I was born in Brooklyn, New York, circumcised on the eighth day and raised in a typical New York City Jewish home. Both of my parents were Jewish, and like so many from the post-Holocaust generation, I grew up under the dark cloud of this cataclysmically tragic event. The result, at least for my family, was that we were profoundly anti-Christian and had little interaction with Gentiles/ Christians (in my understanding at the time) because we believed they had tried to destroy my people.
Like most Jewish young men, I was Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13. I was sent to a modern Orthodox synagogue for Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah training. The synagogue was more religious than my home, so I grew up with a degree of religious disparity from the very beginning. I could never quite connect with the Orthodox community because we were not religious at home and yet, my entire world was Jewish. I knew some non-Jews in school, but I grew up sensing a deep divide between myself, the community, and the “Gentile/Christian world.”
The only interaction I really had with non-Jews was with the Italian and Irish Catholic kids as we battled over who had the right to use the local stickball courts. I was called “Christ-killer” many times growing up.
I cannot say that I actively hated or even disliked Gentiles/ Christians, but I knew we were something significantly “other” than they were. My attitude changed a bit when my family moved to New Jersey during my junior year of high school. I spent more time with Gentiles, but still found myself gravitating toward the Jewish kids. My family became more involved with a Conservative synagogue at that time, and I even played basketball in the Jewish basketball leagues.
I went off to college and became a “middle-class Jewish hippie,” dropping out of college within my first semester and moving to San Francisco around the time of my eighteenth birthday. My best friends were fellow Jewish hippies like myself, but I was beginning to have closer non-Jewish friends as well. At this point in my life, the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles had become less relevant to me, as one of the values “hippies” held dear was the equality of all humanity.
Please do not mistake what I am saying. It is not that I stopped identifying as a Jew. Even as a hippie, I celebrated Passover, and I would never consider celebrating Christmas or Easter or setting foot in a church. The Gentile kids that were part of my small hippie community celebrated Christmas and Easter, but in a very irreligious way! In my understanding, “non-religious” Christians were similar to “non-observant” Jews and the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles were primarily cultural and ethnic, rather than religious. We never talked about these matters and essentially attributed our differences to our parents. We viewed religion as one of the problems that divided the humanity that we ideally wanted to unify.
My life began to change rapidly when one of my friends-a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx-became a believer in Jesus in the summer of 1970. My best friend, also a Jewish young man from the Bronx, became a believer in Jesus as well. Without prolonging the story, it did not take long before I, too, became a follower of Jesus in November of 1970.
When I became a follower of Yeshua, I knew there were non-Jews who believed in Him as well-but I had not met many at that time. I probably knew as many Jews who believed in Jesus as Gentiles who did. The Gentiles I knew who believed in Jesus did not have much to do with the more institutional church. They were mostly ex-hippies, and the unity we had in the past seemed to easily transfer as we became united in faith!
As I began meeting Gentiles who were part of the institutional evangelical church, I felt the old “gap” I had grown up with begin to widen. My Jewish identity and traditions began to matter more to me, now that I understood that being Jewish was connected to my faith in God and the Jewish Messiah. It seemed that Gentile believers (innocently) expected me to take part in Christian traditions and celebrations, but culturally these events felt very foreign.
I still remember a conversation I had with one young Gentile believer soon after I become a follower of Yeshua. We both attended a Thanksgiving meal and service in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. As I walked out he put his arm around me and said, “Mitch, if you think you enjoyed Thanksgiving-just wait until Christmas!”
I had so much hair on my head and on my face that he probably could not see that I turned completely red. I had no idea that by accepting Jesus I had seemingly exchanged my Jewish holidays for the “Christian holidays.” I told him that I had not read that in the Bible!
I will admit that his statement-though well intentioned-caused me incredible trauma. It was my first brush with the identity issues I would face for the next 38 years as a believer, and still face to this very day.
In some ways, this is similar to marriage: I fell in love with my wife, also a Jewish believer, and wanted to marry her. It eventually dawned on me that I was not only marrying my wife, but also gaining a whole new family.
I quickly realized that I had not simply become a follower of Jesus the Messiah, but had also been invited to join His family, which included both Jews and a global variety of Gentiles. It was clear that I needed to better understand this new unity with my Gentile spiritual family members.
I am grateful for the text at hand in Ephesians 2, as this passage helps me understand God’s will for me in my relationship to my Gentile brothers and sisters in the Messiah.