16 May World Culture through Jewish Eyes
Being Jewish and traveling worldwide over many years has played a large role in shaping my Jewish identity. Likewise, my Jewish identity has shaped my life experiences over what I estimate to be some two million miles of travels. Add to the mix that I am a Messianic Jew (one who believes in Jesus as the Messiah) and you have an altogether different perspective on faith that is, at times, confounding to those I meet.
To see the world through Jewish eyes is one thing. To see that same world through Jewish Messiah-believing eyes is something altogether different. To navigate between the differences, one must be what I call bi-focal, able to see Saturday brothers with one eye and Sunday brothers with the other. And rest assured, there is a difference.
In addition to mastering bi-focal visual acuity, it is equally essential to be bi-lingual, as in having the ability to understand and relate to both Saturday-Speak – ie: “Shabbat Shalom Haverim,” and the Christian Sunday-Speak ie: “I feel a catch in my spirit Brother Bob!” Without a doubt, this can be challenging, and there is more than a little irony here concerning what can be subtle or significant differences in these “weekend languages.”
It is, in fact, a great art form to be both bi-focal and bi-lingual, knowing how to communicate in harmony with those possessing either a Christian mindset, a traditional Jewish mindset or even a Messianic Jewish mind set, not to mention navigating this “One New Man” community. A growing community that exists for many of us who are trying to bridge the gap between the Christian and Jewish believers and even more so trying to navigate through this often-rocky terrain.
Traveling to six continents (leaving out Antarctica,) I have observed that most people see others through the filter of their own culture. In Singapore, they reacted to me as a seldom-seen Jewish man. An anomaly. Not too many of us in Singapore, so the indigenous folks had only me to observe and put me in the position of “sheliach” of the whole tribe (Hebrew for apostle.) Oh my!
It was much the same in the Caribbean, Australia, and Africa, where most people saw me through the lens of their own experience and reality—which was decidedly limited when it came to interactions with a Jewish man.
In Scandinavia, I remember some well-meaning friends took me to a restaurant and gave me an English menu. Their body language screamed, “Ha! We’ll get Jonathan to have a ham sandwich since he’s now “under the blood of Jesus.” I was still a “newbie” to Sunday-Speakers, but I knew enough to smile and mention that there was freedom “under the blood,” so I was free to eat or not to eat that sandwich.
Throughout my years of travel, I had to study diligently to learn not only the sounds and nuances of these languages but to see the heart of what lay beyond the literal and into the cloud of inference.
However, even thru those difficult revelations, I enjoyed the heady atmosphere of Europe in the ‘90’s—visiting places where pseudo-sophists, oops, sorry, I meant to say where sophisticated peeps were floating through their pontifications and fried “isims” along with their 23-grams-a-day of olive oil.
I was comfortable with these Christian Sunday-Speak folks. It was a new world for me. And I was learning fast. But I hadn’t yet had the joy of finding any who could communicate in my long lost Saturday-Speak until my time in Spain.
In Spain my visit was bittersweet. Palma de Mallorca is a city where the spirit of the Inquisition still breathes the spirit of death. With a history of sequestering the Jewish people since the 1700’s, fear was still palpable. The rocks on the street had many Jewish tears seeped into her stones. The outward facade of the city was brilliant in color, and many of the locals were in outside café’s eating a favorite Spanish dish called “Judias verdes,” beans they had named “Green Jews.”
While there, a man opened the old, deserted Synagogue for us. As we walked into a damp, dark, abandoned room, the man spoke to me in Spanish, “Sir, you are Jewish?” His question languished in a drop of fear.
“Yes,” I replied without hesitation. “And you?” I already knew the answer, even before his affirmative—albeit hesitant head shake.
“Even today, after so many years, it is better to appear as though we are Christian. Our neighbors hate us and still look out for our “Jewish condition” to appear,” he said quietly.
By “Jewish condition,” I knew he was talking about being defined as eating kosher, keeping God’s commandments, and following a set of prescribed traditions and ceremonies that for centuries have defined the Jewish people.
But truth be told, it’s really about allowing God’s Word to keep us.
He was very fluent and felt safe with his Saturday-Speak. Should I tell him Messiah freed him from all those “traditions?” That he was a new creature and didn’t need to “blend in?” That he could forget and reject the old Saturday-Speak?
Or, should I counsel him to remain true to his Jewish faith and culture? To stay the course in “The Way” of life that for which millions had died? I only had a minute to decide.
“Sir, your faith in the Almighty is your gift. Be true to who you are despite the mountains you may need to climb along the way.” I found myself praying for this man and for so many more that live in fear of man.
This fear crosses over to every culture and country. I think of my first Native American friend; they called him “Tonto,” a nickname that today would be considered a racial slur. Tonto was a vivid character, yet a man of few words, and even fewer idioms. Yet I vividly recall the metaphor he repeated often, something about not “speaking with a forked tongue.”
Traveling for so many years I know many of my journeys helped shape my Jewish identity, just as my Jewish identity shaped and influenced my travels. I had to learn to be bi-focal and bi-lingual after all.
Blessed with countless experiences that changed my life, traveling fed my faith, and my faith fed my travels. I would like to think I’m wiser now – somehow able to relate to all peoples as the Spirit leads me. I take to heart the words of Paul that in Messiah there is no Jew or Greek nor male or female. We are all new creations of the Spirit. I often think of that glorious day when Yeshua will right all our differences. There will be no war. No prejudice. We will all see each other by the spirit and even speak the same language.
“For then will I restore to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9 – TLV).
Come Lord Yeshua – we need you!