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    painting of a synagogue

    Jewish and Christian

    During the Nazi and Soviet eras, my Ukrainian-Jewish family became secular. Was my conversion a further loss of Jewish identity, or a return to faith?

    By Nadya Williams

    March 31, 2023

    Available languages: español

    • Pierre C. LeMaster, M.D.

      Dear Plough, I recently read the review of Exvangelicalism by Nadya Williams which I found very thoughtful. This led me to read her testimonial of how she came to embrace Christianity. These two articles made me curious to learn her Christian theology since she mentioned the PCA, a denomination I am a member of. I personally grew up in a heaven home with no Christian teaching. While in Medical School at the University of Florida, I “accepted” Christ as my savior, but later embraced the Charismatic Movement, and followed that for about 10 years. This adventure led to a dead end and I began to study the history of Christianity which led me to the Reformation and the Reformed Creeds and Confessions. So when someone says Christian, I like to know what their profession of faith is. That helps me understand their writings. Does Nadya Williams state her theology clearly? Sincerely but curious, Pierre C. LeMast, M.D. (Retired 83 year old Pediatrician) Pierre

    • Shannon H

      Amen and Amen! Your story, Truth, is powerfully beautiful. What an ending, "through the blood of one Jewish man who lived and died so long ago, and rose again in a spectacular show of mercy that breaks every curse" what a beginning! May we life this growing steadfast in this perfect Truth, Nadya. Thank you precious Sister.

    • Jewel Showalter

      This is so, so very good! My own roots lie in the martyrdom stories of the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century, and it's amazing that we as a Mennonite community are still marked by the deaths of our ancestors 500 years ago! But I believe it has usually been in a good way -- as opposed to the horror of the Holocaust your people experienced. As one old hymn says, "How sweet would be their children's fate, if they like them could die for thee." Through the trauma and banishment my ancestors suffered, there came a strong call to self-denial and cross-carrying for Jesus' sake and the extension of His glorious reign and Kingdom throughout the world!

    • Ann Boyd

      This is such a beautiful reflection on generational trauma and the mystery of God’s redemptive work in us. Thank you for sharing so deeply from your family history.

    • Harlen Hames

      Thank you, Nadya, for sharing your experience and insight! You touched some great truth that reaches far beyond the particulars of your own story. I hope and pray that as followers of that one Jewish man, we can return to the truth that the Gospel is for all of us, and never should become a tool for the persecution of anyone else!

    Each new decade in my life so far has coincided with a major life-changing event. The day before I turned ten my family landed in Tel Aviv, emigrating from the Soviet Union – then on the verge of collapse – to Israel, a young country emerging from the Gulf War. When I was twenty I was accepted into the top PhD program in my field, continuing on the trajectory of academic excellence that my parents, like so many immigrants, had adopted as the gospel of salvation for their children. Immigrating to the United States after half a decade in Israel had only strengthened their belief that academic success was the key to a prosperous life, and therefore deserving of every sacrifice.

    And then, the year I turned thirty, the promises of that gospel, which had seemed so guaranteed before, finally and explosively fell apart for me, even as my academic career was secure. A personal and family crisis had left me reeling less than a year after securing that academic unicorn, a tenure-track position. It has become trendy for many in evangelical circles to speak of deconstructing one’s faith. But there I was, at age thirty, deconstructing my unbelief. Before the year’s end, after thirty years as a secular Jew, I, the child of a Ukrainian Jewish mother and an atheist Russian father, was baptized into Christ.

    A decade later I continue to marvel at God’s faithful working in my life through all events, but especially my conversion. Everything about it felt supernatural in ways I still struggle to describe and explain. I had been exploring Christianity over the course of several months, reading and processing all I could find about it intellectually. But when the conversion occurred, it felt like an external force overwhelmed me and took completely over. I was on my way back from an academic conference in Glasgow, and had an overnight layover in Amsterdam. Rationalizing that it was too much hassle and expense to find a hotel room, I spent the night in the airport instead, keeping vigil with a copy of the New Testament that I had brought with me on the trip. And it was sometime during that bizarre night, in reading account after account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Gospels, that I became convinced that all of this really was true, and I could deny the truth of God’s corresponding claims upon me and my life no longer. Not everyone can pinpoint the precise moment of his or her salvation, but I know that this was mine. Appropriately, it was the night that bridged Saturday to Sunday. Overwhelmed with gratitude for a God who drew me to himself, for the first time in my life I prayed.

