Searching for my roots, I found the Messiah
Could you get me an Old Testament, please?”
“I will do my best,” the Anglican priest said. “But Old Testaments don’t come by themselves. They’re bound with the New Testament.”
I didn’t want to even touch the New Testament. That’s the book of the Christians—the tormentors of Jews throughout history. Jews like me!
A few weeks earlier, someone had given me Merlin Neff’s Faith of Our Fathers. Since I was bored and had little to do, I started reading the book. Soon my curiosity was kindled. For the first time, I found a Christian book that spoke about Jews with respect. In fact, the author said some good things about Jews. No mention of Christ-killers. No curse hanging upon the Jews. The author only pointed out how much Christianity owes to the Jews, to the Old Testament.
Neff’s book created in me an intense desire to know my own roots in the Old Testament—to discover for myself what the faith of my ancestors was all about. I eagerly awaited the Anglican priest’s fulfilment of his promise.
A reason to hate
Having born a Jew, I had plenty of reasons to hate Christians. Often I wished I could set fire to a church or two as a payback for all the abominable things Christians had done to the Jews ever since A.D. 70, when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish group I belong to escaped to the Iberian Peninsula. Things did not go badly for us except when the Christians came to power. With them came relentless harassment and persecution.
The year 1492 saw a new wave of persecution. The Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from their homes after they were robbed of their money and property. No “Christian” country would receive them. The only place that welcomed them was the Ottoman Empire. Those who fled to Turkey prospered and grew.
When the 20th century dawned, many Spanish (Sephardic) Jews like our family began to migrate to different parts of the world. Some went to the Americas, while others went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). My parents moved to the Island of Rhodes, just off the coast of Turkey, which at that time belonged to Italy.
I was born in Rhodes. My formal education began at a Hebrew school. I loved going to the synagogue. Sabbath was the best day of the week for us, and we knew how to celebrate it. Life seemed happy, and we had much to look forward to. But then came the distant thunder, bringing in the worst ever for a Jew. Hitler came to power, and the Holocaust raised its ugly head. Even the ghetto could not keep us away from evil’s hands, and our family had to flee Rhodes.
Overnight we became stateless. Where could we go? Who would take us in? Fortunately, we had some relatives in the Belgian Congo. My father left first, bribing his way out. As soon as he established himself, he wanted us to join him. It was no easy task to get travel documents for my mother and five children. With Buchenwald and Beergen-Belsen staring at us, bribery was once again our way out. It’s amazing how human greed can open doors as quickly as it can shut them. We left Rhodes to join my father.
Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) in the Belgian Congo became our home for almost two years. We moved again to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). There I learned English.
One year before the war was over, I completed grade nine. For further education, I had to go to a boarding school in South Africa. The limited family finances ruled out this option. So I took up an apprenticeship on the Zambian Copperbelt in another town. I missed my home a lot, and I would hitchhike the 35 miles to home every weekend. On one such joyous trip, I hitchhiked with the Anglican priest.
Finding my roots
Well, the Anglican priest kept his promise—partially. Since he could not find an Old Testament, he gave me a complete Bible. “Never mind,” I said to myself, “I can keep to the Old Testament. I won’t even peep into the New. It’s full of lies.”
There began my journey back to my roots. Genesis was fascinating reading. Although we revered the Torah, we never read it at home. In Zambia, we were no longer observing the Sabbath. Sometimes we went to the synagogue on Friday nights to open the Sabbath, and we observed the High Festivals, but it was not the same as in Rhodes. There we had a close-knit community, and religion bonded us closely.
Now, alone in my room, away from home, I spent a lot of time with my newfound treasure. The story of Creation, the origin of Sabbath, the meaning of the covenant—all took on a freshness. The patriarchs and the prophets, the psalms and the proverbs, the heroes and the villains of the Old Testament were all leaping before me. One common thread seemed to run through the entire Old Testament: the hope of the Messiah. In that hope I found my roots. My soul’s hunger found its nourishment.
