly hinted at. My self-esteem didn’t come from within but from a source without. When the universe proffered me the gift of Jesus, it gave me a love, so crystalline and pure that every negative conception of myself fell away. Though it came unbidden, often scattershot and diffused, it came nonetheless. Embracing this new order of experience, I gained in the bargain verve, spritely confidence, and an impish sense of humor.
Today, if in God’s presence, I can imagine His affirmation: “Gail, this is precisely the way I made you. How could you possibly want to change? I can only conclude that, today, my self-esteem has been irrevocably nailed to the cross.
My ancestors on both sides came from Russia and Poland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They held fast to their secular traditions while embracing the opportunities found here in America. Never taking for granted their freedoms and the value of an education, every academic or social achievement validated their progress over the last generation. Gratitude and pride in accomplishment gave them a healthy identification both as Jews and as Americans.
Dad obtained his undergraduate and law degree from the University of South Carolina. After attending the University of Chicago, Mom finished at Brenau, a female liberal arts college in Gainesville, Georgia. Despite having similar educational and cultural backgrounds, their families of origin had considerable differences.
Dad’s family had traditional, sober values. Highly intelligent and expansive, their finely tuned social radar helped them to stay ahead of the game—first, in Estill, SC, and, later, in the capital city of Columbia. My ears always perked up to hear Aunt Evelyn’s brand of earthy, guileless gossip. Anyone veering even slightly off the beaten track she deemed a “character.” With good-natured curiosity and a trace of thinly guised admiration, she must have used the designation to refer to someone on Mom’s side of the family.
Mom’s family, with a decidedly creative bent, had a propensity toward things whimsical and eccentric. They moved from Atlanta to Gainesville, Georgia, when Mom was ten. Then, a sleepy, rural community, it now thrives as a suburb of metropolitan Atlanta. The combination of their delightful irreverence with a layer of Southern graciousness afforded them great popularity. Mom, with an unselfconscious pride in her heritage, always starting conversations by announcing that she was Jewish.
Without a synagogue in the vicinity, my grandmother Dora, affectionately called “Mudge,” fell into the whirl of civic and social activities at the local Presbyterian Church. The youth group elected Mom president, undoubtedly their first Jewish one. This had as much to do with Mom’s genial personality as the remarkable openness of the church and wider community.
Mom’s dad, Gus, renowned as a practical joker, created a joyful ruckus everywhere he went. Once, when asked why he changed his last name from Sevilovitz to Meyers, he wryly replied, “I didn’t want it to sound too Jewish.”
Gus made no secret of the fact that he didn’t like Mudge’s cooking. Despite every effort, the entire household shared Gus’ complaint—that is, everyone except their dog, Flossie. Once, at breakfast, Gus said, “Mudge, don’t you think we should be careful about letting Flossie get so near the table? If one of your biscuits fell on her, it’d likely kill her.”
Mudge had difficulty keeping a housekeeper, so when she, finally, found Norma, she had high hopes. Because her job didn’t allow for flexibility, Gus, owner of a local drugstore, always came home to check on things.
One day, he said, “Norma, there’s something I haven’t told you everything about Mudge’s past. Do you remember that circus that used to be outside of town?”
“Sure, Mister Gus, I took my kids there when they were young.”
He continued, “Well, Mudge used to work there as a lion tamer. Things were going just fine until she got attached to a lion cub named ‘Tipsy.’ She pleaded and pleaded, and, finally, I agreed that Tipsy could come live with us.”
Norma’s eyes widened, and she asked, “Where do you keep this here lion, Mister Gus?”
Gus answered, “Norma, have you ever wondered why we keep the downstairs closet locked?
“No,” Mr. Gus.
Gus said, “Well, Tipsy lives there. We give her sedatives to calm her, so promise me, Norma, whatever you do, please don’t go near that closet without me.”
He said, “Follow me, Norma, so I can acquaint you. If Tipsy knows your voice, everything will be fine.”
Norma whimpered something under her breath, but when Gus turned around, Norma was nowhere to be found. She hightailed it faster than Gus could bat an eye. No one in Gainesville ever caught sight of her again.
Jack Kurtz, Mom’s first cousin, served in the Third Army under General George Patton. Patton and General Montgomery had a running debate about whose army had the smartest enlisted men. One day, Montgomery challenged Patton to a bet. He said, “George, I’ll give you ten dollars if one of your men can get into Oxford.”
