Stories from the Diaspora
Ed. This article originally appeared in The Hebrew Catholic, #58, Sep-Dec 1995, pp. 13-15. All Rights Reserved.
From Jewish Princess to Daughter of the King
A Story of Completion by Judy Bratten
“In the land of Cheese and Blintzes
There once lived a Yiddisheh princess,
Ky-yi yiddie yiddie boom boom,
Ky-yi yiddie yiddie yay.
If she did not say her ‘broochas’,
Daddy would give her a ‘potch in the toochas’,
Ky-yi yiddie yiddie boom boom,
Ky-yi yiddie yiddie yay.”*
I was born and raised in New York City, a typical post-war, American Jewish child. My parents were hard-working conservative Jews, though my mother was from an orthodox background. They tried to maintain Jewish traditions and laws while attempting to assimilate into the American middle-class lifestyle, attempts that succeeded in confusing rather than inspiring myself and my younger brother. It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old that I recognized the inconsistencies in our religious observances. Yes, we kept the kosher laws separating meat from dairy and eschewing pork—except when we ate in Chinese restaurants (barbecued spare ribs were my favorite) or fixed ham sandwiches in the basement to take on family fishing trips. Yes, my mother mantled her head and reverently prayed before the flickering Sabbath candles every Friday night—but my father often had to work on Saturdays. Yes, we kept the 24 hour fast every Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement—but we rarely went to the regular Sabbath services. I attended Hebrew School in the local synagogue for a number of years, but found that the rabbi was more concerned with preparing the boys for their Bar Mitzvah recitals than in answering my more esoteric questions.
The crisis of faith came when my mother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 40. I remember praying, bargaining with God to spare this woman whom every one loved and respected as the perfect Jewish wife and mother. When she died after two years of grievous suffering, I ceased praying. If God did not care about us, why should I care about Him? There was no one who could give me any answers; in those days life and death, God and religion were not dinner table topics. I was 18 years old, a sophomore in college and ready to put all childish things behind me, including God.
Like other young people in the ‘60’s, I was going to change the world. I dated and later married the editor of our college newspaper (we had a traditional, expensive Jewish wedding), I went on to Columbia Teachers College for a graduate degree and began teaching while my husband worked as a reporter for a Long Island newspaper. We believed that we were going to impact the corrupt and heartless political and educational establishment with our enlightened, rational and sincere labors. It didn’t take us too long to realize that neither of us were really able to “buck the system,” and we soon joined the hordes of long-haired, counter-culture young people who “dropped out.” We went to Europe where we found ourselves part of the hippie subculture as we traveled from country to country, experiencing new foods, wines and drugs. Throughout this time of uninhibited indulgence, I still had a strong sense of right and wrong which prevented me from enjoying many of the illicit activities we pursued. I thank God that my parents had succeeded in forming my conscience sufficiently to protect me from some dangerous and life-shattering experiences. There were some things I simply would not do.
When we returned to the States, this lifestyle and my frustration with it continued until I found I was pregnant. This put a check on my activities, but not my husband’s. Sadly, our son was born prematurely and died after three days. That was the final blow to our marriage and we soon separated and divorced.
I was now 25 years old, stained by sin, wounded and seeking some meaning in life. Through my various experiences of human nature I realized that human beings could not—on their own—overcome the evil and selfishness in the world. I had finally admitted that the materialistic and intellectual realm was not sufficient, that there had to be a spiritual answer. I was inquiring into Judaism again, as well as other paths such as Zen Buddhism and Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment. I was also growing closer to David Bratten, a man I had met when my husband and I were seeking to join a commune in North Carolina. David was a warm and idealistic person, clean-cut and old-fashioned in many ways. He had just joined the Catholic Church, being influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton and the lives of the Saints. I thought religion was just a stage he was going through; he thought I was just a stiff-necked Jew. Yet we fell in love.
We married outside the Church and put religion to the side (especially after an unfortunate encounter with a busy priest). But David spent time every day in prayer and his only readings were books on the Saints or the Bible. There was a major part of his life I could not share.
We had been attracted to each other because we both desired to live simply, in the country, as detached from the money system as possible. For him, this desire gained deeper significance through the impact of the Gospels. For five years we tried to live out our convictions on our own, David spending more and more time in prayer and I feeling jealous of this God who dominated his life. Yet I was still seeking a religious home of my own. And then another of those fateful traumas occurred.
We were living with our two little daughters in a lovely old house in the mountains of Virginia. An early morning fire shattered our simple life, destroying our house and most of our belongings. We stood and watched the flames devour books, blankets and bureaus, yet there was a strange peace, almost a joy. We really believed that Providence had something else, something better in store for us.
We moved in with David’s parents in North Carolina and David soon got involved with a charismatic, non-denominational church in the area. He was so enthusiastic and excited that I feared that I would lose him to a Christian woman who shared his beliefs. Then he came home one evening and told me he had received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues. Now I was really worried. Would we ever be able to have a common spiritual life?
David began bringing home Christian books on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, prayer, demons and deliverance. Being a voracious reader, I began devouring his books. Suddenly, a new world opened for me. David and I had never really discussed what he believed and why, since he thought that as a Jew I would never become a Christian until the Messiah came. But he unwittingly shared his faith through books which offered food for my hungry soul. I found myself especially attracted to the true, first-person conversion stories. It was encouraging to know that other people were going through their own trials and struggles in seeking spiritual truth.
