I was born into a chaotic home filled with unimaginable trauma, but none of it was an accident.
At four years old, I had an unusual conversation with my mother. Besides watching cartoons, my favorite pastime was sitting with our family bible and imagining that the stories written in it were about me. I got tired of not understanding the words on the page and went to my mother with the bible in hand. I told her it was time that I start learning all the commandments. My mother looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face.
"Do you mean the ten commandments?" she said.
"Ten!? There's a lot more than that. There's sooo many more than that!" My preschool skills didn't yet include the concept of hundreds. "There's what we're supposed to do and there's what we're not supposed to do. You should be teaching this to me. Can we start?"
My mother was confused. "We're not Jews! We have Jesus. We don't have to go to the Temple and make sacrifices for our sins anymore."
Little did I know that it would take 30 years to get the answers I was seeking regarding all the Torah commandments.
My mother spouted basic Christian dogma but I only cared about her mention of the temple. Something inside of me was electrified. For some reason I had a sense she was referring to a place I had been before.
"The Temple! Is it still there!? Can we go!"
My mother ended the conversation and little did I know that it would take 30 more years before I’d get the answers I was seeking regarding all the Torah commandments.
For reasons I could not understand, I always had the feeling that I didn’t really belong to my family. At the age of 6 or 7 I went to my parents and asked them to show me my birth certificate.
“Why do you want to see it?” they asked.
I explained to them that I was in the wrong place. I wanted to see whose names were on the birth certificate, to know who my real parents were and to be returned to them and to my real home.
They were flabbergasted. My friend Lisa was adopted, so they thought I suspected that I might also be adopted. They happily showed me the birth certificate. I was shocked when I saw their names on the birth certificate. I had to accept my circumstances but I pledged to myself that as soon as I was mature enough I would continue my search to find the place I could call home.
I might have spent more time trying to figure all this out, but the horrific violence in my home proved to be too disruptive. As is so often the case, the abuse passed from one generation to the next. When my father was a child he would receive beatings with lead pipes from his mother as she read bible verses. My paternal grandparents were Christian Scientists.
My maternal lineage makes my father’s family look gentle and peace-loving. My mother’s father was 6' 5" and had a frame like a giant. As a young man, he had been drafted into the spring training camp for the St. Louis Browns baseball team but an accident left him with a permanent limp, destroying any great baseball career he had in front of him.
The Anheuser Busch beer family, a prominent St. Louis family, owned the Browns. After the injury, the Busches took him under their wing and made him head stable master in charge of the Clydesdale horses known from their beer commercials. In this environment my grandfather initiated his connections to organized crime. They gave him work collecting protection money from St. Louis store owners, using whatever force was necessary to impose the tax on those poor people. (His own grandfather had been in the KKK.)
After my mother finally divorced my father, he attempted to kill her.
My father's temper was explosive, often hurling objects against the wall. But every outburst signaled a potential escalation. My mother turned her hostility on my brother and I. Something as slight as spilling a cup of milk could set her off. She would beat us with a leather belt. But my mother received the most brutal beatings, including severe burns when my father poured a boiling hot pot of stew over her head, right in front of us.
After my mother finally divorced my father, he attempted to kill her by stabbing her with a knife. A bystander stepped in to try to protect my mother. My father stabbed that man in the throat, critically wounding him. He struggled for his life in intensive care and thankfully survived. My father was convicted for his crime but received leniency and probation.
The man in the orange robe stood in front of me and pushed a book and a flower into my hands.
In the midst of this wretched existence, an event happened that started to move me in the direction of my childhood ambition to get back to my true home. When I was 12, my aunt flew into St. Louis to visit us. I hadn't been in an airport since I was an infant and the experience overwhelmed me. Distracted, I didn't see the man in the orange robe walking up to me. Suddenly, he stood in front of me, pushing a book and a flower into my hands. I looked down at what I now held in my hands and looked up again. I looked at his back as he walked away. He didn't make the usual attempt to speak with me.
He left me standing there wondering who he was. I didn’t know what a Hare Krishna was but I’d just had my first encounter with one.
As a child I’d always been taught that anyone who wasn't Christian would be spending their afterlife in hell. So I felt pity for this man. How had he become he so lost? Why did he not know what I thought was self-evident?
I stood there trying to reason this out in my head and decided that he must be practicing the creed that his parents had taught him, and their parents before them, and so on. Then the light bulb went off. That was the only reason that I was Christian. I had never examined that, or even considered it a choice. I'd never given any thought to the contradiction in my family's beliefs and actions. Should supposedly God-fearing people be so violent and wildly out of control? I'd simply accepted my parents’ religious beliefs without question.
I wanted to understand why anyone would choose another belief system.
I wanted to understand why anyone would choose another belief system. Standing in the airport that day, I decided I would methodically investigate religions and compare their beliefs. At home, my mother confiscated my new book, but she could not stop the evolution that had started. I embarked on a long, slow investigation that would last almost 20 years.
Throughout my studies and comparisons, I was formulating the foundations of what I thought would be the ideal religion. Most of the religions I encountered posited that attaining spirituality meant escape from the physical world. They implied or even stated that there was something inherently evil in our physical world and activities. But I couldn't accept that the product of a Creator who was good could be anything other than good. Any fault in the physical world was only in what we did with it. I couldn't abide multiple deities. I knew that there was only One. A world that originated from multiple sources would have meant conflict and chaos built into the system. Our world operates with too much precision to accept such foolishness.
While I worked on my B.A., I had access to more information and a wider variety of people from different backgrounds. I continued my religious search. I pestered everyone I met about their religions. I asked them to take me to their houses of worship and let me experience their beliefs myself. I continued reading anything I could on different traditions. I continued my examination of the different religious texts. For the first time, I mused over the idea that most of the world kept Sunday as their day of rest. But it’s written that the day of rest occurred on the seventh day. Nobody thinks Sunday is the seventh day. It's common knowledge that Saturday falls at the end of the week. I took upon myself to do no work on Saturdays. It would be many more years before I would know what that really meant according to Jewish law.
Realizing that this might be the home I have been looking for, I start learning about what it means to be Jewish.
My big turning point came the week before Rosh Hashanah of 1997. I found my way to a series of courses on the meaning of Rosh Hashanah in a local community center the week before the holiday. They presented Torah sources in these classes. They discussed the Saadiah Gaon's ten reasons why we blow the shofar and Maimonides powerful call to wake up and do teshuva, to return home. I felt my soul stir. I was awake.
That evening, I realized that this might be the home I have been looking for. I decided to start educating myself about what it means to be Jewish. I found a Jewish bookstore and came home with an armload of books. I studied them thoroughly for a few weeks and decided to take my next step. I needed to speak to someone, but whom? I didn't know any Rabbis. So I did what any sensible person would do. I took out the yellow pages and looked up Jewish organizations.
My investigations ultimately led me to convert and become an observant Jew. I also conducted genealogical research that seemed to indicate my ancestors were actually Jewish.
Want to know the rest of the story? Read Extracting Light From Darkness available at createspace.com/6881024, Amazon, Manny's bookstore in Jerusalem, or ask your local bookstore to order from their distribution channels.