    The effects of trauma get passed on to the next generation, devouring its next victim’s spirit through awareness. Knowledge of the truth can be a crushing hammer.

    But as I think back to that initial moment of conversion and subsequent life as a Christian, I am more aware than ever of the legacy of generations of relatives who came before. Some were faithful, others faithless; most I heard about but never knew, a few remain a cherished memory from my childhood. But as a common denominator, all bore the scars of the inexorable stamp of history on their lives, body and soul. Deny this as we might, these generations and the effects of trauma that they pass along shape us in ways we cannot control or even, at times, fully recognize.

    Perhaps, just as individuals may map their lives by decades, families could map their lives by generations, each one marking its own firsts. I, for instance, am the first generation not to speak Yiddish. My mother was the first generation not to grow up in a Jewish community. Both sets of my grandparents belonged to the first generation born under the atheistic lodestar of the Soviet Union, denied knowledge of God by executive state fiat.

    For a time, it seems, Ukrainian Jewish shtetls like the one where my Jewish grandfather grew up were able to continue a religious life quietly, shutting out the world outside. But the Holocaust wiped out these communities for good. The genocidal march of the German army through Ukraine in summer 1941 left mass grave after mass grave in its wake. Babyn Yar is perhaps the most famous such tale, but practically every town and village with a Jewish population received that same fate. After the war, much of the orphaned remnant, especially those who stayed in the atheistic Soviet Union, turned its back on the God who seemed, at best, to punish, or at worst, to betray his own. Generations of Jewish belief and practice, stretching back in some form to antiquity, came to an end. But the sense of loss they experienced continues on with the generations that came after, including my own.

    painting of a synagogue

    Issachar Ber Ryback, The Synagogue in Dubrouna (1917). 

    How should we, from the relative safety and comfort of our own lives now, regard these generations that have come before and the legacies of pain that they have imprinted on us? As a classicist, I find one parallel in the family curses that are the defining feature of Greek tragedies. A powerful family curse in Greek myth transcends multiple generations, devouring one after the next through the sins wrought by generational trauma, even if the original trigger for the curse came from outside. The devouring at times is literal, as cannibalism enters the picture. Kronos, the king of the second generation of the gods, who himself had violently overthrown his own father to take his place, went on to devour each of his children after birth – literally – in an effort to prevent being dethroned himself. He failed in the end, as his youngest son, Zeus, chopped him into pieces. This brutal assault on the body of the Titan of Time symbolizes what we all, perhaps, would like to do with generational trauma. (Sorry, Proust, sometimes we just want that lost time with its haunted memories to stay lost for good.)

    Outside of mythology the devouring of one generation by another is figurative, though no less tragic, as family members might use each other to achieve selfish aims. I see this even in my own family, as generations of parents have sacrificed to launch their children into life, all the while requiring significant sacrifices from these children and seeking to exert control over them well into middle age and beyond. One can devour, it appears, while being devoured.

    But this painful consumption can occur within as much as without. For my mother, the legacy of the violent erasure of Jewish identity, as much social and ethnic as religious, has been a defining feature of her life, raised as she was by parents who were part of the orphaned and newly faithless remnant that somehow survived the destruction. Not even moving to Israel could undo the haunting pain of missing relatives she had never known or met, like an amputee overwhelmed with the ghost sensation of a long-lost limb. In turn, this haunting profoundly affected her relationship with subsequent generations. Meeting my oldest son, then three months old, for the first time, all she could say was, “I do not know how to be a grandmother.” Since then, nearly every book she has ever sent him has been about the Holocaust. And so, perhaps, the effects of this trauma get passed on to the next generation, devouring its next victim’s spirit through awareness. Knowledge of the truth can be a crushing hammer.

