I was blessed to have a VERY God-fearing, Pentacostal grandmother, my dad’s mother Mary Ellen Jeffcoat. She had long silver hair that she didn’t believe in cutting, because the Bible says a woman’s hair is her glory. She always pinned it into a bun, because the Bible also says a woman is supposed to be modest. I remember her dresser with pretty containers of lots of bobby pins. I also remember her table full of biscuits. It was the South, and biscuits were (and still are) everything in the South. She won my mama to the Lord over those biscuits, at least that’s how I imagine it. My mom began going to church at my grandmother’s influence, and she started taking me.
My parents divorced, and my mom took on my spiritual training as her responsibility, calling on Christian schools to support her in this mission. I went to Christian school from first grade to twelfth grade and even to a Christian college. I memorized a lot of Bible verses and heard a lot of Bible stories. I memorized something like 50 “Old Testament” prophecies that Jesus is the Messiah. I believed it all. Much of it made absolutely no sense, but I still believed it all. I trusted my mom, I trusted my teachers, and I trusted Jesus.
Wow, this is a long story. I’m realizing how far we still have to go, and how much I’m leaving out. Fast forward to Lawton, Oklahoma, where my new husband and I were pursuing a Bohemian life as starving artists. He was an actor and I was a writer, and we were going to team it up to Hollywood, become famous, and be witnesses for God. I had started working on a movie script based on the biblical story of Gideon, and I saw a newspaper article advertising a theater production of a biblical wedding. I needed to see it as research for my script. There we met the producer of the wedding play, a woman named Shirley Harkins. She found out my husband was an actor and in an attempt to recruit him to her shows, invited us for dinner Friday night. We were starving artists, and it was free food. Little did we know we’d just been invited for our first Shabbos dinner. We didn’t even know what Shabbos was.
At Shirley’s table on that night and many more Friday nights, we learned about a Shabbat, lighting candles, many of the biblical holidays, many of the Torah prohibitions. We drove there and we drove home, and didn’t actually practice much. We did buy some sweeeeeeet Manishevitz wine and start drinking a little on Friday night, but with no formal kiddush (consecration) blessing.
From Shirley, we learned most importantly, that some people still keep all these laws from the Old Testament. I had been taught in Christianity that this wasn’t possible. I had viewed Judaism as ancient and historic and impossible. My mind opened to a brand new way of looking at Scripture. I was fascinated, enamored, curious, excited, and began to research and research and research. Lots of trips to the bookstore and library, my happy places!
Fast forward a year and we decided to move to Dallas. Leaving Shirley and all we’d learned would be a big loss, and determined to find something like it near our new home, I Googled “Messianic Dallas.” I found the largest Messianic synagogue in America. (Messianic Judaism is Christian beliefs mixed with Jewish traditions.) At our very first community meal there, a bubbly 16-year-old named Brittany Davis bounced over and sat with us, chatting up a storm. She would become my best friend and the fourth woman with an influential table. But first there’s the third.
After three years at the messianic synagogue, I thought we had found “home.” I wrote a letter to my family telling them not to send us Christmas presents anymore and attempting to explain our new lifestyle. We ate in sukkahs, we ate “biblical kosher” (no pork or shellfish), we sang in Hebrew and danced in circles, and we celebrated a version of the Jewish holidays. I still saw Jesus in all the holidays and believed in him with all my heart.
Required reading for membership to the synagogue was a book called “Our Hands Are Stained with Blood.” It spoke of Christianity’s dark history of persecuting and killing Jews, something I’d never thought about. If Jews were God’s chosen people, why had Christians killed them? This question and many others began haunting me.
If Jesus was the King of the Jews, how come Christianity was the right religion? Did God divorce the Jews? Had Gentiles replaced Jews as God’s people? Why was there a New Covenant if God had said never add to his original one? Why on earth would God choose a people, give them commandments, then when they broke the commandments, choose a new people who weren’t obligated to any commandments? Why would he be so harsh with the first people and so lenient with the second? Why would he require the impossible then punish them mercilessly for not being able to do the impossible? Why would he send a Jewish Messiah to the Jews and then give the Messiah to the non-Jews instead? (The apostle Paul answers some of these questions in Romans, but I was NOT satisfied with his answers.)
Why didn’t God give us any warning that all this was going to happen? This seemed pretty huge. Jesus coming as “God in the flesh” and creating a whole new chosen people seemed like a big big flip of the script. It seemed worth God forewarning about or at least hinting at in the Torah. It honestly didn’t make sense. I became obsessed with figuring out the answer to these questions. Why didn’t Christian version of history and truth match up with what God had said in the Torah? He said the Jews would be his people forever. The church being the “new bride” and all of replacement theology contradicted the Torah. None of it made any sense any more. I became obsessed with figuring out the answer to these questions.
I’m not attempting to explain all of my thought process or the answers I came to in this article, but these were some of my questions. I also started questioning the practices of the messianic synagogue. I read in Nehemiah a clear prohibition to buy and sell on Shabbat; yet we were going out to restaurants after services. (Never mind the restaurants weren’t truly kosher – I had no clue of the intricacies of true Jewish law, and thought as long as I wasn’t eating pig or a goat boiled in its mother’s milk I was keeping the Torah.)
