Journey Paper: Rachel Wolf
“I’M LOSING MY CHILDREN!!”
This agonized cry came from my mother as I sat in the living room. My brother had become a radical SDS activist; I, a Messianic Jew. I think she feared for his life. But with me, it was different; it was as if the universe had suddenly been interrupted; every star and molecule was holding its breath fearful that Newton and Einstein had lost their grip.
She stood in the foyer, beside the living room. She had come to wail, as the wailing women of ancient days till now grieve for the lost and dying.
More than forty years later her cry echoes still in the painful cavern of my soul.
Since the daughter of my people is shattered
I am shattered
I grieve, gripped by desolation.
[Jeremiah 8: 20-23]
Mine is the story of a life that, in one glistening blink of understanding, found wholeness and devastation; philosophical unity and transcendent meaning; and an utterly shattered sense of self at the core of my being. Thus began a life characterized more than anything else by agonizing inner conflict, faith and doubt, and silent suffering.
I was born in Philadelphia to typical East coast Jewish parents: children of immigrant families from the Pale of Settlement (Minsk, Pinsk, Belz). My father Arthur Rubin spent a large part of his early years at the West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center, and my mother, Shirley Cooperman, at Germantown Jewish Center trained by Rabbi Elias Charry, whose grandson became a classmate of mine at Akiba Hebrew Academy. My father served in the U.S. army during WWII as a radio operator in the Pacific, spending time in Guam. My parents met after the war, married and eventually moved us to a small house in one of the new 1950s Philly suburbs.
My older brother, my younger sister and I went to the public elementary school across from the front of our house; while, from our back yard, we had a terrific spy-worthy view of the private Catholic School (Presentation B.V.M.). The meaning of the initials B.V.M. remained a mystery for the duration of my childhood and long into adulthood. And we routinely called the school “Presentation” without any thought about who was presenting what to whom. I still don’t know.
My parents were founding members of an active Reform congregation in the area, yet, contrary to popular stereotypes of Reform Jews, we were quite observant at home. We had separate sets of dishes and silverware for milchig and fleishig and a magical glass set of dishes for Pesach that could serve for both. The kosher butcher would deliver a brown paper bag of freshly cut meat every other week, though the contents were often a surprise. He would explain to my mother, “I thought you’d like this better.”
I think Reform Judaism of the mid-century was particularly attractive to my mother for its involvement in public affairs. This was the time when Jews were marching with the Civil Rights Movement and the Reform movement was their advance guard. That suited my mother very well. In 1963 she took a bus, my 13-year-old brother in tow, to the famous March on Washington. I am sure that this trip was a formative part of his later radical politics.
We attended synagogue often and were kept out of school even for “minor” holidays like Sukkot, a favorite of mine. It was a great treat to attend the sparsely attended daytime Sukkot service on a weekday, and to go to the synagogue’s sukkah to say the blessings over the lulav and etrog and share a kiddish and fruit challah with the rabbi and small group.
I am a little girl of seven, eight, nine. I am sitting in the large sanctuary of my synagogue in my new holiday dress on Yom Kippur. The large beaten-gold ark and menorah, and the mesmerizing domed ceiling lined with circles (the cut-off ends of pipes of varied circumference) are the things that most engage my attention. My short stocky frame in the new dress finds it hard to get comfortable.
The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork.
I look up and try to fathom the number of pipe holes on the ceiling as I wonder about the firmament.
Shma Yisrael Adoshem Elokeynu Adoshem Echad. V’ahavta…
I am trying to listen. What are we supposed to hear? Love the Lord your God with all your heart. I don’t understand how I can love God who is invisible, and whom I don’t understand, with all my heart. It distresses me but I figure nobody else knows either. Yet it is the top commandment. It gnaws at me.
I dutifully, silently read the special Day of Atonement meditation for children:
“O Father, as the years go on and life opens before me, keep Thou my heart true to Thy Law, and my eyes open to its teachings. Help me so to live as to add more and more to the joy of the world, the honor of Israel, and the glory of Thy name. Amen!”
I am serious; eagerly earnest. I understand, in my way, the gravity of the day; and that it is a day in a year, in the days of the years of my people’s history. I feel obliged and honored to walk in the steps of my ancestors; to pick up the tattered and beaten tradition that has withstood so much. I do not yet understand how much – nor how recently – but I breathe in this air and it becomes who I am.
I listen attentively to the rabbi and cantor, my bio-rhythms taking on the particular modal beauty of minor tones in a slightly nasal key. Just as my body contains the genetic substance of many generations of ancestors, so my soul contains all their voices.