Patton’s men suggested Jack give it a try. He made his way to Oxford where, as part of his strategy, he sought the favor of his English literature professor. Facing the class, he proceeded to recite the entire Prolog to The Canterbury Talesin Old English. The quirky combination of Old English with his southern drawl created quite a stir. Patton won his ten-dollar bet and Jack matriculated to Oxford.
After Jack read the law in Charleston, S C, he met Florence Huxford, a local beauty queen. Florence had recently attended the Truman inaugural with Walter Winchel, and was was known to have dated the celebrity magnate, Huntington Hartford. Winchel wrote in his column, “Miss Huxford will either marry Huntington Hartford or some local boy back home.” As it happened, she chose the local boy back home, my uncle Jack. After having two boys, Jack went on to establish the successful business of Charleston Plywood.
Dad died 14 years ago, and Mom 7 years later. With the benefit of distance, I now see their qualities in tones of gray rather than as stark, black and white realities. Given that their faults seem like the underside of virtues perfectly rounded, I’m able to see immeasurable compensations in them.
As I reflect on them, I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s dictum: “Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the sincerest form of learning.” Though they often stumbled in the face of life’s obstacles, their dignity and resilience enabled them to grow stronger in the broken places. I remember them not for their irregular bits and sharp edges but for their graces.
It must have confounded Mom when, early in their courtship, Dad quoted the entirety of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, a poem about death. As for Mom, she could count the may ways she loved Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems. If she saw the world through rose-colored glasses, Dad’s vision bore hardly a tint. While beauty stirred Mom to raptures, Dad’s humdrum, prosaic nature knew no such longings. From her, I gained a picture of an ideal world, no rose garden perhaps, but an enchanted landscape full of mystery and romance. From Dad, I learned practical no-nonsense values and the importance of carrying out simple kindnesses behind the scenes and with little fanfare.
Having a quality of otherness, Mom’s sentiments tilted toward the poetic and ethereal. She documented her wholehearted striving to go beneath the surface of things in countless journals. In her wallet, she carried a quote from Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Having transcendent moments resembling what the French call “juissants,” she often regaled us with her latest enthusiasm—bird watching, kaleidoscopes, tea parties, or her new best friend. In the words of Annie Dillard, “She could make a long walk in the woods more exciting than a day in Disneyland.”
As an empath, one who psychically tunes in with the emotions of others, she had an artless unaffected love for people. Because she never criticized or gossiped, as a teenager, I found her trusting and naïve to a fault. Later, however, I realized that she saw precisely what others put forth—nothing more, and nothing less. Because of her high ideals, many put their best foot forward around her. Unwittingly, she saw a narrower spectrum of traits than the rest of us see.
Mom’s moral grandeur, lofty and inspirational, lent itself to sharp-edged self-righteousness. I’m taken back to my high school sorority initiation, when seasoned club members forced me to eat a horrid concoction of mustard, horseradish, steak sauce, collard greens, and pickle juice. When I came home, pale, wan, and retching, Mom said, “It serves you right for joining a club like that.”
Later, in running my bath, she said, “I’m sorry, Gail. I know you feel terrible, but you know how I feel about sororities. The girls who really need them to organize their social lives are the very ones who never get in.” Despite seeing truth in this, the relentlessness of her convictions exasperated me. I found it difficult to live in the shadow of a saint.
Mom’s effortless compassion seemed congenitally bound to her bloodstream. Unfortunately, for years, I defined myself in opposition to her, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With maturity, I came to admire in others the very qualities I disparaged in her. As a result, my defenses crumbled. Today, I consider it the penultimate compliment when someone compares me to her.
I now see that Mom’s example prepared me to recognize the mercy shown by Jesus. Though, in her, it had the nature of something consciously taught–overblown and dramatic– in Jesus, it became something caught, permeating the air as if through osmosis.
Unfortunately, Mom’s way of expressing emotions caused a level of chaos and consternation. She often said the opposite of what she meant, something psychologists call “reaction formation.” After stating a lofty observation or opinion, she usually backtracked to give a more authentic response. I longed for the clarity of a resolute bell, something I could sink my teeth into. Though I expected what she even called her “delayed reaction, I grew up doubting my instincts and perceptions.
The effect of multiple tragedies in Dad’s grandparents’ lives may have filtered down through the generations. Even as a child, I felt constrained by his dour, stoic secularism. Refusing to let it map my future, I held my antennae upright, hoping for a whiff of different air. Though at the time, I couldn’t identify it, I knew it by its absence–a formless void in the atmosphere where something else should have been.