Enter Barbara Kubiet, the third lady whose table changed my life. She had left our messianic synagogue and began dipping her feet in the waters of the Orthodox. Her husband still attended our synagogue, and he dragged her there sometimes. “You have to see how the Orthodox do it!” she would say. “They don’t tear toilet paper on Shabbat! They don’t turn on lights on Shabbat! They never touch men! Not even a handshake! Come for a meal, I will show you what they do.” The Orthodox was a big intimidating group of unfamiliar people who I thought hated Christians (potentially for good reason), but Barbara being a non-Jew herself was approachable.
We found ourselves at her glorious formal table, with every spread you could imagine – homemade hummus, Israeli salad, olives, pickles, main courses, desserts. Before the meal, she made the women cover their hair with a scarf, give a quarter to charity, say a blessing she wrote out for us, and light two Shabbos candles. None of us were Jewish! It seems so funny now, all of us goyim pretending to be Jews, but it was awesome! It felt meaningful. It felt holy.
It also felt terrifying. Barbara was a hot mouth. “They made it all up!” she would laugh when I asked her questions about the New Testament. That felt too controversial to me. I loved Jesus, and despite my growing concerns about Christian doctrine and Christian history, I didn’t want to leave him.
“God show me the truth, no matter how much it hurts,” I remember praying. “I want the truth.” I never questioned the existence of God or a Creator. I assumed that as fact, while some seekers wouldn’t.
I trusted no one, not Christian, not Jew. No book could be trusted except the B-I-B-L-E. And I reasoned I could only fully trust the Old Testament part of it, because a big part of this conflict in my head was whether or not the New Testament was true. So I read the Old Testament in my New King James English, looking for answers. I wished I could read and understand Hebrew, because I knew it would be even more trustworthy, but I had to work with what I had.
I read Isaiah 53 (in context, all the chapters before and after). I read Daniel. I read Hosea. I read Deuteronomy. I read all the prophecies. I made notes. I knew the Christian explanation of them from my upbringing, and I had educated myself on the Jewish explanation of them from Tovia Singer. A true devil’s advocate, I could see both interpretations, both perspectives. But I knew one of them HAD to be true. I kept reading. Then I found Ezekiel. I found Ezekiel’s prophecy of a third temple, one that still hasn’t been built yet. I found his mention of a Prince, one who would reinstate animal sacrifices for the sins of himself and his sons in the new temple, one who would bring all the nations to God. It sounded like Messiah. But it didn’t sound like Jesus.
Ezekiel nailed the nail in the coffin of my disbelief in Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice for my sins (why would animal sacrifices be coming back if Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice like the New Testament said?). Ezekiel disproved the belief that the Messiah is God in the flesh. God in the flesh doesn’t sin and need sacrifices made for him. Ezekiel convinced me Judaism was true. If Ezekiel is true, Christianity can’t be true. I had to choose one, and I chose.
Years had passed, and my bubbly teenaged friend Brittany Davis had grown up and gotten married, and become Brittany Salstrand. She had a huge scarf covering her beautiful hair and her husband looked like Jewish rap star Matisyahu’s twin brother with the longest beard you’ve ever seen. They looked legit Orthodox. “Come eat with us!” she said, ever bubbly, but now nursing a new baby and a new truth.
We ate with them, and learned with them, and they introduced us to an Orthodox rabbi who let us learn with him. I remember being afraid to confess to Brittany that I didn’t think I believed in Jesus anymore, on the way home from a headscarf sale and kabbalah lesson we’d just attended. I told her anyway. “Whatever can be sifted, will be sifted,” she said mysteriously. I later found out she didn’t really believe in him either anymore. We’re still best friends and soul sisters.
I started an Orthodox conversion program in Dallas in 2009, with Rabbi Yogi Robkin, and finished it in Baltimore in 2011 with Rabbi Menachem Goldberger.
I’m leaving out so much! I’m leaving out my first son’s birth and bris when we still weren’t Jewish! I’m leaving out my first taste of gefilte fish and how my non-Jewish self hated selzer but my Jewish self loves it! I’m leaving out our mikvah (ritual bath for conversion) experience, and our beautiful Jewish wedding!
One day, I’ll maybe go into details of all that. This story is way too long already, but I want to add a fifth woman’s table – my mother, a righteous Gentile, a praying woman, a woman where all my faith comes from. I just got back to Baltimore from celebrating Thanksgiving with her days before the 7-year anniversary of my conversion. To keep the meal kosher we ate on paper plates (which if you know my mother is almost as sacrilegious as not believing in Jesus!), and she spent $45 on a kosher turkey when you can get a non-kosher one for $4. My mom’s table deserves a blessing and great honor, because SHE started all this by investing in me and giving me a love for God and the Bible. She also shows me the power of self-sacrificing love, love that bridges and unifies world religions, the love of a mother, the love of God.
Moral of the story — never underestimate the power of a woman’s table!!