The Judaism I grew up with was centered on community, social action, and a strong passion for Israel. While all those things are important, none of those values satisfied the desire I craved in my teen years, shortly after my bat mitzvah—a genuine relationship with God. The name Jesus still has a funny taste in my mouth. To speak of him as a personal friend and not just a historical figure sometimes feels as obscure as attempting to explain my life story in Swahili.
While I can explain as well as I know my own address the reasons I am drawn to Christianity, there are some things I can never get used to, like admitting to others “I am a Christian” or “I have to go to church.” To this day, I am not a fan of expressions like “born again,” “getting saved,” “accepting Jesus into your heart,” and “quiet time with the Lord.” Not having grown up in the church, I assumed these expressions were vocabulary used only by fundamentalists, and not “regular” church folk like my friends at school. That is one of many ways my Jewish upbringing makes me somewhat of an unusual Christian.
From learning new lingo to embracing different traditions, my Judaism continues to impact my Christianity in both grand and miniscule ways. I’ve learned to get used to praying with my hands folded, but kneeling feels awkward because it reminds me how the Jews were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, forced to bow only to him. But Jewish culture isn’t without its own language and euphemisms too.
“Oy vey!” is a phrase I will likely never outgrow. Social justice is an obligation of the Jews, so I used—and continue to use—the word mitzvah (meaning “act of kindness” in Hebrew) in my speech almost as often as the word “like” peppers the vocabulary of a Valley Girl.
My Jewish identity, I quickly discovered, is not something I can easily change like a pair of socks. My Jewish identity is as permanent to me as my skin, hair, and eye color, my right-handedness, and my blood type. I see the world through Jewish-colored lenses; I don’t know how not to. I feel extreme compassion for minorities because I grew up as one. I am careful how I go about sharing my faith, because I understand the frustration of not having my beliefs taken seriously.
Throughout my life, Jesus was something of an enigma to me; someone I admired from afar like that popular high school boy I could never work up the guts to say hi to. From time to time I flirted with the idea of worshiping him, and feel a similar kind of rush as one felt by a teen girl who can’t help dallying with that infamous bad boy her parents warned her to stay away from.
The more forbidden Jesus was to me, the more my curiosity about him grew. But because he was off limits to me, I also resented him for that wedge between Jews and Christians, which I assumed was his fault. I saw him as a political rebel whose only purpose was to cause trouble, not to bring redemption to a broken world. Still, there was a magnetic sort of attraction I attempted to resist every step of the way, bickering and picking fights with him as if we were already an old married couple.
No one will deny that Jesus was a great teacher who said great things, but for the Jew, that’s pretty much all that he is.
Jews are a lot like Catholics about harboring guilt. There have never been many Jews to begin with, but thanks to Hitler and the Holocaust, the number of Jews on earth has been reduced to less than 1 percent, and of that 1 percent, only a fraction consider themselves “practicing.” To embrace Christianity, a religion with followers who actively persecuted Jews throughout history, is nothing less than betrayal. Lastly, since Christianity is the dominant religion of American society, and most Jews in America are decidedly liberal, Christianity is often associated with the raging fanatics who get their own pulpits on national television.
My family and remaining Jewish friends are becoming more accepting of my decision, but they may never understand it completely. To them, it probably seems as if I squandered my Jewish life the way the prodigal son squandered his father’s money on frivolous, blasphemous things. But unlike the prodigal son, I have yet to return to the home of traditional Judaism. To them—and even to myself at times—I am always a prodigal daughter of sorts. I became lost, stranded far away from what is familiar. I still have yet to be “found.”
It’s as if I fled from one family—the Jewish community that raised me—and was subsequently adopted by a new family: the church. I have played the roles of both sons—the older one who followed the rules and did his share of the work out of legalistic duty, and the younger one who had to lose everything to learn how to truly live— yet, I still feel as if I have one foot permanently in both worlds.
While the term “prodigal daughter” is not one I use proudly, it is nonetheless an accurate description of my journey. Mine is not a tale of being lost for a period of time and suddenly being found, nor is it a cautionary lecture to Jewish parents on what can happen if their children don’t receive a quality Jewish education (though that is one way to interpret it). Instead, it’s a story about embracing a new faith without forgetting where I came from, and recognizing that Judaism is a cultural and ethnic identity for me, rather than a spiritual one.
I hope my story and experience encourages you to dig deep into your own story.
Sarahbeth Caplin has a bachelor’s degree in English from Kent State University, and a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Colorado State University. Her memoir, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, was an Amazon bestseller in the “personal growth” category. Her work has appeared in Sojourners, Huffington Post, and Christians for Biblical Equality, among other places. Beth lives in northern Colorado with her husband and fur kids, and blogs at www.sbethcaplin.com. Follow her on Twitter @SbethCaplin.