Not one given to reflection or heart-to-heart conversation, Dad had a baffling, quiescent nature. Despite winning awards for public oratory, he had difficulty expressing his emotions, a circumstance that negatively impacted our family dynamic. Armored with a mask of anonymity, he played his hand close to his vest. His lack of expression, whether consciously chosen or due to scant self-knowledge, made him appear imprisoned inside himself. I needed a crystal ball to know what he thought of my capabilities. Because I sensed impatience in him, what he didn’t say loomed more terrifying in my imagination than what little he did say.
During Dad’s developmental years, he supervised his younger brother, Edward, who lost his speech and hearing as a young child. Because of their bond, an aura of silence could have permeated Dad’s personality. After my Grandmother Esther’s funeral, Edward joined us for lunch at my parents’ house. I suggested to him in writing that he maybe he could visit with Dad in the library.
Shaking his head, he penned, “I don’t want to disturb him. Lee is a man of few words.” I loved the delicious irony.
Dad’s apparent aloofness allowed other qualities of his to stand out– humility, refinement, and gentleness of spirit. Using sparse, judiciously chosen words, he often brought about consensus at contentious meetings. This caused an associate of his to remark, “When Lee Baker talks, everyone listens.”
Over the years, I came to understand that what he couldn’t or didn’t verbalize, he often expressed through actions. As the two of us began taking emotional risks, we learned to communicate on a deeper level. I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that we could, finally, develop an intimate, unshakable bond.
A product of the depression, Dad’s primary goal was to succeed so that he could provide an education for his girls. A humorous story told by our friend, Reese Williams, illustrates his attitude toward money. Instead of upgrading his Cadillac every few years, he bought used parts for the needed repairs. Once, the parts salesman asked, “Lee, why don’t you just buy another Cadillac? You can certainly afford it.”
In classic deadpan, he said, “Well, the money I could use for a new Cadillac could go towards a K-Mart mortgage. That money, in five years, would accrue to ten thousand dollars and, in another five years, hopefully, it would grow to twenty. Now, I just have to say, I can’t afford a Cadillac that expensive.”
I’ve heard it said that every marriage resembles a foreign country. Whatever the nature of the alchemy holding my parents’ parallel universes together, it served to work for them rather than against them. They often used humor to accommodate their differences. Once, at the International House of Pancakes, a cheerful waitress approached our table. Mom smiled at her, saying, “My, you have such beautiful skin. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Oh, thank you. My name is Valerie.”
After Mom and I ordered, Dad, without looking up, said, “I’ll have two eggs, sunny side up, with apple pancakes.”
After Valerie left, Mom said, “Lee, you were downright rude to that waitress.”
He impishly replied, “Honey, I don’t have to be so nice. You’re nice enough for two of us.”
Mom enjoyed exploring the woods near her house—at any time of day and in any type of weather. On the first day of spring, cause for her to celebrate and discover, she readied for a trek with Michael. Turning turned to Dad, she asked, “Honey, why don’t you join us on a hike?”
He responded, “No, thanks, honey, I’ve seen it all before.”
Mom compensated for Dad’s nature by exaggerating the positive. Unfortunately, her excessive flattery had the reverse effect, causing me to assume that she felt sorry for me. Even today, when I receive a compliment, some part me me wonders about its sincerity.
If I happened to ask their advice on a matter, I would get totally different responses. Once, when expressing some doubt as to continuing a friendship, I said, “She’s intimidating and brash, but she’d give you the shirt off her back if you needed anything.”
Mom said, “I know what you mean, Gail. A big heart goes a long way.” Dad piped in, saying, “I don’t think it’s a great compliment. It’s never a good idea to give so much away.” Despite his protestation, I’d seen him give away more than his shirt to someone in need.
As their divergence played out, I had difficulty integrating the conflicting sides of my nature. My left and right brain seemed at odds with one another, one side reflecting Mom, and the other, Dad. This caused my difficulty in making decisions. Like Mom, I had a delayed reaction, not knowing, exactly what I thought about a matter. This could explain why, years later, even after two consecutive spiritual revelations, I remained frozen in indecision.
