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One Woman’s Walk Through Judaism and Catholicism: The Sabbath, Marriage, Mass, and the World to Come

by Channah BarDan

Introduction – The Walk

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I was born and raised as an Orthodox Jew in a small Southern town of about 20,000 in the middle of the Bible belt. Fifty years ago, our town was not unique in its make-up of residents of mostly English and Scottish descent. Our economy thrived from the cotton, textile, and tobacco industries. It was a town that prided itself in having more members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Daughters of the Confederacy, and more churches per capita than other towns of its size. My family, in fact the entire Jewish community, really stood out in what was at that time a very homogeneous society.

Most Jewish communities down South were so small that they could barely support one synagogue. Ours was unusual: With only 50-60 Jewish families, most Jews typically grouped together to form a single congregation – usually Conservative, which is middle-of-the-road – or Reformed, the more liberal of the three branches of Judaism. We were unique in that we had two separate congregations, each with its own house of worship and its own rabbi. The congregation to which my family belonged was Orthodox (very observant). The other was extremely Reformed. Neither synagogue ever had more than 30 families.

Religiously, there was a polar tension between the two sects. In our family, as in other Orthodox households, extreme diligence was required to keep a kosher home in a town where most people had never heard of the laws of kashrut, תורשק (following the dietary laws set forth in Leviticus and by the rabbinic authorities of the Second Temple era in the early years A.D.). No pork or shellfish could be eaten: They were ”unclean.” Meat products could not be mixed with dairy products at the same meal, and the meat had to be specially prepared. My mother, with the other Orthodox women, would order specialty kosher and ethnically Jewish food from New York, which would arrive each Thursday afternoon at the Greyhound bus station, packed in dry ice. Hopefully, it would have survived the nine- hour bus trip. At the opposite end of the spectrum was our neighbor, J.C.B., a Reform Jew, who would often invite us, with extreme Southern hospitality, to her home for “Shabbos ham.” I bless her heart!!! Although separate in religious devotion, our community was united socially by B’nai B’rith, the men’s fellowship and service organization, Hadassah for women, and Young Judaea for the youth. Our family whole-heartedly and actively supported all three.

My parents were faithful to observe every Sabbath from sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening. It was a glorious time amidst the hustle and bustle of the week. We kept all the Jewish holidays, our family traditions linking us to an ancient past. My parents often took us on trips to visit family in Baltimore or New York for holidays, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and vacations, keeping strong ties with close relatives. Each summer, my sister and I attended a camp for Jewish girls in Maryland, and wherever we traveled, we always attended synagogue services. It was a way of connectedness for us in a world that was sometimes not welcoming of our faith.

In a town where zoning laws were common (certain housing developments were closed to Blacks, Jews, and those few others of ethnic diversity), and some club memberships were restricted, the public school system was open to all. It was never easy growing up Jewish in a mostly Christian neighborhood, or attending schools where I was the only Jewish child in the class, and sometimes in the entire school. Holidays  especially differentiated me from the others, as I would be the one to bring a menorah into class at Christmas and recount the Hanukkah story. At Passover, I was the kid with the matzah crackers when everyone else was sharing their goodies from adorably cute Easter baskets.

As a young child, at Christmas I was exposed to the living nativities put on by the local Main Street churches. Each night for a week before Christmas, each church would reenact the Bethlehem scene complete with farm animals and costumed actors. There would be choirs singing carols and hymns. It was such a festive atmosphere, as families would walk the mile from church to church in the brisk night air. My parents allowed me to go as a learning and cultural experience. I knew right away there was something special about that little baby doll in the manger – special, yet forbidden. I soon found out how forbidden the next day when I wrapped myself in blue towels and my baby doll in blankets and knelt before Him in adoration at the hearth. When my mother came into the living room and saw what I was doing, she exploded. I was not allowed to ever do that again. Living nativities were then replaced with driving through the neighborhoods to see the lights and decorations of the Goyim. Decorating our house for Christmas, no matter how tasteful or non-denominational, was another thing we, as Jews, did not do.