Grant us peace, thy most precious gift…
Have we always and forever asked God for peace? Then why do we not yet have peace?
Even with all the High Holy Day pomp, I knew this is really what they all wanted. The visceral, solemn yet not hopeless longing unconsciously enters my soul. They wanted an end of having to teach their children about the Crusades, the blood libels, the Inquisitions, the Holocaust and whatever would come next.
V’al kulam, eloha silichot. S’lach lanu m’chal lanu. Kaper lanu.
Though it was a treat to miss a day of school for Jewish holidays, I liked school and was a favorite of most of my elementary school teachers. I loved to learn and I excelled in academics as well as in art and writing.
My brother, sister and I attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish day school, from 7th through 12th grade. Though I had attended synagogue Hebrew school for six years, Akiba was where the tree of my Jewish identity grew vigorously with the rapidity of time-lapse photography, stretching its roots wide and deep into the earth, and branching out into a complex network too many, varied and interlaced to number.
TIkkun olam and Jewish activism
It was the sixties and my core teacher modeled activism in the Civil Rights movement and other civic affairs.
We wrote letters for Soviet Jewry.
We marched for just causes.
We held our own student seders on Passover for which we compiled our own contemporary Haggadah.
We were visited by black hats who handed out matzoh shmora on Passover.
We were versed in civil rights organization acronyms: NAACP, CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and we certainly knew that two of the young men killed in Mississippi were Jewish.
Remember. Never again.
In seventh grade we watched the Nazi films of the Warsaw Ghetto, complete with starving Jews lying in the streets and dead Jews being clumsily thrown onto wood wagons.
At some point, at many points, I saw various Holocaust movies and read Holocaust books. We had survivors visit school with the numbers on their arms who told their stories. The deep connection to this calamity was sealed by age 12, along with the sacred obligation to remember and survive.
We studied Hebrew, Tanakh, a bit of Talmud and heard tales of the Hasidim. We wrote plays of our own and kosher lyrics for Beethoven’s 9th symphony chorale. We performed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with the assignment to create two performances: one antisemitic in nature, and one in which Shylock is a sympathetic character.
We learned classics and world history through Jewish lenses. Medieval history included learning of the bloody massacres of Jewish communities during the Crusades, after passion plays, during blood libels, and other antisemitic actions of the Church. I assumed everyone learned these things in school. To my shock and dismay, as a Messianic Jewish adult teaching in churches, I realized that even many pastors had no idea of the history of Christian antisemitism.
All this, and so much much more, all in a class that graduated twenty-four students, that sat in shock together in 7th grade biology class when we were told that President Kennedy had been shot; who mourned together in 9th grade when one of our classmates was run over and killed by a bus; and instead of a prom we opted to spend a weekend at the beach together in our senior year. A key picture in our Yearbook (of which I was an editor) depicts one of our class members cradled in the crevice of the trunk of a large beech tree on the Akiba campus. The caption speaks of how Akiba has been a place of nurture, protection and growth, and how we will miss this place and each other.
And indeed I have. In more, and in more complicated ways, than probably any one of my classmates.
The clear expectation of the school, of the community, was that we, even the sixties flower children among us, would become the future leaders of the Jewish community. And nearly every one of my classmates walked seamlessly into this role to a greater or lesser degree. Akiba graduates that were at the school at the same period as I include many rabbis, Jewish educators and community leaders too numerous to name. Some of the better known ones are Rabbi David Wolpe, author Mitch Albom, and my classmate Dan Bricklin, creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet.
My Jewish self felt whole – of one piece. My self-with-Yeshua feels fragmented and wrought with many categories of contradiction.
After graduating, I attended the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA). Art was a longterm interest and talent of mine, but had also been a way to distinguish myself from my super-brainy brother.
After three semesters at PCA, I decided to participate in an exchange program shared by six fine art colleges that imagined themselves to be at the cutting edge of art instruction in the early 1970s. I thought it would be very exotic to go out west, and decided to take a semester at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) in Kansas City, Missouri. I wondered if people still rode horses in the streets, and wore cowboy hats. (No, and yes.)
It was there in Kansas City that my life was turned inside out, shaken up and strewn around, never to be the same again.
June 2012 a poem of mine began:
My life broke when I was nineteen
My heart shattered on the sidewalk
We have come to the “testimony” part of the story – the events that led me to the missing piece of the puzzle, the piece that fitted everything together, but would never fit.The one that, in time, caused the puzzle of my life to come undone, pieces damaged and gone missing. Wholeness and shattering together.