Observing my parents helped me detect the vast space within the human heart that remains inscrutable, elusive, and variable. I learned to hold opposing views in tension and gained an appreciation for moderation, mystery, and paradox. In my thirties, for example, struggling to negotiate faith and identity, I assumed the label, “a congregation of one.”
Despite my insecurities, I recall an idyllic childhood. We lived big in Mom’s house. With Dad in the background, her values and opinions held sway. With play reflecting her singular love of fairies, I flit from one activity to the other, savoring their wonder and enchantment.
The unstinting beauty of this mythological fancy resonated in the deepest part of me. Like a beautiful haunting, it provided hints of distant lands and sunlit regions where, as Frodo said in The Lord of the Rings, “All things sad will become untrue.” Though darkness would eclipse this vision for extended periods in my life, its light stood as a beacon holding me to the possibility of things unseen.
ALL THINGS JEWISH
If our earliest impressions form and inform the way we categorize the world, the phrase “culture wars” defined mine. Though the expression didn’t exist at the time, I lived out the reality on an unconscious level. In our middle-to-upper-class area, I divided people into two groups: “Christian, country club, Republican” and “Jewish, liberal, Democrat.” In this set up, our community stood on the outside.
Our values resembled those of the Jewish families who moved to the suburbs after World War Two. We erected synagogues at the same pace as Christian neighbors who built churches. Like many first-generation Jews, Dad went to synagogue, not so much for worship, but to congregate with other Jews. The year he assumed the presidency of our conservative Beth Shalom Synagogue, he informed me he didn’t believe in God.
We attended services only once a year on the High Holidays. After a group Bat Mitzvah, I continued with Sunday School where, excepting Dr. Gerald Bregger’s philosophical lectures, I found the experience tedious and boring. Today, I still struggle with the Hebrew liturgy and have little knowledge about Jewish customs and rituals.
We considered ourselves “Jewish Americans” rather than “American Jews.” A Jewish American defines himself as an American first and a Jew, second. An American Jew affirms the reverse in identity. Curiously, Mom taught us to say, “Jewish person” rather than “Jew.” Presumably, “Jew” had a negative connotation. When I asked her about it, she simply said, “It just sounds nicer.” I find it telling that the words, Jew and Jesus, both shot through with divine intension, have become known as epithets.
I recall my utter disillusionment when I learned that one of my favorite uncles had changed his last name from Levinson to Lawrence in order to avoid anti-Semitism in the Air Force. Years later, when he heard his teenage boys using anti-Semitic slurs, he informed them of their heritage.
I think better of a family by last name of Levy. The father, not raised Jewish but proud of his ancestry, kept his last name when he entered the Air Force. Later, President Kennedy, later, appointed him to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Even today, I bristle when I think about my uncle’s decision. Once, Steve chiding me for self-righteousness, said, “Gail, you have no right to talk. After all, you’ve left the fold entirely.”
Countering it, I said, “Honey, I didn’t leave for convenience sake. I left out of conviction. You wouldn’t think highly of a fan who left his favorite sports team just because they were going through a losing streak.”
My first inkling of such thing as anti-Semitism occurred in grammar school. Talk of excluding us from a certain carpool and the local Girl Scouts troop prompted Patsy Malanuk’s mother, Nita Craig, to squelch the plan. Later, I went on to attend the Girl Scout Roundup in Farragut Bay, Idaho, and Mom became President of the Congaree Girl Scouts Council.
In high school, inured to the ever-present efforts to proselytize, I had many non-Jewish friends. Maybe, because of my assimilation, I had a greater awareness of anti-Semitism than my Jewish friends who stayed within their narrow circle. Reflecting the social ethic of teenagers and its instinct for following the herd, I had a hard time accepting my difference. Curiously, I felt more distress over subtle, social slights than anti-Semitism’s more blatant forms.
When I was in junior high school, our family received vicious anti-Semitic telephone calls. The comments ranged from “Christ killer,” and “filthy kike,” to “dirty Jew.” We involved the FBI who proceeded to trace the calls to several of my so-called friends at school. Because of their popularity, word spread rapidly. The expression on the face of my best Gentile friend, at the time, implied that our family had committed an egregious offense by calling them to account.
With maturity, I came to embrace a category of “good different.” I cultivated an independent streak and had the outlook of an outsider, something that helped to develop character and a refined sense of justice. Though today, in an alternate current with different markers on the shoreline, I still see myself as one swimming against the tide. I experience a raveling tension every time I encounter Christian anti-Semitism or rigid cultural stereotypes about faith and identity.
