Eugenio Zolli, A Prophet for Our Time
Ed. This article, a lightly edited transcript of Judith’s talk at the “Light to the Gentiles” conference, first appeared in The Hebrew Catholic, #83, Spring-Summer 2006. All rights reserved.
Good Morning. I am very moved to be here in the United States and talking in my own country for once. When I meet people they usually say, “You speak pretty good English for a French author,” and the fact of the matter is that I am actually American-born from Brooklyn, NY, living abroad, and writing books in French. Then I hear somebody say, “How do you do that, what happened, what went wrong?” So, I’m going to fulfill your curiosity today in telling you how I met the Lord. All this is actually linked to Eugenio Zolli, because one day, we were blessed in having a son who became a Catholic priest, and as he studied in Rome, my husband and I had a wonderful pretext for visiting him there where we learned many things about Zolli.
All my life I’ve been trying to explain who I am, and when I became a Catholic I had to explain even more who I was. And I am still wondering if I have to say today who I am, because I am in my own country, and people don’t know who I am. I am not even listed among American citizens because I am a permanent resident of France. So, I’m back! One day I tried to write a book about my conversion to Catholicism back in 1979, that’s 27 years ago. Actually, it was a way of explaining to my own family what happened, and of course, as you know, conversion was not a symptom of psychotic behavior, and it was not a fantasy, and it was not a way to just oppose the family in one way or another. So I tried to analyze the reasons for which I became a Catholic, and I wrote this in the book entitled, Where Time Becomes Space, which I signed under the name of Judith Anthony, which has absolutely nothing to do with my real identity. So, I will try to give you a very brief idea of how I became a Catholic, and then how I got interested in Zolli, and then finally, how Zolli has affected my life and the life of everyone around me. Finally, how Bob Moynihan can say that I am an “expert”, a world-known expert on Zolli — That is part of Providence: the Lord’s grace and His love for me.
Music was another world
So first of all, I tried to look at it in an analytical way, and I said, “What were the causes of my conversion?” I was born in Brooklyn, I went to Tilden High School, then I went to New York University, and I was a very good student. I was a musician too. So, “What happened then?” The first thing was music actually, classical music. Nobody played this kind of music in my family except my brother who played the accordion very well. One day at school, I was allowed to participate in an experimental class in music which was to be an orchestra class. We had to choose among the string instruments, and as I was too tall to play the violin (because they only had half-size violins) I took up the cello, which I thought was very nice. That’s how I started learning to play the cello in public school. A few years later I was admitted into the All-City High School orchestra, a symphonic formation of young students in New York City, and we played a concert at Carnegie Hall every year. This became an obsession for listening to classical music. I was astounded because when I would listen to classical music, I didn’t feel anything anymore. I was paralyzed in front of so much beauty. The first day I came to the rehearsal which took place at Brooklyn Tech, I came up on the stage where everyone was sitting, and a college girl gave us the parts. Then the conductor just started to conduct, and in hearing this sound, I burst out crying. I said, “What is this music? I never heard such a thing in my life!” It was the second orchestra suite by Johann Sebastian Bach. After that, every week it was like going to treasure island, that is, a place where I could discover marvelous things. This is why classical music became very important because it took me into another world, and this other world was one of beauty. And I had not known about it before. Nobody had told me about Bach and Mozart and the symphonies by Beethoven.
Just a little anecdote – It was quite funny – One day I heard beautiful music in a film, and I said, “That music,” it was second piano concerto by Rachmaninoff, and I said, “Gee, that’s beautiful, that theme, but I’ve heard it before.” My older brother had a record with Frank Sinatra singing that theme, and I went to look at it, and it was written in fine print on the label: “from the second piano concert by Rachmaninoff”. So I got excited and went to the store and ordered it because in my neighborhood nobody ever heard of Rachmaninoff. Anyway, after that, there were discoveries day after day.
Revolt and disappointment
A second important reason for my conversion was no doubt my father’s premature death at the age of 48. My two brothers also left the house because they were older than me, and then my grandparents died, leaving my mother and me alone. My mother was very involved in working in the hardware store where my father had made a living, where she did the bookkeeping. I was left generally to my own devices, and my own devices meant music. So I would be listening to music all the time. I felt something had broken inside of me when my father died, and I said to myself, “He worked so hard, and what for?” It was not money that could bring happiness in the end because he died too young, and he left me alone. So I said to myself, “There is another world. There must be something else. It cannot be only this way of life, this materialistic way of life where you work, you die, and you just leave a little girl all alone, playing her cello.” Obviously, there was something else that had to come up in my existence.