    But enough about curses. Maybe, rather, our family histories more closely resemble the worn-out Marxist adage that every event in human history is repeated twice – first as a tragedy, and next as a farce. For my mother, perhaps this explanation would make sense. The Holocaust, and the loss of Jewish religious identity that it wrought, was a true and profound tragedy. But where is the farce, one might ask? The farce is my own conversion, which transformed me from a secular Jew (but still a Jew, my mother insisted!) into someone who is not (my mother insists). Naively, when I had first converted I was sure that my parents, at least one of whom does not even believe in God, would not have an opinion on my conversion. Obviously I was wrong. From my mother’s perspective, this loss of a secular Jewish identity is the next cycle of her parents’ tragedy – a comical distortion, except that no one is laughing.

    Maybe they should be. Family surnames from past generations on both sides of the family create a humorous tapestry, seamlessly layering hints of faithfulness and faithlessness in garish colors. My father’s last name, Popov, after all, relates to pop, the Russian term often used in a derogatory sense to refer to a lowly village priest. Subject of many a slapstick tale of incompetence, selfishness, and greed, the figure of such a priest was farce personified, making his way even into the writings of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s great bard. My great-grandmother’s maiden name, Monahova, stems from the Russian word for “monk,” creating its own tale of the absurd: If a monk is meant to be celibate, spending his life in monastic seclusion, how did a family acquire such a surname?  

    My mother’s maiden name, Katz, one of the most common Jewish last names in Eastern Europe, is an acronym of two religious concepts describing an extraordinary holiness of the sort that only God could perfectly fulfill: Kadosh Tzadik. How holy could secular Jews be in a country that viewed them with suspicion and mistrust even after the Holocaust had culled their number to a mere remnant? Perhaps, in the story of the tragedy that is the Holocaust for all generations affected by it, including those yet to be born, no other story to come after could ever be a farce. Without supernatural intervention, tragedy of such magnitude can only beget more tragedy through retelling and remembering.

    A realization of God’s faithfulness in a faithless world can give hope for future joy that redeems a past lost and gone, even if impossible to forget.

    But what if the redeeming power of the gospel is that supernatural intervention? What if it makes possible a different way of reflecting on these past generations and the historical tragedies that shaped their lives? For it is from tragedy, rather than profound joy, that comes a realization of brokenness and a yearning for something that can never be found in the promises of earthly things. In other words, maybe the outcome of tragedy does not have to be a family curse or a farce or further tragedy. A realization of God’s faithfulness in a faithless world can, instead, give hope for future joy that redeems a past lost and gone, even if impossible to forget.

    As a Christian, do I ever mourn this world I never knew, the world of Jewish shtetls where large families of my ancestors lived up until just three generations ago? Do I sometimes imagine raucous celebrations, singing in Yiddish, dancing at weddings, gathering around the Shabbat table or during the high holidays? Do I wonder what my own life could have been there, had history taken a different course? The answer is a wistful yes. But then I must also acknowledge that even in the 1920s, when my maternal grandparents were born into that world almost a full century ago, famine and persecution were these communities’ inescapable lot. Nostalgia is a thief and a liar. Even Arcadia was filled with pain. Eden alone was not.

    And so I can acknowledge the past for what it is. But now I can also see this tragic loss of family and faith redeemed in my own life, through my conversion, as I feel God’s calling upon my life and experience the blessing of raising children who will know the family curse but, I hope and pray, will not feel defined by it. And every Sunday, I stand and celebrate in worship surrounded by a large family not related to me biologically but nonetheless powerfully connected to me through the blood of one Jewish man who lived and died so long ago, and rose again in a spectacular show of mercy that breaks every curse.

    Contributed By portrait of Nadya Williams Nadya Williams

    Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity. She is Book Review Editor at Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.

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