Then, one day, an ad in the local paper caught my attention: a free Bible study course from the Voice of Prophecy. I sent in my name. The lessons captivated my interest. The study on the Sabbath found an immediate response in my heart. After all, a Jew should know that Saturday is the Sabbath of the Lord. But I found one point in the lessons difficult to accept: the bold assertion that Jesus was the Messiah. How could that be? Isn’t He the one in whose name millions of Jews had been massacred? Wasn’t the church in the forefront of persecuting the Jews? What about the Christian clergy who encouraged Jews to be hunted and persecuted like wild animals throughout “Christian” Europe? This Jesus cannot be the Messiah!
The spiritual struggle continued for many months. I carefully studied the prophecies, particularly those of Daniel and Isaiah. Slowly my resistance crumbled, and I accepted Jesus as my Messiah.
Living my faith
I had to break the news to my parents. I wrote them of my conviction that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. I told them that I had become a fulfilled Jew and not a Gentile. I tried to make things as easy as possible.
My dad wasted no time. He showed up at my apartment. He had already arranged with my employers to give me some leave, telling them that my mother was seriously ill and that she wanted to see me. I was really concerned. As we traveled home, my father hardly spoke to me. When we reached home, I discovered that my mother was at the movies. As soon as she returned, she screamed, yelled, and threatened. She demanded to kow how I could be a traitor to my family and people. The tirade went on for a long time. I let her do all the shouting while I held my head in my hands. I was at peace, and her screams—although painful—did not move me.
Gradually she calmed down. First came the promises. I could return home, and my dad would find me employment locally. Then came the threats. If I did not give up my foolish ideas, I would be disinherited. They would conduct a funeral service for me, with a real coffin and regular burial rituals.
It was late when I went to bed that night. The next morning I was required to visit all the prominent Jews in the community in the hope that they would be able to persuade me to change my mind. I was glad when this inquisition was over. Realizing that I would not change my mind, my mother and father made one final attempt. As long as I believed in Jesus as the Messiah, I need not come home again to visit. I would no longer be their son. This hurt me very much, especially as my dad and I were good friends.
I returned to my apartment. I spoke to my employer about my newfound faith. I wanted Sabbaths off. “My dear fellow,” he replied, “I am a Christian, and I have to work on Sundays. I am very sorry. I can’t let you have Saturdays off.”
“In that case, sir,” I answered, “I have no choice but to resign.”
“Don’t be a fool, young man,” my manager admonished in genuine concern. “Do you know that you’re throwing away a wonderful career? In a few years you’ll be an electrical engineer. You will be a rich man. Don’t be so hasty and stupid!”
“Sorry, sir,” I replied, “but I must obey my conscience. If I can’t do that, then I must resign.”
I did resign. Soon I found myself unable to get a job with Sabbaths off. Gradually my savings ran out. I hardly had enough to eat. My landlord threatened to evict me if I didn’t come up with the rent. I begged him to let me stay a few days. Just when I was coming to the end of my tether, a registered letter arrived. It contained some money—enough to care for my immediate needs! Someone had felt impressed to come to my rescue.
Soon I joined the literature ministry, even though I was shy and stuttered badly. And the Lord did show me a way—out of the ghettos of Rhodes, from the claws of history’s worst tyranny, from the copper belts of Africa, to be a teacher in church schools. From the discovery of my roots to the achievement of joy, my life has been one of finding life’s true meaning in God’s Word.
What’s more, I was not alone in this process. Years after my own discovery, my father moved to Houston, Texas, where in 1998 he met some Hispanic Christians. My dad loved to speak the Spanish he learned in his younger days. His new friends told him about Jesus the Messiah, and before he died at the age of 90, he became a believer.
Alf Nahman has taught for 30 years in church schools and public schools. Now he resides in South Africa, where he does free-lance writing, especially for children. His e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org