Jesus for Jews — A Love Story

by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein on April 15, 2014

jesusI got my first period when I was thirteen years old — on the morning of my Bat Mitzvah. I was feeling chosen.  There was no time to spare. My older sister Nina taught me how to insert a tampon, and off I went to get my hair braided at a salon located in a strip mall before heading straight to the synagogue. It was January 1988. Skokie, Illinois. I wore a wool floral print dress suit and just minutes before reading from the Torah, I ripped that awful braid out, wearing my hair loose and wild at the altar of god.

There was nothing my horrified parents could do. They were fighting back then —  you know, it was the eighties. At the end of reading my Torah portion, Rabbi Berkson turned to me, laid his hands on my shoulders, leaned in and whispered, I know you’re angry. Try to forgive us. No one is perfect. I probably sneered or shrugged. I was in a mood.

The following day, my parents threw a big family party for me on Arcadia Street. Snowflakes dropped steadily as all my relatives came to smear their messy kisses on both cheeks, examine my growing body, and shove envelopes stuffed with eighteen dollars inside — 18 — hai — life. I collected these envelopes with the growing dread that each represented thank you cards I’d never write.  All I wanted to do was go upstairs, lock myself in my bedroom, and cry. I was obliged to smile, kvel, and eat.

My parents had hired a videographer to film the party. It was a “thing” back then. Everyone could leave a personal message. There was Uncle Blackie with his black toupee telling me I was the most wonderful kid in the world. Uncle Ray and Aunt Elaine congratulating me for such a beautiful reading. Mom in the kitchen carefully placing her mondel bread in pastel pastry cups. Dad with his banjo button-down shirt. Aunt Edna in her fabulous studded jump suit and bling earrings calling me over to her corner of the sofa for a private pep talk. Oy.

And then Cousin Terry, with her long lashes and freshly brushed feathery hair, long purple pants and a pink top to match, came into view in the video camera. She looked into the camera with her wide, trusting eyes and spoke directly to me with a sincere, high pitched voice. Mandy, she said, I am so proud of you. And Jesus loves you. He really, really does, Mandy. Jesus loves you so, so much and he’s so proud of you. I remember later rewinding the video a couple of times just to make sure I was hearing her right.

Jesus? I was confused. I thought we didn’t believe in Jesus. I mean, I know we learned about Jesus as a good Jew, but not much more than that. I asked my mother why Terry had mentioned Jesus in my Bat Mitzvah video to which my mother rolled her eyes and replied simply, Oh, never mind. Cousin Terry is a Jew for Jesus.

A Jew for Jesus? What’s that! I pestered my dad, who’d once told me his own mother was fond of Mary Baker Eddy of the Christian Science Movement. Jews for Jesus believe Jesus died for our sins and is actually the Messiah. The basis consensus was that Jesus was a beautiful man but he’s not god and we don’t believe that Jesus died for us and we don’t believe he ever rose again. End of story.

I didn’t think much about Jesus again, until I was cast as a reverend in a high school musical — Cotton Patch Gospel — a play about Jesus! For some reason, our theater director Jerry Profit decided to stage this “leg-slappin’, toe- tappin’, hand clappin’ hoe-down of a story that retells the Gospels of Matthew and John – translated into present day Southern vernacular,” with an an amazing musical score by Harry Chapin. There we were, in suburban Skokie, attending Niles North High School with a significant Jewish population, and many of us proud-and-out theater nerds, auditioning for this Jesus play!

Skokie — where Holocaust survivors migrated in the 1950’s and shuffled down grocery aisles with tattooed numbers on their arms. Skokie — where the KKK threatened to hold a rally downtown in 1977, when I was barely two years old. Skokie — home to many a dark, dimly-lit synagogue full of sorrow and tsuris. Skokie — with living room cabinets filled with menorahs, matzoh, memories and Manishevitz. Skokie — guilt and gefilte fish anthems.