Several years later, my Girl Scout troop would visit the Lutheran church to see the Chrismon Tree, a Christmas tree rich with religious symbolism. I remember being struck by the beauty and piety of the handmade decorations of white and gold, each having a Biblical reference. Some time in grade school, some of the Christian kids witnessed to me. I didn’t come away with much, but I remember saying my Hebrew prayers at bedtime with a mental “in Jesus’ name” tacked on to the end as a spiritual insurance policy that those prayers would be heard and covered. As time passed and I would try to explain my Jewish faith to the evangelical Baptists and Assemblies of G-d, it became harder to reconcile the fulfillment of all those Old Testament Messianic prophecies I had heard and read about with the person of Jesus.

Even with all the years of Shabbat School and Hebrew lessons, I was hungering for more. I wanted to have the opportunity to go up to the altar and say the blessings over the Torah scroll. I wanted to read from the Torah just as the men did in synagogue. In the Orthodox Jewish community, it is mandated that the men and the women sit separately. The women of our “shul” had a lovely balcony overlooking the synagogue floor, which is where I would sit with my mother and the rest of the women. There was absolutely no way I would be able to join in with the men during the liturgy. It was unheard of – a “shanda” or scandalous! So at my pleading, my parents made the sacrifice to transition from the Orthodox to the Reform synagogue when I was 12. I would be the first girl, even there, to be allowed to study to become a Bat Mitzvah. This is a momentous rite of passage, which, up until the Feminist Movement of the 1970’s, was traditionally taken only by Jewish boys at the age of 13. After years of study in Hebrew, Scripture, and Jewish tradition, the adolescent becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah (a Son or Daughter of the Commandments), in a synagogue service, leading the liturgy (mostly in Hebrew), reading from the Torah scroll in Hebrew for the first time, and delivering a personal commentary on that reading.

I received my first English translation of the Scriptures as a gift from the rabbi for my Bat Mitzvah. As I began reading, I began to have even more questions. In the very first chapter of Genesis, verse 26, I read, “Let us make man in our image.” And reading a little further about the tower of Babel in Genesis 11: “And the Lord said…’Come, let us go down, and confound their language…’” Totally confused about this plurality, I began to voice these concerns. My parents, wiser relatives, and rabbis all had different explanations for the words of these troubling passages. Some stated it was because G-d speaks in the “Royal We” as in Shakespearean English; one person told me that this must be a typo; and a rabbi told me it was because G-d entered into a covenant with the earth/ground itself to form Adam, thus the “us.” All I could see was, at best, a multiplural noun for the word G-d, like the English words team or family. Not an indivisible One. This was also reinforced by the daily recitation of the Shema prayer from Deuteronomy, which proclaims, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our G-d, the Lord, is One.” In this case the word one is echad, דחא, one existing in unity, a multiplural noun. None of the explanations by others satisfied me, and my growing litany of questions, not only about Scripture, but about tradition as well, all seemed to point to Avinu, G-d the Father, Jesus, עושי, Yeshua as the promised Hebrew Messiah, and the Ruach Ha Kodesh, the Holy Spirit.

Although I maintained a strong Jewish identity throughout high school, as a hopelessly romantic and somewhat dramatic teenage girl, I was drawn to the Catholic Church as portrayed by Hollywood and literature. Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette drew me into the holiness of a simple peasant girl transformed into a handmaid of the Lord. Debbie Reynolds’ Singing Nun left me with the impression of a Holy Sister in a pure white habit with the joy of the Lord, self-sacrificing and walking in love toward all. Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc presented a powerful model of stalwart zeal for G-d and country. In my reading, a holy innocent martyr’s death was a noble and dramatic ideal. As Flannery O’Connor wrote from The Girl’s perspective in her short story, A Temple of the Holy Ghost, “She would have to be a saint… she could stand to be shot but not to be burned in oil. She didn’t know if she could stand to be torn to pieces by lions or not. She began to prepare her martyrdom seeing herself in a pair of tights in a great arena lit by the early Christians hanging in cages of fire, making a gold, dusty light that fell on her and the lions. The first lion fell at her feet, converted. A whole series of lions did the same. And finally the Romans were obliged to burn her, but to their astonishment, she would not burn down, and finding her so hard to kill, they finally cut off her head very quickly with a sword, and she immediately went to heaven.” Quite strong stuff to feed the dreams of youth!

