A Search for Jewish Roots

by George and Pam Dewey

In many families, even in “melting pot America,” weddings are “ethnic” events, with lots of tradition and custom handed down from generation to generation. For instance, in American Polish communities, a wedding reception will likely include familiar traditional music—perhaps a polka band led by an accordian, favorite traditional foods, maybe even guests in traditional costumes from “the Old Country.” The same could be said for many other cultural groups in this country.

However, when we got married, in 1965, there were almost no traditions involved. Neither of us has “roots” in a particular ethnic, religious, or cultural group. Although we each had some background in our youth of religious affiliation, by the time of our wedding, neither of us was actively involved in any religious community. Nor were we even close to our own immediate families—we decided to get married quietly in our college town without even telling our parents of our plans. Thus our “generic” ceremony was held in a side chapel of a non-denominational church, officiated by a minister whom we had chosen out of a phone book. And the tiny event was truly “ecumenical”—George’s best man was a Russian expatriate (likely a member of the Russian Orthodox Church), Pam’s maid of honor was an Italian Roman Catholic, and the only guests were Pam’s Jewish college roommates.

The one area in which we shared common cultural experiences with most Americans was in the general customs involved in the observance of Christmas and Easter and other holidays. But in our very first year of marriage, we studied together the literature of the Worldwide Church of God, and became convicted that these were non-biblical observances in which we could not, in good conscience, continue to participate. Becoming official WCG members in 1968, we soon found that even religious music of any kind not specifically endorsed by the Church was forbidden for our home. And thus we entered into a way of life taken up with many church activities, but accompanied by almost no replacements for the customs, traditions, music, festive decorations, or any other thing that would define special times for most Americans.

By the mid-1970’s, we were beginning to really feel an emptiness inside that seemed to cry out to be filled with music, tradition, custom, beauty. We were strongly committed to the doctrines of our church, but felt it was sadly lacking in all of these more aesthetically and emotionally-satisfying elements in its gatherings and in our homelife.

So where to turn? We knew we couldn’t dabble in any “Christian” sources, no matter how non-denominational or doctrinally neutral, as that would get us in trouble with the WCG leadership. So we thought, “What about Judaism?” It had many things in common with our belief system, particularly the Sabbath and Holy Days. And it certainly had lots of traditions, customs, decorations, music and so on! In the mid-1970’s, particularly outside major metropolitan areas, that religious community we now refer to as “Messianic Jews” were almost unheard of, so our only option for exploring the possibility of “borrowing” some things from Jews was the non-Messianic Jewish community. We later ran across the ministry of Zola Levitt, a Messianic Jew, as well as “Jews for Jesus.” But we soon found out that both Zola and the Jews for Jesus do not represent a “Torah-observant” branch of Judaism, but rather one that attempts to graft on such things as Christmas and Easter to the Jewish customs of their converts to belief in Y’shua Messiah (Jesus Christ).

Our daughter, Ramona, was a pre-schooler at this time. Determined to see if we might find the “roots” we were looking for, and might pass on to her, in a more Jewish lifestyle, we began looking for sources of information and materials. Our first stop was the local public library, which happened to have a recording of Jewish traditional Sabbath and Holy Day music. Most of it was in Hebrew, but we were so excited to have something other than the old WCG hymnal’s music that we taped it to play over and over on Sabbath evening even though we weren’t sure what all the words were about.

One of the first books we purchased was called “The First Jewish Catalog.” It was modeled on the “Whole Earth Catalog.” It was a big handbook aimed particularly at young Jewish people who may have become secular as they moved out on their own from their more religious parents, but who were now looking to “return to their roots.” It included everything from a detailed description of the meaning and traditional observance of the Sabbath and Holy Days, to how to keep a kosher kitchen, and how-to instructions for making beautiful Hebrew calligraphy. It also included information on how to go about creating your own personal library of Judaic materials. Pam tried their hallah (traditional Sabbath bread) recipe, and we pondered how we might add some of the customs to our Holy Day observances.

There was an address for “The Jewish Publication Society,” so we wrote to them, and joined their organization by paying an annual dues/fee so that we could get discounts on various Jewish publications. We purchased a number of books from them, hoping that perhaps they would not only provide us hints for the area of customs, but also help us in Biblical understanding. We bought the Society’s new translation of the Pentateuch, an abridged version of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, a thick Encyclopedic Dictionary of Judaica, and numerous other volumes.

