I held the gold key with its thick maroon tassel between my hands. It was my twenty-first birthday and the key was a gift my parents purchased in Spain. A memento from the old city of Grenada, once home to hundreds of Jews until an edict was signed into law by the Catholic kings. The edict demanded that all practicing Jews leave the Spanish territories within four months. Along with the key was a tiny piece of paper retelling the history of a fateful night, March 31, 1492. Mourning Jews left Spain with the keys from their homes in Grenada in their pockets and passed them down from generation to generation in hopes their descendants would one day return to what had been left behind.
The key I held in my hand was a replica, but it was a thoughtful gift. As a child, I longed to visit the Middle East. I had an atlas I read over and over again. It was just a collection of maps, but it represented passage to a land I knew nothing about, a Jewish land of silent deserts and walls that saw generations come and ago. My parents knew this and my pull toward everything Jewish, including the Jewish rabbi named Jesus, whom I already followed like a disciple and had since the age of seventeen. That was how I understood him, as a Jewish rabbi with copper skin, dark hair, a thick beard, and dark eyes.
My heritage was not an interest of mine until I held that key in my hands. A week after my twenty-first birthday, I questioned my paternal grandfather on our heritage. White South Africans typically carry the ancestral blood of Germans, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Italians, and British people, to name but a few. Because our lineages are intricate and hard to trace, I assumed my grandparents did not know our family lineage. But my grandfather emerged with a Hebrew book and a secret his family had kept hidden not only from his grandchildren but also from his children. “We are Jewish.”
Nothing followed his revelation except questions, ones I did not ask out loud. I later learned about the hidden Jews; men and women scattered around the globe who fought to keep their heritage a secret. Being Jewish had meant death and discrimination for so many, and some would rather alienate themselves from a title that almost inevitably meant persecution and hatred.
While my grandfather seemed content to remain outside a Jewish identity, I embraced this identity I knew little about but led me to the door of our local Orthodox synagogue.
I stood in the doorway one Friday evening, listening to the chorus of worshipers inside, and stared at the box on the door. I had read about the mezuzah, but I stood before it like a Catholic unsure what to do with the holy water. I walked in and was greeted by women in skirts seated in the women’s section of the synagogue. This synagogue was in a converted house, with separate sections for men and women. The pulpit stood in the men’s section, along with the ark, the holy cupboard that housed the large Torah scrolls read from on Sabbaths and holy days.
I don’t remember much about that first encounter with Judaism, but I remember the meal afterward. Those without family and nowhere to go were invited to stay behind and eat with the rabbi’s family. Nervously, I sat down at the table. I didn’t know how to wash my hands or that I should keep quiet when the bread was being cut. In a matter of minutes, I was helped to a growing plate of food and watching casual conversation and belly laughs move around the table. The young girls who had come to serve at the synagogue as interns were soon talking to me. They would become friends, close friends who shared hopes and dreams together. I was accepted and loved by a community of people simply because I was one of them. I had never experienced that before. A sense of belonging made me ache when I wasn’t at the synagogue or with the people I had grown a part of.
I loved Friday nights and Sabbath mornings when I would fill a chair in the synagogue. I also loved handing out the wine on Friday evenings as we said the Hebrew prayers. I learned Hebrew and became proficient at the Hebrew prayers others would fumble through. The rabbi’s wife and I connected since we were close in age and I was at their house often. Before I blinked, two years had passed and I was deeply immersed in being Jewish. I helped newcomers with their prayer books and eventually led the children’s services. The blessing of having children is highlighted and taught within Judaism, which is why religious Jews have so many. I met families who struggled to have children, but because of their belief in the blessing of having children, they readily adopted children who weren’t Jewish. The basic belief in the words of Deuteronomy 6:4–9 lead the Jewish lifestyle. Within this passage is the command and encouragement to teach children about God. The fact that these Jewish people trusted me, a newcomer who was still learning, to teach their children meant a great deal.
When my rabbi’s wife gave birth to a little boy one hot summer, I was glad at the opportunity to be present at his circumcision ceremony. The circumcision or bris, characterizes Judaism, and I gathered with sixty others to witness this eight-day-old boy receiving his first mark of what it means to be Jewish. The weight of an ancient biblical practice was being lived out right in front of my tearful eyes. On that day, I inhaled and felt renewed. God had called me back to the identity my ancestors had given up, a commitment they had traded for safety from persecution and sorrow. Yet I understood their reasoning and pain.
It’s now an identity that is at home within me, even if I am the only one in my family to embrace it. What I cannot deny is how the years I was immersed in Judaism framed my faith. I no longer attend an Orthodox synagogue; my faith in Jesus as the Messiah is against the lifestyle of Jewish Orthodoxy. Yet the key my parents handed me I now understand to have been an invitation to taste what my forefathers had left behind. I believe my ancestors were deeply immersed in Judaism in Europe. Life revolved around the Torah, the Sabbath, marriage, and family. A lifestyle of holiness devoted to God’s Word was something I never understood until I saw the reverence for it in the synagogue. I never grasped how sacred Sabbath is or how focused I should be in prayer until I saw devotion in the synagogue.
More importantly, however, I connected with my grandfather’s people, with my people, and went home to what they had left behind, to a people joined by a bloodline, not a religion. To a people characterized by their commitment to God and one another, to a global family I can now call my own.