“Put your hand in the hand of the man” became a hit song while I was in High School at Akiba. I had a vague idea of what it was about and felt positive about it.
Previous to going to Kansas City, Michael (my husband) and I became a couple. One day he met Debbie Finkelstein of the famous “Fink Zoo” while she was walking her dog. We both visited the Finkelstein house several times and heard their resident teenage folk singer, Fay Glassberg, sing a song she had written called “Hole in My Soul.” Her intro to the song was about how Pascal had said that we all have a God-shaped void in our hearts. Joe and Debbie Finkelstein were the first to tell me that you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. I protested and pulled my “I can read the Bible in Hebrew” card, but I would never have entertained the thought of Jesus in Kansas City had I not heard this information.
Unbeknownst to me, Kansas City was a hotbed of the Jesus people revival, with a heavy emphasis on Israel. Derek Prince had made the city his base, and he taught there frequently in the years before I got there in 1971, gathering a following and stirring up prophetic interest in Israel. Bob Mendelsohn, now of Jews for Jesus, had been a popular young personality there just before I arrived. Many suggested that I should meet him. Kansas City had a large hippie Jesus-people population that met at house groups and on the street.
Living in the ultra-progressive coed dorm at KCAI (boys and girls even shared the spacious concrete multi- person bathroom), I got a letter in January from Michael saying that he had become a believer in Jesus, filled with a confusing mishmash of Messianic prophecy. And yet, he sounded different in the letter. More settled. He called me on the hallway pay phone and tried to explain his faith, quoting scripture to me, rapid-fire, one after the other.
I began to read the New English New Testament, though I do not remember how I came to own it. I was impressed with the character of Jesus. At points, I remember feeling approval: “yes, I agreed with him.” He certainly seemed Jewish. Sometime around Pesach, while reading Matthew in my dorm room, I came to understand a deep connection between Jesus (I don’t think I yet called him Yeshua) and the Jewish holidays, particularly Passover and Yom Kippur. I comprehended, in a whole piece, that Jesus somehow made sense of the central sacrificial elements of these two holidays that had always been elusive to me. So basic, yet so hard to connect to in the modern world. It was not that I suddenly deeply understood atonement, per se, but rather that Jesus enfleshed these rituals for all time. In doing so, he made these key elements of both the seder and of the Yom Kippur conceptual world and liturgy, current and relevant for me, and ongoing for all time. It was a rare supernatural connection that had few words attached to it.
I do not remember the chronology of all the events in the Spring of 1971 but about this time two of my girlfriends and myself decided (for no particular reason) to hitchhike to Chicago from Kansas City over the weekend. There is no space to catalog the many hair-raising adventures we had, but during our last ride from Columbia, Missouri back to KCAI (via thankfully a sane driver), I remember looking out the front passenger window at all the many stars visible on that secluded section of I-70. In some vague way I felt the presence of God and had a profound sense of gratitude that He had been watching over us in all our foolishness.
When we arrived in Kansas City around 10PM we went to the only hamburger joint that was open and almost immediately someone walked up to our table and placed a tract on it. I felt that it was for me. I do not remember what it said but, due to this brochure, I learned about both an upcoming meeting with Derek Prince, and of the house church I later visited where I met a bunch of hippie believers in Jesus who were fascinated and excited about me being Jewish.
By this time, I felt that the Lord was dogging my tracks. I attended the Derek Prince meeting and was deeply touched by his talk about God’s faithfulness to Israel and by his assumptions about the present-day supernatural power of God that human beings could access through prayer.
I think it was the next day that I went to visit the hippie house church, called the House of Agape. On my way home I walked around in a park, rather confused but also excited. I said to God, “God, if you’re real [pause to think about the implications of this] – and if Jesus is the Messiah [pause – breath], then I want him.” I suppose that was my prayer of salvation. It was several months or more before I even considered the concept of heaven or eternal life, as I had been taught that life is simply natural and when you die, you live on in the hearts of those whose lives you touch.
I went back to live in the hippie dorm with an unadorned, simple faith that if God was indeed REAL (which by then I believed, meaning God was not just a philosophical idea, but alive and active) that He could, and would, certainly perform miracles. Why not? So I began praying for all of my artist dormmates who were sick or wanted prayer for anything. I had no trouble believing for the answer to my prayers. The idea of God being REAL was so revolutionary to me, it produced an obvious cause-and-effect faith. I could not see how anyone going to a regular church could really be a believer. They did not seem to know this incredible secret that God was really REAL.
So far so good I suppose. So why did I say my life was broken, my heart shattered on the sidewalk? It was not long before the reality of my life broke in on the new reality of God I had encountered.
