Navigate to Community section

Ham Hocks and Hellfire

Amid instructions on making paper dolls came Grandmother’s plea for my salvation

Lynn Harris
August 24, 2006

July was Jews for Jesus Month in New York. The worldwide organization, founded in 1973 with the goal of bringing—some would say converting—Jews to accept Jesus regularly sends messengers to Manhattan bearing the “good news.” This summer, 200 of them were dispatched to the five boroughs (and two neighboring counties), including the most Orthodox enclaves, in what was the organization’s biggest New York campaign to date. The group’s official position: “to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide.”

The group seems to have had some success, at least in the “unavoidable” department. Their ubiquitous presence has inspired inevitable jokes (“Isn’t that like vegetarians for Peter Luger?”) and, among some, foam-at-the-mouth rage. The New York Times reported that local Jewish groups were “barely able to contain their loathing.” In the Daily News columnist Lenore Skenazy declared, “Usually I take any piece of paper some poor soul is handing out…. So why do my hands clench into don’t-get-that-thing-NEAR-me fists when someone tries to hand me a pamphlet for Jews for Jesus?”

Why, indeed, do so many of us have a special hate for these people? To begin with, there’s the evangelizing. Most liberal Jews are really not comfortable with that. It feels so…shall we say, Christian? (Reform Jews got so squeamish about “proselytizing” that the URJ president had to issue an official reminder asking congregants to find a comfortable way to encourage conversion.) As Bradley Burston wrote in his column for Ha’aretz, “Believe whatever you want. Practice whatever you preach. Just stay the hell away from us.”

Then there’s the matter of the built-in mind-bender: I’m sorry, no, we cannot be both Jews and “for” Jesus. The “for Jesus” part—that would make us Christians. And it’s indescribably offensive to be told that to become truly “fulfilled” or “completed” Jews, we must, in effect, leave Judaism behind. In fact, the Jew/Jesus thing can be seen as an outright lie. The missionaries might move a step or two down the hate scale if they’d quit playing Jewish music and using the star of David and just say, “Hi there! Before you get on the subway, we’d like you to become a Christian.”

Even with a more honest approach, there’d still be the matter of Christians converting Jews—historically, an extremely uncomfortable maneuver. “There’s more than one way to wipe out a people, and poison, like gas, comes in many forms,” writes Burston. “Sometimes it looks like a leaflet. Sometimes it looks like the Internet. Sometimes it looks like a smile.”

As a Jew, I side with Burston. But as a granddaughter, I find myself trying to make room for a little compassion.

My father’s mother was a Baptist from rural Georgia. Her ancestors had fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War—on the other side. My grandmother was named after her black nanny, the daughter of slaves. She was 10 when the Titanic sank, 30-something during the Depression. She married a railroad man, my beloved granddaddy, who brewed clandestine beer on the back porch. She could fry the hell out of a chicken. And at some point, in addition to being a Baptist, she became “born again,” meaning that she accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior, which was the one and only way to get to Heaven.

Then my father quietly converted to Judaism for the purpose of marrying a Jew. And my grandmother embraced her daughter-in-law—and my mom, her mother-in-law—despite their vast differences. This was the 1960s, long before our global village had emerged, long before okra showed up on the Food Network. To my mother, the child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, raised in upper Manhattan and the Bronx, where vegetables grew in cans, Atlanta might as well have been Atlantis. Grandmother had been to New York on one occasion, but spent most of her visit cowering in her hotel.

Grandmother truly loved my mother. In part—but not only—because she was a Jew. Grandmother had tremendous respect for Jews. I don’t mean “respect” the way we “respect” the views of people we don’t respect at all. I mean real respect. Grandmother had come to believe Jews were living history, conveyors of the Bible, the people who brought Jesus to the world. And, yes, to Grandmother, the most wonderful thing one could do—for Jews, for humanity, for the Lord—was to bring them to Christ. Long before my father even met my mother, among Grandmother’s favorite charities were the spiritual predecessors of Jews for Jesus.

Grandmother would never miss a chance to raise the issue of Jesus with her daughter-in-law. And so it was that my mother learned to cook pole beans with ham hocks, and also to gently say things like, “Well, it’s not how I was raised, but I’ll surely give it some thought.”

Then came me. When I was little, Grandmother was magic, like the enchanted uncle in the Nutcracker, forever pulling baubles and goodies from bottomless pockets. She’d show me how to blow soap bubbles from a wooden spool; she’d fold sheets of newspaper in an accordion, snip here and there with silver scissors, and—presto!—a dancing chain of paper dolls. When she sewed me a black velvet skating skirt for the town rink’s annual Ice Show, she sewed a matching one for my precious stuffed Bunny.

But interspersed with all the Grandmother stuff was what I called “the God stuff.” When she read to me, it wasn’t Curious George or Clifford, it was Jonah and Daniel, David and Goliath. I remember being scolded for saying, “Gee,” which evidently counted as taking the name of the Lord in vain. At one point, she offered to pay me $1 for every Bible verse I memorized. (Could I be the only rebbetzin who can recite John 3:16?) If Dad hadn’t put a stop to it, I’d have stood to earn a cool $31,202.

Eventually Grandmother got pretty specific. Jesus loved me, she told me, and if I loved him back, I’d be “saved.” Specifically, saved from spending eternity in hell. This was not because Jews go to hell; this was because everyone unsaved goes to hell. Grandmother truly meant this—and she meant well by it. For her, this, the Heaven with clouds, the Hell with flames, was real—certainly as real as anything in what we call the real world. Yes, it scared me—we laugh, but what if she’s right?—but mostly, even when I was young, it made me feel bad. I hated having to smile and say “I’ll try to believe.” Trust me, there was no refusing Grandmother—at least not openly. But it also broke my heart a little to lie.

For many years I wondered—and discussed with my rabbi—whether it would ever be okay to lie the other way. Say I’m with her on her deathbed. Say she asks in a weak whisper whether if I’m saved. Why crush her with a no? If I had the power to help my only grandmother die happy, why should I not use it?

No such scene ever occurred. When I arrived at her nursing home that last time, my parents were packing up: clothes and costume jewelry, numerous Bibles, crocheted coasters, and brochures entitled “Bringing the Jew to Christ.” I found, taped to her bedside lampshade, an art project she’d asked me to do 20 years earlier, at age 10: the 23rd Psalm, written in my best penmanship and with little pictures—green pastures, still waters—I’d drawn along the margin like an illuminated manuscript. Clearly that, at least, had brought her some joy.

I do not forgive or feel bad for Jews for Jesus the way I do my grandmother. For one thing, if you’d pressed her about nomenclature, she’d probably have said, “Well yes, accepting Jesus would make you Christian.” No confusion—that is, duplicity—there. When it comes to Jews for Jesus, what I’d like to be able to say is something like, “How our sympathies shift when we get to know the people about whom we make assumptions!” But it’s not nearly that simple. My own intimacy with their cause makes me both understand and resent them more. It also makes me miss my grandmother. Who also, by the way, would have adored my husband.

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website