Girl Meets God
On the Path to a Spiritual Life
Back when Mississippi was dry, Ole Miss students and any other Oxford residents who wanted a drink would drive to Memphis, just across the state line, stock up on beer and whiskey, and haul it back in the trunks of their cars. Memphis was also where you went if you needed fancier clothes than you could find at Neilson's department store, or if you just started feeling itchy and trapped in the small hot downtown and wanted to go out dancing. You didn't need to leave Oxford to find a cherry Coke, which you could share with two straws at the Gathright-Reed drugstore, and you didn't need to leave Oxford to go to church. There are plenty of churches in Oxford: Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopal, all kinds.
Before I arrived this week for a Southern history conference, I'd been to Oxford and Memphis exactly once each, on separate trips. I was a bridesmaid at my friend Tova's wedding in Memphis, at the Peabody, the famous hotel where ducks swim in an indoor fountain and where they say the Delta starts.
I don't remember Oxford nearly as well-it had been the stop in between Nashville and Hattiesburg on a rather frantic research trip for my master's thesis, a blur of archives and oral history interviews. I hadn't gotten to do any traditional Oxford activities, like go to a tailgating party before a football game or recite an ode to Faulkner.
My trip to Oxford this time might not be any more relaxed. I'm here giving a paper at a conference on the Civil Rights movement, and my schedule will be full just sitting in the auditorium and listening to historians talk. But the conference ends on Friday and I'm staying over till Sunday morning so my plan is to try to do one traditional Oxford thing on Saturday. It hasn't occurred to me that I'll spend Saturday doing the most traditional Oxford thing there is, which is going to Memphis.
The conference, all in all, is stressful. Stressful because I feel very much the youthful, inept doctoral candidate reading a paper in front of all these famous historians, including my thesis advisor and other people whose books line my shelves. Stressful because my dress is ever-so-slightly too tight, and I'd managed to leave New York without a single pair of stockings. And stressful because one of the other people speaking at this conference is my erstwhile beau. This conference is small, only a dozen or so people participating; I'll never be able to avoid him.
His name is Steven; like me, he's a history grad student. We tried a transatlantic relationship, Steven in Arkansas (where he's getting his doctorate), me in England (where I was finishing my master's degree). But I freaked out for reasons I still don't entirely understand and broke up with him in May. I last saw him six weeks ago, early August, one very tense afternoon in Virginia. He was there working with papers at Alderman Library, and he stopped by my mother's house the day I was packing to move to New York. I was tired and distracted and we argued and he said I yelled at him the way you yell at someone you love and I denied it and he left. Later, my friend Hannah looked at me pointedly (it was over the phone, but I could feel her looking pointed) and said, "That was very unwise. You shouldn't have agreed to meet with him." "Well," I said. That was all I said. I couldn't think of anything else to say.
Two months later, I call Hannah from the airport, this time on my way to Mississippi. "Have a good conference," she says, "call us when you get there." Then she adds, "Don't let Steven get you alone like you did in Virginia."
Steven ignores me at first, won't even make eye contact or say hello, but the second night of the conference we all attend a reception at the Episcopal church, and he's half drunk on red wine by the time I get there. It's the only time I've ever seen him even approximate drunkenness. He had this delinquent youth in Boston, smoked pot every day from the age of twelve, passed out on the pavement from angel dust, crashed his mother's car after downing too much bourbon, and shoplifted antiques and canned goods. Once, a friend of his had been entrusted with several hundred dollars, to buy provisions for a church youth group trip. He and Steven spent all the money on drugs and then stole $400 worth of groceries: hams, gallons of milk, bags of apples. The chronology has always been a little fuzzy-I'm not sure when exactly he stopped breaking the law, but I think during college. And since then Steve's walked the straight and narrow, the extremely straight and narrow. Doesn't smoke. Doesn't chase skirts. Doesn't drink much. Swims every day. Eats wheat germ in his oatmeal at breakfast.
But there he is, standing on the patio of St. Peter's Episcopal, putting away red wine and getting slightly glassy-eyed, which I know only because he decides finally to make eye contact with me. The eyes are enough of an invitation. I walk over to him and we talk about this and that, how smart his paper had been, whether he plans to ignore me for the rest of our professional lives. When everyone else goes inside for dinner, we stay outside and talk, and finally we duck out of the back of the church and find a restaurant, where I drink a gimlet and eat the best chicken I've had in months. Then we go to Faulkner's grave, an exciting and authentic Oxford activity, and Steven, who knows these things, says that when you visit Faulkner's grave you have to drink bourbon in his honor. So we find a little liquor store, and buy a tiny bottle of Maker's Mark, like the kind they give you on airplanes, and go and sit by his tombstone, and I shiver slightly in the September air, thinking about how Willie Morris had died over the summer, and how my friend Pete, who was in Jackson then, had drunk a bottle of George Dickel in Willie Morris's honor and then gone to Choctaw Books and bought The Courting of Marcus Dupree. I think about how Faulkner is buried here right next to his wife, even though they had the most miserable marriage. And I think about how much Steven loves me, and I try to remember why I had broken up with him in the first place. This may have been precisely what Hannah was worried about.