Dad once chided, “If you scratch below the surface of any Gentile, you’ll find deep pockets of anti-Semitism.” Despite knowing that certain clubs and neighborhoods had restrictions on Jews, my parents had strong working relationships with Christians. One erstwhile friend of Dad’s unabashedly asked, “Lee, can’t you understand why we just want to keep a Christian neighborhood?
My parents’ understanding of Jewish values motivated them to give back to Columbia’s larger civic and cultural community. Because of their relentless efforts on behalf of such groups as the Salvation Army, the Art Museum, The Girl Scouts, and the Music Festival Association, they received numerous accolades and awards. Mom especially loved her time with Howard McLean and Philip Whitehead on the inter-faith Christian Action Council.
In high school, I balked when my parents objected to my serious relationship with a non-Jewish boyfriend. Later, as president of his KA college fraternity, he invited me to their “Old South” weekend at Wofford College. Dad said, “I just can’t relate to southern values. Your date’s family probably owned slaves while ours were fighting the Czars in Russia. Don’t forget who you are.”
My parents, card-carrying members of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), resisted the placement of Christian symbols on public property. Interestingly, today, the Orthodox group, Chabad, placed a giant menorah on the grounds of the state legislature. At one time, it stood near the deplorable Confederate flag. Officials removed the flag, in 2015, after the Charleston church massacres.
We celebrated Chanukah and Passover primarily as tributes to cultural freedom without emphasis on the miraculous. Chanukah, a minor festival, gets played out in America as a major one because it occurs during the Christmas season. Mom always carved a large Jewish star out of Styrofoam and placed it on a bed of angel hair, surrounded by blue and white lights. Janna, Laurie, and I helped her drape silver, looped chains from the chandelier and valance.
One year, the last night of Chanukah fell on Christmas Eve. After opening our gifts and readying for bed, Laurie and I implored Mom to wake us up at 2:00 A.M.
“Why in the world would you want to get up then?” she asked.
“We want to watch Santa come to Mary Ott’s house.” The Otts were the only Christian family on our small Jewish cul-de-sac, Wyndham Rd.
Reluctantly, Mom said, “Oh, I guess I’ll wake you.”
Laurie and I shared a room with two beds placed at right angles to an oversized toy bin. Above, wide horizontal windows let in a panoramic view of the entire neighborhood. When Mom came in to wake us, we opened the blinds, raised ourselves to knee-high positions, and peered outside for hours. We felt no jealousy, only keen expectation and unbridled joy at the prospect of experiencing Christmas through Mary’s eyes. As sleep overtook us, we determined to alter next year’s vigil, so we could definitely catch Santa in the act.
Passover, my favorite holiday, commemorates the end of Israelite bondage and symbolizes mankind’s hope for an end to discrimination and prejudice. On the first night, we always hosted a ceremonial meal called a “Seder.”
The longing and joy of nostalgia take me back to a time of carefree abandon during my school break. I sat on the front lawn awaiting the arrival of relatives—the cast of characters described above. I delighted in the newly formed crocus and forsythia blossoms and the rich, savory aroma of Mom’s chicken soup coming from the open kitchen window. As a breeze tussled through my hair, I selected the best specimens from an array of clover flowers to fashion a necklace. The previous year, Mudge had taught me to carefully slit and entwine their delicate stems to avoid breaking them.
Our relatives’ incongruous mix of personalities made great fodder for entertainment. Mudge’s love of spectacle meant that Laurie, Janna, and I often took bets on the many ways she would embarrass Dad by her antics. That night, they consisted of nothing more than plopping down on the floor to display her calisthenics and telling her latest off-color joke. Though its meaning was lost on me at the time, Aunt Evelyn, later, informed me it could have made a seasoned sailor blush.
Mudge’s instinct for the theatrical clearly unnerved Dad. Though he adored her, I heard him whisper to Mom, “Sometimes she reminds me of an Eastern European circus performer.”
At another interval, Mudge, looking at dad, asked, “Lee, when the time comes, will you help with my funeral expenses?”
Dad said, “Mudge, I’ll be glad to bury you.”
Passover as a teenager took on a different timbre. I always helped Mom set a table to include invitees from liberal special interest groups. (We never met one we didn’t like). Our table, modern, lacquered, and walnut, differed from the antique ones belonging to my Gentile girlfriends. Dad could never understand why anyone in their right mind would ever want to buy what he called “used furniture.”