In the meantime, various prayer groups in the area were praying for “David’s Jewish wife.” Something in me resented their interference in my life, yet I was strongly attracted to the books and the life of faith they represented. Through those readings, I realized that Jesus was the only way to overcome the power of Satan, a power I had met in my earlier days.
I was confronted with a terrible truth, that Jesus was truly the Son of God. But I could hardly say the name of Jesus without shuddering, let alone pray to Him. All my life, the name, Jesus, had been used as a curse, an expletive, a symbol of enmity. My Grandmother had always classified Hitler, Nasser and Jesus as the great enemies of the Jewish people. I was able to put those feelings aside when I studied the New Testament as literature in college, for there Jesus was more of a mythological figure.
But now I was seeing Jesus as the God-Man, the One who claimed to be God and did the works to prove it. I was too proud to talk to anyone, especially David, about it. But I started asking God to show me the truth while I continued reading those books. We began attending the non-denominational church, for the sake of the children, I said. I was deeply moved by the love the people showed for God and one another. The church was a former recreation hall with no stained glass, no statues, not even a cross, none of those symbols burdened with terrible meaning for a Jew. I was free to hear the Word and see it lived out among the people. I found I was irresistibly attracted to this Jesus who could redeem me from my sin and give me power to resist Satan.
Finally, one evening, I locked the bathroom door, dropped on my knees and prayed. “Lord God, I know that Jesus Christ is Your Son whom You sent to save us. I take Jesus as my Lord and Savior. But God, I do not love Him. You will have to change my heart so that one day I may.” It was done.
I had seen enough to know that I could not keep this new relationship secret: I had to make a public profession of faith. Amid tears of joy and exclamations of surprise by my husband, I sobbed out my declaration of faith at church the following Sunday. Soon I was baptized and also received the infilling of the Holy Spirit. At last, David and I were fully one.
For a few years we continued among non-denominational circles, but David found a great superficiality in the Christianity we were experiencing. It didn’t compare with the beauty and depth of the Catholic faith he had left to marry me. The name-it-and-claim-it Christianity and its prosperity gospel didn’t mesh with the ascetical, contemplative and consecrated life he desired. He brought home more books, this time Catholic ones about the saints, prayer and gospel simplicity. I devoured these like a hungry animal. Here was a challenge, a discipline, a life worth living for God. Here, too, was a faith that acknowledged and accepted suffering as part of the process of sanctification. All those questions I had at the time of my mother’s death could now be addressed. We soon found ourselves drawn together to the Catholic Church.
In the meantime, David’s parents, with whom we had been living, had died; we sold their home and prepared to move. We wanted to leave the Bible Belt and its stifling fundamentalism, so we headed up to Ohio where we heard there were charismatic Catholics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
On our visit to the University, I attended my first Mass, a daily liturgy, and was soon overcome by tears. David, who had not attended Mass since our marriage, felt as if he had come home. It was a powerful experience that was only surpassed by the next Mass we attended. At that Sunday liturgy, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the worship, the universality of the prayers and the fact that God Himself had come to us first as a man and now as a meal: the Eternal Host who gives His very Self for us. As we were leaving, a young man sought me out.
“Lady,” he said, “I don’t know anything about you but the Lord has a word for you. He just said this: ‘Come.’ I don’t know what it means.”
“That’s all right,” I answered. “I do.”
We soon moved to the Steubenville area where our daughters were baptized, our marriage was blessed and I was received into the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The past nine years have been filled with incredible growth in faith and knowledge of the Church. There has also been a share of sufferings, which my faith has been sufficient to withstand.
I can now explain from the Scriptures and through reason why Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism and why Catholicism is the true Church of Christ on earth. I have developed an appreciation of and love for Mary, especially since her intercession was instrumental in keeping our daughters faithful to Christ and His Church. We’ve learned to pray the Rosary, the Divine Office, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and other prayers. And as an added grace, we have been blessed with a son who serves as altar boy.
We continue to live simply, now seeing ourselves as part of a long Catholic tradition beginning with St. Anthony and including St. Francis and Mother Teresa. We have home schooled our children and, as Catholics, have found ourselves to be truly counter-cultural—but in a way that has borne good fruit.
Best of all, my Judaism flows smoothly along with feasts and fasts of the Catholic calendar. We observe the Passover, Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Chanukkah and Purim. We celebrate the Lord’s Day Sabbath with the blessings of the bread and wine in Hebrew. Our children see the continuity of the Old into the New Testament in tangible as well as spiritual ways. I not only have gained a Savior, I’ve been able to regain my God-given heritage.
How has my Jewish family responded? At first, I’m sure they all thought this was another weird stage I was going through. But after 17 years, they have come to accept it grudgingly. My prayer has been that they would return to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for neither my father nor my brother maintained the religious observances after my mother’s death. They were gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup Jews. But as time passes, as deaths occur and babies are born, a search for God has begun. My brother and his family are members of their local synagogue. My father and I talk more about God, suffering and truth.
My Protestant friends always insisted that unconverted Jews go to Hell. As a Catholic, I know that God loves the Jewish people and that there is a place in heaven for those who are faithful to the Covenant. My prayer is that my family members will be faithful and some day see that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Covenant.
One day they will stand before God who will say to them, “This is Y’shua, my Son,” and their eyes will be opened and their knees will bend in adoration. And then this “Yiddisheh princess” will know true joy.
“In the land of chesse and blintzes …” is from a child’s song
“broochas” means “prayers”
“potch in the toochas” means “a spank on the behind”