"What are you doing on Saturday?" I ask. I vaguely recall that months before, Steve had said he might go to Hattiesburg to do research, and if that is still his plan, I might tag along. I could always use another day in the Hattiesburg archives, and it would be better than sitting around in Oxford car-less and alone, especially now that I've already done the Faulkner thing. "I'm planning on going to Memphis," he says.
"Oh yeah, what for?"
"There's this church there that I went to when I was up in Memphis in August. I thought I'd go back."
"But Steve, tomorrow is Saturday. One goes to church on Sunday."
He clears his throat and coughs. "This is a Messianic Jewish church. Synagogue. They meet on Saturdays, you know."
I do know. I am a Jew, after all. I've devoted more Saturdays than I could count to worshipping in synagogues of one stripe or another. That wedding in Memphis had been full of Orthodox Jews, kosher-keeping, Sabbath-resting Orthodox Jews in modest clothes singing Hebrew songs and dancing whirling, ecstatic, sex-segregated dances; the wedding was on a Sunday, and I spent the morning before chanting familiar prayers in the women's section of Memphis's Orthodox shul.
That was before I gave in to Jesus, admitted I'd been fighting with him all these years the way you fight with someone you love, prayed the Sinner's Prayer and got baptized. I knew all about Jewish services on Saturdays. It is one of the things you know when you are part of the olive tree onto which all the other Christians have been grafted.
Evangelical friends of mine are always trying to trim the corners and smooth the rough edges of what they call My Witness in order to shove it into a tidy, born-again conversion narrative. They want an exact date, even an hour, and I never know what to tell them. The datable conversion story has a venerable history. Paul, the most famous Jew to embrace Jesus, established the prototype of the dramatic, datable rebirth. He was walking on the road to Damascus, Luke tells us, off to persecute the zealous disciples of the newly dead carpenter when Jesus appeared to him, and Paul became his follower instead of his foe. Centuries later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was atttending a meeting in Aldersgate Street; listening to Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, his heart was "strangely warmed." At that instant, Wesley later wrote in his journal, he felt that he "did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Less notable personages have dramatic conversion stories, too. My high school physics teacher sat in her kitchen reading the Gospel of Mark one day when, in an instant, she knew that Jesus was God and had died for her sins. My friend Tim dedicated his life to Christ when he was four at a mission's conference at Bibletown, in Boca Raton, Florida. He had seen a puppet show about Jesus knocking on your heart. So he opened it and asked Him to come in.
My story doesn't fit very well with this conversion archetype. A literature scholar would say there are too many "ruptures" in the "narrative." But she might also say that ruptures are the most interesting part of any text, that in the ruptures we learn something new.
I had no epiphanic on-the-road-to-Damascus experience. I can't tell my friends that I became a Christian January 8, 1993, or on my twentieth birthday. What I can tell them is that I grew up Jewish. I can tell them about the time I dreamed of Jesus rescuing me from a kidnapping; I can tell them I woke up certain, as certain as I have ever been about anything, that the dream was from God and the dream was about Jesus, about how He was real and true and sure. I can tell them about reading At Home in Mitford, a charming if somewhat saccharine novel about an Episcopal priest in North Carolina, a novel that left me wanting something Christians seemed to have. I can tell them about my baptism.
A few years after the dream and a year before the baptism, I sat, drinking cider that scalded my tongue, with a Presbyterian minister I had known since my first week as an undergraduate at Columbia. "Pastor Mike," I said, "I think I am beginning to believe in Jesus."
Pastor Mike sipped his cider in silence. Finally he said, "You know, Lauren, you can't just divorce Judaism."
I felt like I'd been socked in the stomach. Pastor Mike urged me to talk to the campus rabbi, and then he said, "I had no idea when you told me you wanted to get together that you wanted to talk about Christianity. I thought maybe you were going to come out to me as a lesbian." Which, on a campus obsessed with identity politics, might have been more congenial than a Jewish student prattling on about Jesus.
Some weeks later, I walked into the bookstore at Union Theological Seminary and bought a Book of Common Prayer, which felt like the boldest, most daring-do thing I'd ever done. The next day I gave away all my Jewish prayer books. I left them anonymously on the steps of a nearby shul, the way an unmarried mother might have left her baby on the steps of an orphanage in some earlier era.
I haven't spoken to Pastor Mike since that morning. It's been three years. I tried to write him a letter once or twice, to say, You knocked the wind out of me with that divorce line you cavalierly tossed out over your crumb cake. But the letter didn't gel. I got through, Dear Pastor Mike, Remember last time we spoke, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and that was as far as I got.