We also ordered a copy of “The Second Jewish Catalog.” It covered even more details on Jewish lifestyle, including everything from circumcision rites for baby boys, to choosing a rabbi when you move to a new town. And in the back it included “The Jewish Yellow Pages” which was literally a “phone book” for Jewish businesses and organizations throughout America.

From that we found some supply houses for decorations, children’s materials and so on. We sent away for a set of Purim hand-puppets for Ramona. Purim is the holiday described in the book of Esther. It is celebrated in Jewish communities by festivities particularly aimed at children. The story of Esther is retold in plays and musicals in local synagogues with much merriment and enthusiasm. Traditionally, the audience uses loud noisemakers and vocal jeers to drown out the name of the “bad guy” Haman each time it is mentioned in the play. That year on the evening of Purim Mona and a little friend in the WCG joined their dads watching a Purim play put on by their moms. Since the set of puppets we ordered only included Esther, Ahasuerus and Mordechai, we had to improvise the rest of the cast. Re-enacting the part of the story of Esther where Mordechai was led around the city on the back of a horse, we pressed into service a plastic horse that came with Ramona’s “Jane West” fashion doll. And who did we use for the evil Haman? That part was taken by Ramona’s Sesame Street Cooky Monster hand puppet!

We really appreciate the exposure we thus had to many things Judaic. We came to understand more of the Jewish culture and community. We were fascinated to see in our “Jewish Directory and Almanac” how many famous folks are Jewish that you might never guess, given their “stage names” or Americanized names. Most folks realize that Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen are Jewish, and perhaps Milton Berle and even Richard Dreyfuss. But how about: Herb Alpert, Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, Lauren Bacall, George Burns, Jill Clayburgh, Neil Diamond, Kirk Douglas, Lorne Greene, Henry Winkler, Howard Cosell... and the Three Stooges!

In later years we attended a Jewish Passover seder on the “Night to be Much Remembered” put on by a lady in our CGI congregation who was also attending a Reformed Jewish synagogue. (She later married a Jewish gentleman and converted to Judaism, renouncing Jesus.) George was given a fancy “kippah” to wear ( the skull-cap worn by observant Jews) which he still has, and Ramona was invited to say the traditional blessing on the candles opening the evening’s activities (She still remembers the Hebrew words she memorized for that.)

However, that night was perhaps the culmination of the journey we had been on. We realized that night that for all our attempts to “graft on” the customs and trappings of Judaism, we still felt no sense of “roots” in all of it. It was, in the final analysis, an attempt to “work up” feelings that those who are born into a Jewish community experience just as they experience breathing—naturally. We could enjoy the music, we could respect the meaning that others found in the customs. But we could not “tap into” the root in a way that would give us the sense of belonging and rejoicing we were looking for. We couldn’t somehow “become Jews” by acting Jewish! For the Jews are not “acting”— they are living it because they were born into it.

We are aware that there are many from the same background that we have in the WCG who are just now beginning to look into the customs of Judaism in almost the same way we looked into it over twenty years ago. Perhaps some have the same yearnings we had for roots. We wish them well in their quest. Perhaps it will give some of them what they are looking for. At the same time, we hope they will understand our choice not to pursue that avenue for our own lives.

Now that we are no longer hampered by the control of religious leaders, we are free to explore other options for making our family and fellowship activities as Christians more inspiring. We have found in recent years that there is much music available from a variety of sources that is Biblically-sound, honors our Father and our Savior, yet is refreshing and lively. Folks are free to develop their own Sabbath and Holy Day customs as is noted in the article by Missi Lara in this edition of Servants’ News. And even though one can certainly find “fore-shadowings” of Y’shua, Jesus the Messiah, in some Jewish customs, He certainly plays no prominent part in those customs. Rather than having to somehow “graft” references to our Lord and Savior onto music and customs, we are free to make Him an integral part as we develop our own.

Although we have appreciated what we have learned from Jewish sources, and have enjoyed learning about many of their customs and traditions, we have come to see that we don’t have “Jewish roots.” Although in the natural, our Savior did live His life on earth in the Jewish community, and no doubt participated in many of the customs which we studied and tried out, our connection with Him is not as Jews. Our roots go back much farther than first century Judaism. Our real “roots” are in the faith of Abraham. Not an ethnic or cultural faith, but a supernatural faith. We have come to see that the most important thing is not that we are of the seed of Abraham in the flesh, but in the spirit. &