Nearly the entire cast of this 1992 rendition of Cotton Patch Gospel was Jewish and I am telling you — we killed it! I don’t remember a more jubilant and joyful theater production with more chutzpah or love for one another as cast members. We felt the fire of this story, embodied it, sang these folk songs with gut and passion, memorized our lines and their meanings as true followers, as if the gospels had touched us to the core.

We were so amazingly committed that our show was selected for the Illinois State Theater Festival at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. This cast of Jews got on a bus and headed down south as if we were spreading the gospels all over again, singing and re-singing the folk songs we’d memorized and obsessed over for months in the fall, as the leaves were dying and winter settled in.

Everybody Say Hoowee, Jubilation! Something’s Brewin’ in Gainsville, Wonder What It Could Be! Love the Lord Your God, With All Your Heart, Soul and Mind! When I Look Out, What Should I See? 

We performed this play in a huge auditorium for an audience of over 1,000 theater kids from all over the state, and I still remember my role as the reverend. I wore a shiny blue robe and raised my arms up in Jesus’s name praising him! The stage lights shone down on my eyes, blinding me from the black ocean of faces out in the audience. It was me and this light, my lines, these songs, this cast, this love, for acting, for a chance to get out of Skokie for the weekend, for liberation from my daily obsessions with zits and boys, for a moment of revelry and exaltation. I was a believer.

That weekend, I learned how to play the “mirror” theater game for the first time in a massive acting workshop led likely by a young college student who at the time seemed like a wise old sage wearing a black turtleneck and a beret. We were paired with strangers our own age and had to face them — mirror their body movements without ever touching, making eye contact while tracing their bodies in space, as they traced ours in space too. I remember the over-heated, florescent-lit lobby where we did this exercise together, there must have been sixty of us, a kind of 60’s revival of groovy, teenaged faith in each other. We yearned to connect, desired freedom from our bodies, had obsessive crushes on James Taylor and Cat Stevens. We were already plotting how to get to that summer’s Grateful Dead show in Soldier’s Field.

Many of us were still virgins whose only transgressions were smoking weed in the hotel room one night, and blaming Dina when paranoia set in and Marla was acting funny and Nicole was already out on the dismal town with theater boys she’d met at another workshop on theatrical liberation. This was our introduction to a kind of liberation theology. We were a kind of Jews for Jesus, singing the gospels, and even the few Israelis in our cast, two beautiful sabras who could have been models, had no problem humming these Jesus lullabies as we blasted through the rural dark on a bus back to suburban Skokie that late Sunday night.

Now that we shone a little brighter with Jesus’s light, me and my three Jewish best friends at the time, Jamie, Nicole, and Marla and I became obsessed with yet another musical about Jesus — Jesus Christ Superstar —  the bad ass rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. After Cotton Patch Gospel, we felt part of a knowing tribe of people who got down with Jesus musicals. Listening over and over again to this record album clutched passionately on Jamie’s bedroom floor would redeem us.

I highly recommend listening to Jesus Christ Superstar in one sitting. Do nothing — it will come for you.

This album was full of rage and significance  — drilling a dark hole straight to the gut of urgency and tenderness. Jesus Christ Superstar is loosely based on the gospels’ accounts of the last week of Jesus’s life, “beginning with the preparation for the arrival of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem and ending with his traumatic crucifixion.” This “passion play” digs at the political and spiritual struggles between Jesus and Judas, who panics when he sees Jesus glistening with god glow. Listen Jesus! I don’t like what I see, all I ask is that you listen to me! No talk of god then — we called you a man. Cries Judas. In a way, Jesus’ story was a parable on belonging, every teenager could relate.

My young heart stirred when I listened to Mary Magdalene soothing Jesus with her sweet song Everything’s Alright. Jesus starts to freak out about all the rumors and badgering of his doubtful followers and Mary, depicted as Jesus’s sultry lover, relaxes him with oils and sings him this most tender song.