Pastor Mike's metaphor, I learned, was useful: trading my Hebrew prayer book for an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer felt exactly like filing for divorce. That was the only word I could come up with. The more Christian I became, the more I needed to have nothing to do with Judaism. Every new Christian habit, purchase, or prayer was accompanied by the unlearning of a Jewish habit, the cessation of a Jewish prayer. I donated my Havdalah set and one of my tallisim to a synagogue. I gorged on lobster and got drunk on the driest, most expensive bottles of Amarone I could find. I sold crates of sixteenth-century Jewish poetry and Hebrew commentaries on the Torah to a bookstore in Chapel Hill. I got an email from my friend Leah, then a Jewish Studies major at Duke. "I was just at a used bookstore on Franklin Street, and I picked up a Mikraot G'dolot for incredibly cheap. 'Lauren Winner' was scribbled in the cover-that wouldn't be you, by any chance?" She didn't ask why I was selling off my library.
The only Jewish habit I couldn't set aside was baking challah, which I kept up every Friday, two misshapen braided loaves, made with whole wheat flour, the recipe my friend Simone taught me. We had spent a long afternoon a few weeks before my Bat Mitzvah baking challah in her kitchen. That challah got me into college: my entrance essay was about baking bread as a feminist experience, about women passing down secrets from one generation to the next, in the kitchen. Pretty sophisticated, I thought, when I wrote it at fifteen. Six cups of flour, four beaten eggs, a packet of yeast dissolved in a dish of warm water, a dollop of honey, some butter, poppy seeds for the top if you want them, or raisins for the inside at Rosh Hashanah, to remind you that the New Year is sweet. Mix it all together, save for some of the egg to glaze with later. Knead it and let it rise in a warm place in a well-oiled bowl and punch it down after it doubles in size. Divide the dough into snakes and braid. The braid will always look better raw, more precise and perfect than after the bread bakes.
Divorce doesn't come easy. I am as bound to Judaism as my parents are to one another. They're not married anymore, but they have daughters, so they still see each other sometimes, at weddings and college graduations, and sometimes they talk on the phone, about going in together on an expensive birthday present for me or my sister. I gave away all my Jewish books and let go of all my Jewish ways, but I realized, as I spent time with other Christians, that Judaism shaped how I saw Christianity. It shaped the way I read the Bible, the way I thought about Jesus, the way I understood what He meant when He talked about the yoke of the law. I found my heart sometimes singing Jewish songs. I thought I had given away all my Jewish things, but I found that I hadn't. I'd just given away some books and mezuzot and candlesticks. I hadn't given up the shape in which I saw the world, or the words I knew for God, and those shapes and words were mostly Jewish.
Shortly after buying that Book of Common Prayer, I moved to England, to study for a master's degree in history at Clare College, Cambridge. Cambridge is where I was baptized and confirmed, where I first received communion, where I learned Christian liturgy and hymnody. Cambridge is where I learned to say simple phrases like "I'm a Christian" and "I'm off to church."
When, two years later, I moved back to New York to begin doctoral work, I had to learn something else: how to be a Christian in a neighborhood where everyone knew me as an Orthodox Jew. I didn't know how to tell Jewish friends that I had become a Christian, didn't know how to explain to old professors why I now could attend classes during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, didn't even know what to say to my accommodating Catholic acquaintance who, delighted that I was back in New York, had made dinner reservations for us at a kosher dairy restaurant on the East Side.
Just after Labor Day, barely three weeks after I'd moved back to New York, I traveled to Baltimore to meet with a couple, Jews turned Episcopalians. We sat rather awkwardly in the kitchen of their refurbished Victorian, drinking coffee and making small talk. They were not sure why I had come, and I could not explain. Finally I blurted out, "I tuck my cross underneath my blouse every time I see someone in a yarmulke. On Friday night, I actually ducked behind a fruit cart because I saw an old friend from college-it was clear she was coming from Shabbat services, and it was equally clear that I was headed to a local Italian restaurant where I would do forbidden things like spend money on Shabbat and eat forbidden food like shrimp scampi and prosciutto."
"Oh," said the wife. "Now I see. You've come to see us because you're trying to figure out how to put your life back together."
On the train back from Baltimore to New York, I made up my mind to do several things: buy a Hebrew siddur; call up my friend Tova, whom I had avoided since joining the church; and visit a Messianic Jewish synagogue.
Messianic Jewish synagogues are the spiritual homes to congregations of Jews who have become Christian, but who retain some Jewish practices. They worship on Saturdays, they sometimes pray in Hebrew, they observe some of the Jewish holidays. Their men wear prayer shawls and yarmulkes. Their women dress modestly and sometimes cover their hair.
I have always hated Messianic Jews. They have always made me want to run screaming in the other direction. This hatred is not a very Christian way to feel, but I feel it anyway. They have always freaked me out, they unnerve me, they give me the willies. I want to shake them and say "Make a choice! Pick a religion!" But on the train back from Baltimore I was pierced by a sudden sympathy. Making this choice is not so simple after all. Relinquishing all your Judaism at the foot of the Cross isn't easy. Maybe the Messianic Jews knew something that I did not know.
So it seemed providential when, sitting there by Faulkner's grave, Steven-who is no more Jewish than Quentin Compson-said he planned to spend Saturday morning at Brit Hadasha, home to Memphis's Messianic Jews.
288 pages; ISBN 9781565127456
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Title: Girl Meets God
Author: Lauren F. Winner