I was afraid to tell my parents about the new miraculous happenings in my life. So I wrote my brother a letter about my new-found faith. My brother is a mere 19 months older than I and, like many younger siblings, I venerated and adored him. I still love him dearly, though we live in different worlds.
I have no memory of the act of writing the letter or of what I said exactly. But I remember two results: I got a phone call from my parents on the hallway pay phone (where everyone could hear your conversation) and I got a lengthy letter from my brother. My parents, together on the phone (alerted by my brother) asked what had happened. I suppose I tried to share some of the scriptural insight I had received but my clearest memory is of them asking with great distress, “So, what are you? Baptist? Presbyterian? What?” Here I was, attached to the pay phone in the hall, other students popping in and out of their rooms, and everything I knew about myself and my life was changing in that moment. Who was I, this daughter of my parents? How could I cause them so much pain? The convulsive tremors I choked back were not to be the last.
My brother, at this time a dedicated Marxist, a leader of the radical SDS movement on the campus of Yale University (where he was duly arrested at a demonstration), and always an excellent writer, wrote me a long hand-written treatise on how religion is the opiate of the people and so forth, but with enough personal and Jewish sentiment to make the letter absolutely crushing. I kept that letter for thirty years. Every time I read it I was crushed anew.
As I walked the streets of Kansas City in the Spring of 1971 I was constantly aware of what I can only describe as something like a cartoon bubble that followed me. In the bubble was an image of my mother looking disapproving. She represented not only herself, but everyone who meant anything to me.
It is here, while writing this, that I got stuck. I do not know how to proceed in telling you the story of my life. How does one express forty years? Forty years. That rings a bell.
The years that followed, my youth and middle life stages according to Jung, run together to some extent, though they are by far the most significant in personal developments like getting married to a wonderful man and raising my beloved children. But the many significant events of the bulk of my life are clouded by an uncertainty mixed with discomfort, guilt, disorientation – a sense I can never completely articulate. It is as if I left something back there that I have yet to recover before I go on. Belief in Yeshua has never felt natural to me. The New Testament has always felt foreign. Modes of worship, prayer and spiritual disciplines within Messianic Judaism all felt uneasy to me.
You may be wondering when I will get to the part where Hashivenu and related endeavors changed all this. Over the years I have had a few profound mystical experiences that have revitalized my faith. I have also had penetrating and deep-rooted insights into the nature of God, the universe, the Jewish people, the Messiah and Messianic Judaism. Many of these were quite prescient, even prophetic, in terms of what Messianic Judaism looked like at the time (in the 70s, 80s and 90s). But because of whatever combination of psychology, gender, situation, and otherwise I was not able to transform these nuggets of insight and spurts of action into coherent and useful programs of influence among my community. I have maintained very close, supportive and treasured friendships with wonderful people I’ve known for many years in the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), yet I have always felt the vacuum of missing pieces.
When I first came in contact with Mark Kinzer in the mid-nineties, he was a lifeline at a time I was beginning to suffocate. I have learned much from Mark over the years. His writing has quite often sparked an immediate YES in me – the feeling that he was saying what I had always meant to say. He helped me, in particular, to see Yeshua in continuity with Judaism. Dan Gruber was also a tremendous help to me at this time, clearly expressing things I had thought, but dared not express. Since that time, courses I have taken with David Rudolph have also been a great help, as have been a number of other people in various places. For the last several years I have been regularly studying midrash in small online groups with Rabbi Carl Kinbar. This is very helpful to further reconnect me with my Jewish self.
But I do not yet have my happily ever after. The tension and conflict regarding my identity in the day to day activities of my life is still very palpable. I have quietly suffered much. Lately, I have found renewed hope in scriptures with which I have long identified. I am now wondering if perhaps “weeping without comfort” has all along been my main calling.
Isaiah 54:11-13 begins:
‘O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest and not comforted’ [and goes on in verse 13 to say] ‘All your children shall be taught by the Lord and great shall be the peace of your children.’
Jeremiah 31: 15-17 is:
‘Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted.’ [But then] Thus says HaShem, ‘Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded,’ says HaShem. … ‘[t]here is hope for your future; your children shall return to their own borders.’
This hope is, first of all, for my own children. But it is, in a much broader sense, for tikkun olam in its mystical sense of the fractured sparks of the world returning together–for the fractured sparks of my world to come together in shalom. Perhaps it is only in the restoration of my people that I will feel whole. We are told that weeping may reside for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Grant us peace, O thou eternal source of peace.