I had already paid my check at the restaurant in Douglasville, Goergia, about half an hour west of Atlanta. I had time on my hands and I was spending it learning the ta’amei hamikra, the “Signs of Reading” or accent marks and musical notes of the Torah. It is one of the last requirements for rabbinic ordination that I must complete. I have foolishly put it off until the last six months before I am due to be ordained.
I had been at my table for a good hour or more with Marshall Portnoy and Josee Wolff’s book The Art of Torah Cantillation when the waitress walked over my way. Since I had already paid my check and finished my meal, I was pretty sure this would be a question. In Douglasville what sort of question might I expect? I was prepared for something like, “What language is that?”
Instead, she said, “Curiosity overwhelms me. I see you have a Hebrew book there.”
She knew it was Hebrew. I was now anticipating an interesting conversation. I explained that I am learning how to sing the Torah.
She said, “My father was Jewish and my mother is . . . I know this will sound crazy . . . Southern Baptist.” I didn’t think it sounded crazy. I speak in 40 to 50 Baptist churches a year and I meet scores of people with Jewish relatives. Down here in the Bible belt, Jews and Baptists get married with some regularity.
She went on to say that her father’s parents were Orthodox, that he joined the church to marry her mother, but when he died, he had an Orthodox funeral. There are interesting things about Jewish-Christian intermarriage. The idea of someone “converting” for marriage and reverting to their former identity when facing death is intriguing.
She told me about her children and said that one of her sons is changing his last name to that of her father. There was no one else to carry on the family name, so they are working on the name change to keep her father’s name alive.
“How about you?” I asked. “Do you practice either side of your identity? Do you keep Christian or Jewish traditions?”
“No, I don’t do either, but my kids go to church.”
“You ought to get in touch with who you are, with both sides,” I explained. And I told her what Messianic Judaism is all about. She was soaking it all up. No one had ever told her the two halves of her identity could be joined.
I told her she was a half-Jew and that there are many like her.
Interestingly, there are those who would say she is not Jewish because it was her father and not her mother who is Jewish. But I saw how her father’s Jewishness impacted her. She was deeply moved at the Jewish funeral. She spoke about it with a sort of awe. She told me he took her to an Orthodox service once, where was was separated to the women’s side and left alone in an environment she knew little about. She was terrified and never tried it again.
Also of note, there are those who would say her Jewishness does not matter. She should simply become a Christian. In Christ, some say, Jewish identity has no meaning.
It is interesting to meet a half-Jew and to think on how the religious worlds of Judaism and Christianity can have no room for such a person.
I gave her all of my information and I hope we stay in touch. I hope she can see how the faith of her mother and the practice of her father come together in Messianic Judaism.