Removing the Mark of Cain

markofcain

I was a Southern Baptist from Texas … until the day I called the local rabbi.

by Van Wallach

Two encounters with rabbis define my evolution as a Jew. On September 14, 1974, my mother drove me to Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas, so I could meet Rabbi Maynard. He was new at the congregation, in a town a few miles from the Rio Grande in deep, South Texas. After years of mounting confusion over a Jewish heritage crashing against my Southern Baptist upbringing, I had called to make an appointment to speak with him a few days earlier. I was 16 years old.

What led to this moment? My parents were Jewish, and they married in Temple Emanuel in McAllen in 1955. But after they separated in 1960, and soon after divorced, my mother had a falling-out with some Jewish friends. She left my younger brother’s and my religious instruction to our Christian landlady, who took us to the First Baptist Church of Mission, in a town west of McAllen. Any memories I had of Judaism wilted in the heat of a very different faith, which I accepted.

Then, as a teen, my views began to change. Visits to my father, who had moved to Manhattan, showed me other ways of believing. Being Jewish became okay, even if he used Judaism more as a way to criticize our mother’s failure to raise us the way he saw fit than as a value system and tradition. I began to wonder about my Jewish heritage, how I could square it with rigid Baptist beliefs (something I quickly realized was utterly impossible). On September 7, 1974, I wrote in my journal:

I have temporarily concluded that to be a Jew, one must be a Jew. It’s not a Jew-when-it-suits-me proposition. It’s neither sinful nor wrong to accept my heritage, indeed, it might be my destiny to accept it, perhaps it is the end of a journey. I am out of place at the FBC of Mission. Something doesn’t fit. I have forced myself to face the facts. Like Dad said, I can’t run away from what I am.

Somehow I worked up the teenage chutzpah to call Rabbi Maynard, who met me on a Shabbat afternoon. I spoke generally about my background and my late grandparents who had moved to Mission in 1925, but I couldn’t admit that I had accepted Christianity. Raw, scabrous guilt over colliding faiths silenced me. I felt like a fraud among the Jews and a backslider among the Baptists, with nobody to consult about my doubts. Instead, I bore a self-applied mark of Cain. I swallowed my emotions and presented a wildly distorted version of my history. I wrote:

He showed me around the temple after giving me a yarmulke, which I kept. He showed me the Torah scrolls and the Ner Tamid. After a tour, he asked me if I had any more questions, if he could be of any more help. I should have told him I had attended church for 10 years, instead of telling him that I never got around to coming to the synagogue.

But the tug of a new faith drove me onward. On September 17, I wrote,

Monday marked another of the icebergs of existence, almost a multi-first. I WENT TO NOT ONLY MY FIRST SYNAGOGUE SERVICE BUT MY FIRST ROSH HASHANAH SERVICE. How’s that for a dramatic announcement.

I pumped up my courage and walked to the entrance. The door was held open—a good sign. I walked in. Unsure of the next step, I read the memorial plaques until an elderly woman came by. She asked me if I was waiting for anybody.

“No, I’m, ah, visiting. Could you show the seating arrangement?” We entered the fellowship hall, as the good Baptists would say. I firmly—PROUDLY—put on the yarmulke. It felt quite natural although it was as foreign to me in practice as wearing nylons.

I attended Yom Kippur services, but couldn’t push any further my rebellion against my upbringing in a completely Christian culture. I didn’t attend services again until I was a student at Princeton University. I was involved in Hillel, but never spoke to the rabbi. I moved to Brooklyn after graduation in 1980 and sampled synagogues of every stripe. I finally settled on the conservative Kane Street Synagogue as my shul. Still, I felt unease, weighed down by the burden of past beliefs and actions. I saw no way forward without fessing up to my ignorance about Judaism and what I viewed as my twisted background. I made an appointment to speak with Kane Street’s rabbi, Rabbi Jon, whom I liked immensely. In this Jewish version of a confessional, I came totally clean, about my parents’ clashes, the Baptist beliefs, the painful, unguided drift from Christianity to Judaism, my sense of shame at what I had been. In this second defining moment, unlike the first, nine years earlier, I held nothing back.

To my surprise and delight, Rabbi Jonathan remained calm and was not the least bit shocked. It turns out that I’m not the first Jew to lack a bar mitzvah or an enriching Jewish upbringing. While I lacked a formal Jewish education, I more than compensated with a zest for learning and living and a strong Jewish identity. Our conversation marked my fresh start as a Jew. As the Baptists would say, I got right with God (i.e., ha-Shem). I felt relief that I had faced the past and didn’t get laughed at. I could finally remove the mark of Cain.

The McAllen and Brooklyn meetings with rabbis were true breakthrough moments in my Jewish life. The first marked a halting step toward accepting and acting on my Jewish identity. The second gave me the peace of mind to accept the past, not feel shame about it, and move forward as a Jew. I will always be thankful for Rabbi Maynard and Rabbi Jonathan, who supported me on the path. To quote the Babylonian Talmud, “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

About the Author

Van Wallach
Van Wallach blogs at www.keshertalk.com and has written for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, the Jewish Writing Project, JDate’s Jmag, and gringos.com. He attends services at Temple Emanuel whenever he visits McAllen. Some of his pithiest writing can now be found on his Facebook status updates. He lives in Westport, Connecticut.

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