Increasingly, I noticed that our Seders lacked sacred content and context. As head of the household, Dad led the service using a program called a “Haggadah.” We often joked that we “passed over Passover” because we used the abbreviated version. After recounting the ancient biblical story, Dad said, “Well, I hate to be a party- pooper, but I just can’t believe the Exodus actually happened. I’ve been reading Man and His Gods, by Homer Smith, and The Biblical Archeology Review. They both cast doubt.”
Though The Biblical Archeology Reviewproves reliable on this score, Man and His Godsreflects a typical Enlightenment approach in which social scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists reduce, prod, and analyze the entire religious experience.
Mom interjected, saying, “Whether it’s historical or not, doesn’t it say something about God’s protection of His people?” Her conversations, an unpredictable brio, drew from Shirley McLain’s New Age aphorisms or serious insights from The Great Books Program. She had immersed herself in this study under Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago.
Between the gefilte fish and the chicken soup, my cousin Susan, asked, “Did you hear that David Williams got into Harvard? He spent last summer interning at the ACLU. Did you know that his dad actually marched with civil rights leaders in Alabama?”
Knowing of this Gentile family, I smiled ironically and asked, “Are you sure he’s not Jewish?”
Mom laughed and said, “Well, if he’s not, he should be.”
Aunt Evelyn, the consummate storyteller, said, “Boy, do I have a tale for you. We all know how much Senator Rubin loves to pontificate on democratic party politics and issues related to Israel. Last week, he overheard a conversation between his young granddaughter, Rosie, and Jackie, her Gentile girlfriend. Jackie asked, ‘Rosie, how do you get to be Jewish?’ Without missing a beat, Rosie said, ‘You need to be voted in, of course.’”
Everyone laughed and applauded Rosie’s cleverness. Only, later, did I see the subtle half-truth that, in many quarters, Judaism is played out as a secular political response. In his article, The Decline and Rise of Secular Judaism, Edwin Shapiro pointed out the many ways in which Jews express their identity other than religion: fundraising for Israel, fighting anti-Semitism, attending book and film festivals, and venerating Holocaust victims. He stated that many who engage in these activities run the risk of spiritual emptiness.
The skeptic, Albert Einstein, who retained his Jewish identity, saw no inconsistency when he considered accepting the post as president of the Medical College of Yeshiva, a leading American Orthodox institution. The fact that current college courses on Judaism focus on sociology and history rather than on religion and that Gentiles serve on the boards of reform synagogues (not a bad thing, itself) proves that religion is not the only tie that binds Jews together.
Increasingly, many favor the option of non-religious, cultural conversion, one that allows Gentiles to identify and affiliate with the Jewish people. They reason that an agnostic Gentile should not have to go through a rabbi to become an agnostic Jew.
Seeing the importance of continuity in the face of anti-Semitism, our family stressed the centrality of Jewish roots from the historical and national to the familial and individual. Mom and Dad had great empathy for those on the margins of society, but with little awareness that feeding the poor and healing the sick were ancient biblical values. Unknowingly, they stood on the shoulders of the prophetic giants who came before them.
Judaism attempts to balance the opposing ideals of the “universal” and the “particular.” For example, though Israel has a unique covenant with God, the rabbis emphasize that the righteous of all the nations will merit a place in the world to come. During my developing years, they tilted toward the universal with broad-based humanitarian concerns trumping the narrow focus on Israel. I grew up with buzzwords such as “tolerant,” “humanistic,” “progressive,” and “egalitarian,” all based on the assumption that mankind is essentially good and that the right utopian system could cure all of society’s ills. Somewhere in this potpourri of values and opinions, I concluded that the word “liberal” inevitably meant “loving.”
Later, focusing on the needs of worldwide Jewry, Mom and Dad developed a strong, idealist bond with early Zionism. (Zionist is the national movement of the Jewish people that supports the re-establishment of a homeland in Israel.)
In the period leading up to 1967, Egyptian forces mobilized along the Sinai Peninsula. Israel launched pre-emptive air strikes in which they defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. She occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
The Six-Day war broke out during my senior year in high school. The media’s constant focus on Israel’s military prowess made it the topic of conversation in many of my classes. I could hardly wait for Friday, when Mom and Dad planned to host an Israeli fundraiser at their home.
