I was only five years old and had no idea what was going on as our family crowded into my grandparents' living room on the day before Yom Kippur. I can still remember how my father picked up a chicken, tied up by its feet, and swung it over our heads, the chicken cackling and feathers flying all over the place. It was hard to think of anything but the noise and the feathers, but we all dutifully chanted three times, "This be my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This hen shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace." My father took the chicken into the kitchen, and the next sounds we heard were "cackle—thud—uggh!" That was it.1
Another memory, not quite so graphic, was nevertheless vivid. My father had been appointed to carry the Torah from the children's service, held in a building around the corner, back to the main synagogue. I was so proud, trotting alongside my dad to keep up as he carried the Torah, held tightly against his chest with his tallit (prayer shawl) wrapped around it. I remember thinking, Those scrolls must mean a lot to my father. So the Scriptures always held a fascination for me.
I attended an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, where I received religious training five days a week throughout my adolescence. I was proud to be a Jew. But about a year before my bar mitzvah I had my first taste of anti-Semitism. We lived about a mile from the synagogue, and my father and I were walking there for the evening Rosh Hashanah service, when some kids started calling us names and threw things at us as we made our way to the synagogue. I knew those kids and was perplexed by their behavior. They'd never done this before.
"Why are they calling us names?" I asked. My dad was so upset he didn't want to talk about it. Finally, he turned to me and said, "Christians hate Jews, and we don't have anything to do with them. Yeshu is cursed in our sight." I didn't know who Yeshu was; I just knew my dad was vehement. And that was the end of the discussion. He never let me bring up the topic again.
A few months later, the father of one of my best friends died. Some of the guys I hung out with wanted to attend the funeral together and asked me if I would go. They were all standing in front of the Catholic church, and I told them I couldn't go in. They went in while I stayed outside. Ten minutes later, I made up my mind that he was my friend, and it didn't matter to me what religion his family practiced. I took a deep breath, walked into the church and tiptoed down the aisle to where my friends were sitting. As I eased my way into their row, I accidentally kicked one of the kneelers and the whole church echoed with the thud. Everyone turned around and stared at me. I was mortified. Convinced that God was judging me, I vowed I would never again darken the door of this or any other church!
On the day of my bar mitzvah, as I gazed at the Torah ark, I sensed something was missing— in me. I had a lot of religious training, but I didn't know who God was. Then and there, I promised God, "Someday I will find the truth about who you are and what you require of me." Within a few months, however, I forgot my promise. Although I still attended synagogue, God was the furthest thing from my mind.
When I was fifteen, a good friend came over to my apartment and asked if he could read something to me from his Bible. I told him to go ahead. He read the 53rd chapter of Isaiah to me. "Who do you think it's talking about?" he asked. "I have no clue," I replied. He said, "I think it's the Messiah, Jesus." When I realized he was trying to push Jesus on me, I threw him out of my house and told him never to speak to me again.
A couple of years later, I again had to confront Jesus, the one my father refused to speak about. I was dating a woman who challenged me to study the Bible with her. Over the next year, we spent most of our time together reading the Bible. Because I had grown up believing the New Testament was cursed, we focused only on the Hebrew Scriptures. I began to compare the Hebrew Bible with the Old Testament in the Christian Bible and found that the translations were very similar except for the prophecies about the messiah.
After a year of reading the Scriptures, I decided to break my childhood vow and visit a church. The pastor spoke about how Abraham was the "father" of Jews and Christians, specifically the father of all those who believe in Yeshua (Jesus). I thought about this "faith" and realized in my heart this was something I didn't have.
Soon after, I looked at the New Testament for the first time. My friend (the one I threw out of my house) had given me a little green New Testament. I had wrapped it in some old dirty socks and pushed it to the back of my drawer. Now I retrieved it. Upon reading the very first verse, "A record of the genealogy of Yeshua the Messiah [Jesus the Christ], the son of David, the son of Abraham ..." I somehow knew that if the Jewish people were going to have a Messiah, it had to be Jesus! Not long after that, I asked Yeshua to come into my heart.
At first I didn't tell anybody. I thought, I must be the only Jew on Earth who believes this. Then I remembered that every now and then, one of the Jews for Jesus had given me pamphlets in Manhattan. I had a pile of them that I never read, stored up next to that Bible, and for some strange reason, every time I got another one, I kept it there. There were other Jewish people who believed that Jesus is the Messiah!
Within a week or so, I told my only remaining grandparent, my mother's mother, what I had come to believe. I had never heard my grandmother scream before, but she yelled so loud that she almost popped a vein in her neck as she said, "Never say that name in my presence again!" She must have told my parents, because when I came home from my grandmother's, my father had a similar reaction. My parents forbade me to tell anyone else in the family what I believed. When my father calmed down, he said, "What is this, something new?" I said, "No, it's about two thousand years old." That really set him off once again.
Some years later, I told my mother that Jesus was like the Passover lamb, sacrificed for our sins. She shocked me when she replied, "You know, when I was in junior high school, my best friend told me the same thing." I was amazed that someone had told her this forty years earlier and she still remembered it!
Before long, two things became clear to me: First, I realized it was an all-or-nothing deal—I had to live my life for God—and, secondly, I was going to bring the message of Jesus as Messiah to my people. A friend told me that Jews for Jesus had a Bible study in Manhattan, and I began to attend. Then after a year or two I decided to go to Bible school.
After graduation I began telling other Jews about the Messiah. One day I was handing out tracts on the corner in front of Bloomingdale's. Jews for Jesus had sent a team to the same location. A young woman approached me and asked if I would be willing to move to another corner because I was in her "appointed" area. I offered some words of encouragement and gave her my business card. That was our beginning — but I'll let my wife, Shoshannah, tell the rest of that story.
1. The ritual slaughter of a chicken as a symbolic from of redemption before Yom Kippur is called shlogn kapores.