“Are you a Jew now?” That’s a question that is frequently asked of me these days. Yes, I do keep the sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening Sabbath. Yes, I do eat kosher. Yes, I do celebrate the Biblical Feast Days (with absolute delight!). I sometimes sing in Hebrew. I even know a few Hebrew dance steps! I often wear a Tallit during Sabbath services and at home during times of prayer. I proclaim the Shema (Hear O Israel – Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29) as I prepare to speak with Yahweh at 9 AM, noon, and 3 PM. I speak the Aaronic Blessing over my family and friends as often as possible. Admittedly, all of this does appear very Jewish.
So am I Jewish? For me personally, that is a loaded question! Looking at my German Russian family history has always perplexed me. Trying to figure out just who my people are and what ethnic heritage I can truly claim was a long journey. Turns out the technical answer to that question is, “Yes, I am Jewish– by blood.” Yet I was raised, as were my parents and grandparents (after they left Russia) as a Christian…a follower of Jesus Christ. In the Jewish world, that translates “non-Jew”, “Gentile”.
There is a long, historical process involved in my family story (both paternal and maternal lines) that boils down to one word: assimilation. As best as I can currently tell, my ancestors on both sides most likely left Palestine as Jews during the Middle Ages and moved to what became Germany (via England and Ireland). Eventually they moved on to Russia, settling in the Ukraine on the Volga River and the Black Sea. All of this moving about was motivated by a quest for opportunity and to better life for themselves. During the past 150 years, many of my forefathers in Germany and Russia “converted” to the Christian faith – for physical safety, tax breaks, better business opportunities, and the ability to attain higher education…and for some a sincere revelation of who Jesus truly is to the people of Israel.
Being a Jew in Europe and Russia was at best inconvenient, and much more often life threatening. When my great grandparents fled the pogroms of Russia and came to the USA, they simply left their Jewish identity behind. After all, America is a Christian nation, and after going through hell as Jewish German families in Russia for a century, they simply didn’t want to risk a repeat venture. They assimilated into American churches – mostly Lutheran and German Congregational churches. Just as many in the modern church, they left Passover and Hanukkah behind and embraced the pagan-rooted “Christian” holidays of Easter and Christmas.
Yet to this day I hold on to two keys to my family’s true heritage that my grandparents provided. Keep in mind, both sides of my family went to church every Sunday and truly did embrace Jesus as their Messiah. Yet, deep down inside they did not forget who they were. My father’s father spoke only once of this matter to me. I will never forget his piercing blue eyes as he told me, “We are Jews – tribe of Benjamin. Never forget this!” He never mentioned this topic to me again, and apparently never said a word to anyone else in the family either. Why he told me, God only knows.
The second key came from my mother’s mother. My mother’s side of the family is huge on celebrating Christmas, so we were too. I always wondered why, so I once asked my grandmother if she remembered what Christmas was like for her family in Russia. She was only four years old when she left the Ukraine. I wasn’t sure she would remember. She looked very soberly at me and said in her broken English, “We did not celebrate Christmas. We lit the candles. When we came to America, we celebrated Christmas.” This stunned me. Was she referring to Hanukkah? Yeah, I think so.
Unlike many Christians today, both sides of my family tenaciously held on to the Tanakh (Old Testament) as being very much a relevant necessity for Christians if they are to truly know how to live out their day by day lives. Jesus saves us, yet we then have to walk out that salvation – and that walk is found in the pages of the Torah, seen in the life of Jesus as he walked the earth, and expounded on in the remaining New Testament writings. In a remarkable way, my grandparents and parents held on to the foundations of our heritage, which are the very rich Hebrew roots of the Christian faith. They may have stopped being Jewish in appearance and practice; they may have assimilated to what the Christian church taught them was a Christian lifestyle. However, I now understand that they never stopped being Hebrew. They couldn’t. It was literally in their DNA.