When I arrived home from school, Loretta had already prepared the appetizers and vacuumed the house. As Mom got out her best wine glasses, Dad peppered her with questions about the agenda. “Do you think Albert should speak first?” As head of Columbia’s Jewish Federation, Albert planned local fundraisers and educational events.
“No,” she said. “Definitely not. Adam should go first because of his recent trip to Israel. He’ll be enthusiastic and get the ball rolling. After that, Albert can speak about financial needs. “Lee,” Mom said, “I’ve never seen you quite like this before. You’ve always been involved, but this is beyond the pale. Where’s it all coming from?”
Dad said, “I’m not sure. I just know that I can’t take my identity for granted any more. If Jews don’t help other Jews, no one else will. Just look at the Holocaust.”
The guests arrived, about fifty men in all, first filling the living room, and, then, the screened in porch. Most of them showed serious faces, almost on the verge of tears. After Dad welcomed everyone, he called on Adam to speak.
Adam gave some preliminary remarks about his trip, and then turned to Mom. “Pat, I was so proud to see your name prominently displayed at Hadassah Hospital. Thank you so much for your tireless efforts on behalf of this very worthy cause.”
For years, Mom had raised money for Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization that funded a hospital in Jerusalem. Here, Jewish and Arab doctors worked in harmony on cutting edge, worldwide research. In 2002, because of its equal treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, Hadassah Hospital was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Adam continued, saying, “Honestly, our trip changed me. I’ve never felt such pride in my Judaism. Just think of it—we Jews have spawned the entire moral fabric of Western civilization. It’s time to put our identity on the line. Israel will perish if we don’t ante up.”
Then, chiming in Dad said, “As most of you know, I’m not a religious man, but I agree with Adam. The Jewish word for charity is ‘Tzedakah.’ Today, charity is not a subjective choice; it’s a holy obligation. Because a secure Israel can deter worldwide anti-Semitism, we should give for selfish reasons.”
Albert gave an emotional pitch detailing Israel’s financial needs before passing out the pledge cards. The electric atmosphere rose to a crescendo as each man got up to announce his commitment. I watched in amazement as the group raised over 100 thousand dollars that night.
I experienced newfound pride and an appreciation for the role Jews have played throughout history. I witnessed my parents’ mutual love and admiration for the Jewish people. Over the years, they provided an example of how marriage partners can work harmoniously together to achieve shared goals.
Despite the continued legitimacy of such consciousness-raising sessions, as my spirituality evolved, I experienced a void. The fervor and zeal expressed over nationhood and continuity began to appear as an idol, or substitute for God.
Charles Silverman noted that the 1967 War changed the way most Jews felt about themselves. Allegiance to Israel became the center of communal life and the primary means for Jews to affirm their identity. It became common to link Israel’s security with preventing future Holocausts. As the values of the particular replaced those of the universal, spirituality took a back seat.
In 2013, a Pew Research Surveydocumented responses to the question, “What is Essential to Being Jewish?” Remembering the Holocaust constituted the number one rationale, even after leading an ethical life or observing Jewish law.
Only one such as the eminent Orthodox Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner could have expressed the provocative view that Jews have taken Holocaust remembrance and its focus on survival to an unhealthy extreme. He believed that this obsession obscured Judaism’s inherent spirituality.
About the Author
Gail Baker grew up in a sheltered cocoon of close family relationships and a tight-knit Jewish community. She graduated from George Washington University in D.C. with a B.A. in education in 1971. After moving back to Columbia, she obtained a M.A. in special education. She and Steve Anastasion, a real estate attorney, married in 1973, and had their son Michael two years later.
Gail has actively engaged in fundraising for non-profit organizations most of her adult life. She serves on the board of governors of the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives (NANOE) and is a member of Episcopal Church Women (ECW) and the Episcopal Relief and Development Corps. She is also a church representative to the Central Midlands Justice Ministry, a group that addresses serious community wide problems through direct action, education, and research. She enjoys public speaking and has given tours at the Columbia Museum of Art, the Historical Columbia Foundation, and the South Carolina State Museum. She is a member of the Association of Writers and Writing Professionals and the National Association of Memoir Writers.
Having researched the interface between Judaism and Christianity for thirty years, she enjoys speaking to Christian groups about the Jewishness of Jesus and the religious roots of anti-Semitism. In conjunction with the South Carolina Holocaust Commission, she has organized church symposiums on religious persecution in which sons of Holocaust survivors speak.