There were also questions about religion, because I had asked questions, many questions, too many questions. At first it was very innocent. I would say, for example, “What does it mean to be a Jew?” And of course, the answer was very vague, “Because we are the chosen people.” But what are we chosen for? Why did God choose us and not the others? I know some others, they are pretty nice, they are pretty good. Why didn’t he choose them? These are the kinds of questions that Roy spoke about before, and I agree with him completely. I yearned to know why this God had chosen us, and of course there was the religious response about the Torah: “Everything is in the Torah.” But this law of the Torah had become an end in itself. So, paradoxically, the unbelievers could even put a label of agnosticism on practicing Jews, because actually they were just accomplishing the letter without the spirit. I read also that Judaism was also a “way of life”. That was a vague answer to a real question, like mine. Just the mere formulation of this burning question was usually violently rejected.
So I was disappointed. I was disappointed in everything I endeavored to do, and I blamed naturally my constant failure to achieve satisfaction on everything. “It was everybody’s fault, it was society’s fault, the entire universe was at fault.” I am sure, besides that, that I would judge people very, very severely. I would judge everything and just say in the end, “Moral laws are contrived in the aim of reducing people into slavery.” Obviously, we lived in this world where God had existed in the Jewish religion, but he had sent us packing with a “big bang” into this world, where we just had to live like the fish in the ocean, the big ones eating the small ones. As I was rather a small fish, it was quite a frightening perspective.
That all came to me in my studies at school. I was at NYU, and what could be the meaning not only of life but of truth? Was it a relative or an absolute constant? If the law changes according to the individual or to the circumstances, it’s just as well to deny the existence of anything absolute in the order of morals, for example. So, what is religion? Was God a person? Where is He? I couldn’t believe that any religion would give me an answer. The universe had to have some cause, of course. Obviously there was a cause at the beginning, but did this God want to take care of us? But by chance the beauty of classical music had revealed something to me about life, an unexplainable attraction to something that I didn’t know of.
With God in France
Then there was something else, a third reason, and even a fourth, because my curiosity had led me to the threshold of atheism. I studied science at NYU, and I took all the courses in science, and I mean all of them, and actually I really wanted to find some kind of explanation in the certainties of science. It was better than psychology or sociology. I found these subjects affected by a lot of double talk. We never knew anything, (nobody knows anything), but in science, you just put things together, you know – cause and consequence – it’s just like a big puzzle of logic much easier to understand.
Then I had this burning desire to learn French. Why? I have no idea. This is something I think: All the saints of France were present at the time of my conception, and there must have been some mistake. I even wrote a tale about this for my children. I compared myself to a black hen in a farmyard, just wandering away, not doing as the other hens did, and then one day she gets cooked, and then she goes to Heaven and finds herself in front of St. Francis in his garden, where he gives out chicken feed. He asked her why she went to Purgatory. She said she didn’t know. Then all of a sudden, she could speak to this great saint, even though she was only a little chicken. The kids always laugh when I tell the story, but actually I cried when I wrote it because it was my true autobiography! There was something about me that I didn’t understand, and I suppose it was the feeling of the French saints who surrounded me. I live near Nevers where St. Bernadette sleeps in her glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty, and Paray-le-monial where Jesus showed his Sacred Heart to Margaret-Mary. As a student, I loved studying French for its music and also for its poets, but I did not know at the time it was the place where God was waiting for me.
As for my behavior, it was really a bad time for me, very hard. I couldn’t cope with the distance between my egotistical way of looking at things, taking them and using them for myself, and the objectives of my family that required that I find some nice Jewish guy and that I get married and live on Long Island, like my brothers. I tried at first, but I just couldn’t find him. Well, he had to love music, of course, and there was always something missing all the time. So I decided that during my junior year, if I was allowed to do this, I would go to France.
This was the place where I discovered God, where He was waiting for me… I was guided from the very beginning by a young Frenchman, Jean, who later on was to become my husband. We married in 1961. With him I visited France, Paris, I saw Gothic cathedrals – Imagine! castles and museums — I had never seen or heard of such things in my whole life. I studied literature and French civilization, and it was fascinating. The young man, now my guide, would bother me with questions about religion. He was a music lover and a practicing Catholic with answers to all my questions. I argued endlessly with him thinking that this position was impossible and absurd in front of scientific thought. Then, in literature, one writer really made my mind reel: This was Blaise Pascal who wrote the Pensees in which he made a link between science, or I could say pseudoscientific studies that I was doing, and the world of God and true religion. The most striking event was that he himself, Blaise Pascal, had this huge revelation of God as being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not the God of the philosophers and the scientists. And so I said to myself, “Gee, this guy, he was not even born a Jew, and he found that there must be something to it.” Then I was reading those “Pensees” by Pascal one December evening. It was already late and the stars were out. I was sitting in this little room in Paris where I was studying, and it was like something had given me a hit on the head. I really felt like something had happened. It was like beaming light that suddenly immersed my soul, and without understanding why, within a second, I said, “Jesus Christ is God.” The young man, Jean, was sitting there. He was there and saw it; he’s a witness, an eyewitness. In fact, he was tired of arguing with me on questions of religion. He could not understand what I was saying. I had fathomed in an intuitive way this mysterious link between the Old and the New Testament. Pascal’s explanation was so luminous to me. Me, I was sitting in obscurity, and all of a sudden this light went on. Pascal said, “Faithful Jews and faithful Christians both adore the Messiah, who makes them love God.” So of course, all of a sudden I wanted to accomplish what I had always secretly desired, that is, to understand what it meant to be a real Jew. And according to this great writer, it was necessary first, therefore, to become a real Christian; this is exactly what happened. In other words, just follow the dotted line. This unexpected grace was on a perfectly logical path, and I took the plunge once more, and this time, hand in hand with Jean, it led me closer to God, to Jesus Christ and His Church.