What then of the the lost tribes (Gentiles) and the rest of the world without that “Jewish heritage”? According to the Apostle Paul, all who call on Jesus as their Messiah – their Savior and Deliverer – are Hebrew! (These days I call him by his Hebrew name: Yeshua, literally meaning “God Saves”.) In Ephesians 2:11-22 Paul went to great effort to help Gentiles and pagans coming into faith in Yeshua to understand that they were now no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people [Israel – the Hebrews] and members of God’s family [Israel – the Hebrews]. In Romans 11, Paul used the olive tree – a symbol of the whole house of Israel (both the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel/Ephraim) – to illustrate how both must be grafted back into that tree – a Hebrew tree called “Israel” whose rich root is the Tanakh (Old Testament) and whose trunk (vine) is Yeshua.
These grafted branches are both wild and natural. The tree must have both to live and be fruitful. Who are the natural branches? The southern tribes of Kingdom of Judah –called “Jews” as in JU-dah. Who are the wild branches? The northern tribes of the kingdom of Israel – often called “Ephraim” by Yahweh through the prophets (Isaiah 56:6-8). These “Ephraimites” are the lost sheep of Israel, a bride divorced by Yahweh, scattered among the nations and assimilated into their ways. The Jews call these lost sheep Gentiles (Goyim, meaning “of the nations“ in Hebrew). [FYI: “Gentiles” are not the same as “pagans”. Pagans never knew the Hebrew God. Gentiles at one time did.]
Am I a Jew? Ethnically, I actually could say “Yes”. But far more importantly, I am Hebrew – just as are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, the Disciples, and most of the church up to the mid-4th century. Abraham was the first to be called Hebrew. The term Hebrew has a meaning: “one who crosses over”. He “crossed over” into a new way of life, a new covenant with Yahweh, and new land that would one day belong to his descendants. He had to leave the ways of the Chaldeans and their many gods behind. He had to leave his family behind. “Crossing over” cost him everything – and yet he eventually gained much more than he left behind. His lineage became the very Olive Tree into which I am grafted. I am, like my father Abraham, a Hebrew. I have “crossed over” and found the Hebrew God, YHVH (Yahweh), and the Hebrew Messiah, Yeshua.
Through Yeshua, I have re-entered Yahweh’s Kingdom. I am learning the protocol and lifestyle of his kingdom. Yes, the ways of his kingdom look very “Jewish”. But they are not “Jewish”. They are Hebrew – given to us in the Hebrew language by the Hebrew God and recorded in a very Hebrew book called the Tanakh (the Torah, The Prophets, and the Writings). They are the lifestyle of all who have been grafted in – both Jew and Gentile. Salvation, provided for us by Yeshua’s atoning sacrifice, restores both to Yahweh and His Kingdom. My Messiah is a Hebrew, an Israelite – born on earth as a Jew in the lineage of King David, tribe of Judah, as prophesied. He is the only and true King of the descendants of Israel (Jacob) -the King of the Hebrews. He was called “Rabbi” because he was a master teacher of the Hebrew Torah. Rightfully so, for he is the Word of God (the Torah) made flesh and dwelling with us! (John 1:1-14)
If I look a lot more Jewish these days, so be it. Yet, let me make one thing perfectly clear! I am not, as many Christians like to say, “in bondage”. I am a free human spirit learning to live freely within “the perfect Law of Liberty” – Yahweh’s Word, the Covenant and the Constitution that defines how His kingdom functions. I have never been more excited about my faith in Yeshua – never more passionate about my Messiah – never more awed by my God! So much of what confused and disappointed me in my “Christian” walk has long faded away. My roots now go deep into a Hebrew heritage that nourishes me as I have never before been nourished – and I have been “a Christian” for over 4 decades. I have grasped the understanding that through Yeshua I have been delivered from the kingdoms of this world and restored to His Kingdom on earth – a kingdom called the whole house of Israel. I now confidently say with the Apostle Shaul (Paul) that I am no longer a Jew or a Gentile. I am a Hebrew. Are you?