 Try not to get worried / Try not to turn onto /Problems that upset you

Don’t you know/ Everything’s alright, yea / Everything’s fine

And we want you to sleep well tonight. / Let the world spin without you tonight. 

Close your eyes, Close your eyes / And forget all about us tonight. 

The song tussles between Mary and Jesus, with Jesus answering Mary that all will be sorry when he’s gone. Jesus is really having a low moment and Mary’s honey voice and warm hands was my first glimpse into the intimacies of pillow talk between lovers. Jesus exists in this song somewhere between god and man, with Mary’s seductive presence simply being an expression of exalted love and heat generated by the tension of the political hour.

What more could a hormonal teenager want out of a Jesus musical? I listened to this song over and over again, a phantasm of religious fantasy in a threesome between me, Mary and Jesus. I could be a lover singing this with them. I could love myself loving love.

When Mary doubts her ability to love moody, complicated Jesus, it was as if I, too was singing, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, one of the most heart-wrenching love songs of the entire musical, when Mary tenderly confesses her unrequited love for a man she feels is slipping from her grasp. Jamie and I would play this song on the record player and outright wish we would one day have a kind of painful love like this in our near futures.

We were sixteen and seventeen years old then lying on the carpet in her bedroom in the split-level house on Enfield Avenue, so lovingly and safely provided by her parents, Max and Mike. We wanted to wail with a love that would beg the question, what’s it all about? Embroiled in our own impending love trials, tribulations, betrayals, late-night experiments, dazed afternoons in the waterbeds of boys who loved their fishtanks more than us, we understood this album on a deep level. Yet, all we wanted to do then was jump up and shake our asses to the groovy What’s the Buzz, Tell me What’s a Happening? This is when things were really coming to a head, and we were taking notes. Judas points an accusing finger at Mary, calling her a prostitute, and Jesus defends her, blaming Judas and his followers for being “shallow and thick.”

When do we arrive in Jerusalem, When do we arrive in Jerusalem? They shouted.

We chanted these feverish lyrics like a prayer soaked in patchouli until I finally did make it to Israel on one of those Zionist programs designed to encourage young Jewish Americans to make “aliyah” — to ascend and stake my claim in the promised land. What can I say? It was all-expenses paid, and Nina had already paved the way, having been there the year before. I arrived in Jerusalem when I was seventeen and in the haze of coming of age, I kissed French boys, talked with Yugoslavian refugees, got lost in the Arab Quarter drinking tea with carpet salesmen, wandered the old city wearing black embroidered Bedouin dresses, hoarded silver rings, pierced a third hole in my ear, tied my hair with embroidery floss, doused myself in oils and cigarette smoke, and traveled to Egypt  overland on a bus during Passover break with my mother, ironically entering the very desert of the great Exodus.

Jerusalem: I was stuffing my face with french-fry filled falafel sandwiches on Ben Yehuda Street, crushing on German street painters with green eyes and golden curls, wailing at the Wailing Wall of the Second Temple, freaky-dancing with tall Jordanians and Brits at the Underground, listening to people fuck doggy-style on the rooftop where I slept in a stray sleeping bag, and writing nightly in my journal about my growing, abiding love for my depressed junior-high crush back in Skokie who was prone to wearing black top-hats and playing with fire.

That semester, I also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus himself was said to have been crucified and resurrected. There I was, totally unaware of its significance, clueless to the sacrifice others had made to arrive at this holy, contested place, to touch the dream of Jesus Christ.

As Easter quickly approaches, I am thinking how amazing it would be if Jesus truly could rise again and sing us a tender, deploring song. I’d learn the chorus and belt it out along side others like me, who want to believe again and again in a bigger, deeper love — the kind that dies and revives and walks on water and heals the welts and wounds of the world.

Elsie Eyakuze April 18, 2014 at 4:50 am

Beautifully written. Thank you.

June KAne April 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Wonderful and brilliantly written!

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