During my college years, I continued my inner struggle with religion. After becoming president of the small campus Hillel Jewish Student Organization (even at the large Southern university I attended, there were only about 15 or 20 practicing Jewish students), I would sometimes visit the Newman Club for Catholic university students, asking a reluctant priest about conversion. My two roommates and most of my friends were Catholics. My best friend in school, and later-to-be husband, was brought up in a Catholic home (so… I thought he was Jewish at first!), although when I met him, he was Atheist/Agnostic. John and I often had heady conversations late into the night on topics of history, philosophy, religion, and man’s existence.

A few years later after we had both graduated, found jobs, and finally decided to marry, neither family was supportive. We planned a small, non-denominational ceremony in a chapel in California where we were living. My mother traveled across the country to stop the wedding – she tried for that whole week prior, right up until the moment I walked down the aisle!!! – while my father and sister remained at home and held an actual Jewish funeral for me. They observed the seven days of mourning, shiva, and recited the Kaddish prayers for the dead over me. Now, that’s drama! John’s entire family had a last-minute change of heart and decided to attend the nuptials.

At the time of our marriage, neither John nor I was affiliated with any religion. We were on the fast track to career, money, and having fun in sunny Southern California. Three months after our wedding, a cyst which had been growing in one of my ovaries ruptured. Lying on the hospital gurney in the hallway of the operating theater, the doctor came over to explain that because one ovary must be removed, and because of endometriosis and blocked fallopian tubes, there was more than a distinct probability that I would be unable to have children. One of the many reasons I had married John was that we both wanted to have a family, and I knew he would be an exceptional father. Having children was a strong desire of both our hearts. As I was wheeled into the surgical suite, I prayed to G-d that if He was real, and if Jesus was the true Messiah – if I could only become pregnant in three to five years – that I would dedicate my life and the child’s life to Jesus, fully and openly. Five months later, I found out I was expecting and knew I had a promise to fulfill.

Shortly after my first daughter was born 24 years ago, I entered the Catholic Church. After a year of intense study, I was initiated into the Sacraments during the Easter Vigil. My wonderfully supportive but still non-practicing husband would fully return to the Church four years later, and our marriage would be blessed by the Catholic Church.

My hunger for G-d (I now fully understand as a fulfillment of all the Messianic prophecies and foreshadowings of the Old Testament) has never stopped. There is so much to study and understand: the sacred Scriptures – the Old Testament and the New Testament in the light of the Old; the glorious history of the Church; the lives and writings of the Saints; divine liturgy and prayer. This ongoing process has further illuminated the Jewish part of my faith, as I now have answers for many of my childhood “whys.” Even as a Catholic, I continue to celebrate all of the Jewish holidays in my home and have held onto my Jewish roots. I am as comfortable praying out of a Hebrew Siddur as I am from Catholic prayer books. They complement each other, and one enhances the other. Now, as a Jewish Catholic, I feel an even greater intensity about my Jewishness than I did when I was younger.

It has only been recently that I have discovered the full importance of this knowledge, and for me, observance of these roots. I hope with this book to answer some of the many questions I had by showing the symbolism and meaning behind each of the elements of observing the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat. The commandments of the Old Testament to set apart this day along with its developing liturgies are all of Divine origin and all point to Jesus the Messiah, חישמה עושי, Yeshua HaMashiach in Hebrew. An understanding of these Jewish roots illuminates many of the parables and teachings of Jesus, who lived a Torah-observant Jewish life in the midst of a Torah-observant people. Not only is the Shabbat fully realized in the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, but it is a foretaste and dress rehearsal of the HaOlam Haba, הבה םלועה, the World to Come – our eternity in heaven. In particular, the remembering and keeping of the Sabbath, and the Jewish imagery of the Sabbath Bride, lead us straight through the doors of heaven where the true Bridegroom awaits, and to the heavenly banquet table which is the marriage supper of Christ, the Lamb, and his Bride, the community of believers in Him.