Now, we could just briefly name a few consequences of my conversion to Catholicism. Actually, there were immediate and long term consequences. The first immediate consequence was of course, a life renewed, and baptism. I was baptized one year later during the Easter Vigil in Paris. Of course this was going to cause a lot of trouble for me and for my family, but I felt that it had to be that way. It was like someone taking you by the hand and saying, “This is what you have to do.” So it had to be! The long term consequences are first, all these years, having the sense of being Jewish, learning at last what it really means to be Jewish. In the writing of my book, Where Time Becomes Space, I wanted to show why it was not a folly, or a symptom of my psychotic behavior, but a meeting with Jesus Christ; and then it was raising a family. We were blessed with six girls and three boys. Three main problems came up during this period. The first dealt with religious vocation, the second the role of women, and the third was the idea of self-realization for each member of the family. I would like to concentrate on the problem of religious vocation, not that it’s a problem, but this fact will be linked to my reason for being here today and talking about Eugenio Zolli, because it’s the story of our eldest son, the second in line in the family.
When he was a kid, he would pray fervently. He would make us pray, so that was a little bizarre, as they say in French, and he always wanted to stay in Churches and remain in the company of the seminarians we saw in Italy. At that time, he started to cry when we were about to leave, because he wanted to stay in the monastery. “But you’re only ten, sweetheart. You have to learn, you have to go to school,” and so on. So he did his degree at the Lycée, I could say in the Arts and Sciences, for he was a very complete fellow. He played the violin, he acted in the classics, he got good marks, he even went into the Army, he jumped in the parachute corps, and finally, to his heart’s desire, he went to the Gregorian University in Rome and became a priest.
When in Rome….
I read Zolli’s story one day in a little booklet written by Father Klyber. It was published by Remnant of Israel and there was a story in it about Zolli, an extract from his autobiography, Before the Dawn. When I read it, I thought it was quite exceptional. So while my son was living in Rome, I asked him to look into the matter. Together, we met Miriam Zolli, the rabbi’s daughter, and we went to see her, and that’s how the whole thing began.
I must say that just before this, I did have a very great difficulty, a great hesitation before writing the book. I had all the information, and I had the research done, and I even had a publisher for it in France. Then I said to the publisher, “But how am I going to tell a French public about the Jewish community of Rome?” As Bob Moynihan reminded you just a few minutes ago, the Jews in Rome were more or less pro-Fascist, because Mussolini did not bother them at first. Should I say this to French Israelites who generally sympathized with the socialists, and who had the idea that the Israelites, like the socialists, were the only people involved in some kind of resistance? During the war, of course, in occupied France it was a very, very hard time for Jews, as you can imagine. This is the good side about it: France had a free zone in the south for about three years, which allowed many Jews to flee. Most people don’t talk about this, but they speak of the involvement of Jews in the resistance, and the resistance had a label of being communist, and this became a very strong idea in France. So I said to the publisher, “How am I going to explain to the Jewish people in France that the Jewish people of Rome agreed more or less with Mussolini? In spite of the evidence I can produce, I am afraid they won’t believe me.”
In any case, my son’s vocation, and the blessings that sprung from this, also brought us courage. The title “The Prophet of a New World” appeared, and the world it deals with is not only one of peace, but the one of the Second Coming, that is, the world after the conversion of the Jews and the Second Coming of Christ. The book was successful as religious books go in France, especially with small publishers, but there was a publication in 2002 in Italian which brought on a lot of controversies in Italy. As Bob Moynihan had told you, they didn’t want to know about this, but they had to know certain things, and so it brought about a lot of arguments. All the newspapers in Italy were talking about this. Then it also came out in Spanish recently, published in Madrid. After an edition in Polish and in Czech, it will appear in English next year with Ignatius Press.
Ed. The balance of Judith Caboud’s talk may be read in the article
Eugenio Zolli, A Prophet for Our Time .