Hear, O Israel: Faith and Religion at Penn

In Spring 2014 by Allison WattenbargerLeave a Comment

- Allison Wattenbarger


“Art and ethnography, representation and exposition, don’t often mix well—it’s why great art always has an aspect of mystery, or why a joke unpacked isn’t funny.” - Menachem Kaiser, “Hasidism in Living Color.” Tablet.


“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and a people; a people who were His people, who awaited a Messiah to crush the serpent’s head. We are these people: and from dust we are and to dust we will return. From dust we are, and to dust we will return.” - Genesis 1-3 and millennia of explanation, exploration, and exegesis.


Last November, as I started writing this piece, Tablet, an online magazine publishing daily on Jewish news, culture, and thought, posted an article on an exhibit at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. Titled “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses Into the Life of Hasidic Jews,” the show displayed photographs, videos, music, and artifacts to explore and illuminate Hasidic culture. Menachem Kaiser, a Brooklyn-based writer who contributes to The Atlantic, Slate, and The Huffington Post, observed American Jewish tourists at the Israel Museum show and mused for Tablet about the nature of Hasidism, observation, and religion itself. Hasidic Jews comprise one of the most Orthodox communities of Jews and operate in a world deeply separated and set apart from most of the cultures around them. The videos and photographs filling the exhibit recorded rituals and ceremonies Kaiser and his fellow museumgoers didn’t know still happened, or didn’t know had ever happened. Their religion appeared on display in forms they had never seen before.

The exhibit was uncomfortably cold and detached sometimes, Kaiser noted, and sometimes deep and beautiful. The study of the Hasidic community took practices founded in belief, objects imbued with religious significance, and visceral ways of being and tried to understand them through anthropological, curatorial, academically detached and culturally respectful language. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes the task was too great. Religion, life, culture: these things are too important and too wild to distill or simplify; sometimes they can only be shown.


My mother, Miriam Ruth, grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, the third of four children. Her adolescence was defined by bikinis, bicycles and brownies, Sunday mornings in Baptist services, hidden Rum and Cokes, and diligent study. Her best friend was Allison: loud, Jewish, and blond-curled. Allison dragged my mother into trouble, brought her home for Shabbat prayers, and talked endlessly about God. There were no Jewish boys in Port Arthur so Allison dated whoever was around, but she had to marry a Jewish boy (and did), and Miriam had to marry a Christian boy (and did).  They talked about it every day.


After class, we ran to the subway, and from the subway to the bus, and from the bus to the office, and from the office to a bus to South Street to a concert, where we chanted, and prostrated ourselves before a rapper who stood with arms outstretched and head raised, grinning to receive our praise.


This is an investigation of the meaning of behavior and belief, of the differentiation between “religion” and of “faith,” by a Messiah-believing Jew who tried to report on – and thus learned how alien she is to – Jewish life at Penn. This is a researched paper, a work of journalism, a fact of life. This is a story.

Un-Amen. Let it not be only so.


I grew up the oldest of four; homeschooled, told seven-day Creationist accounts at friends’ houses (while my mother, a chemical engineer now lecturing at Penn, taught us in secret, at home, about evolution), driven in a minivan full of educational flashcards and Bible songs to libraries and historical sites and the national Republican convention. My friends –the only people I saw outside the grocery store – were all from church. We knew the huge church building downtown inside out, and that was our second home. Life was our home, our church, our playground, and our friends’ homes – whole, contained, safe places that were constantly assailed by posters for PG-13 movies, but stood still in the meantime.

As I aged those elements splintered, as growing up always does to a life. We left our conservative church for a small church plant of left-leaning doctors and academics worshipping in jeans and supporting women’s ordination; I left homeschooling for a liberal private Quaker school; and my friends scattered to public schools and part-time jobs. My parents re-registered as Democrats; my dad started saying “shit;” and I struck all Christian schools off my college list. Worlds shifted and changed dramatically, and I loved it. I read The New Yorker and studied apologetics and theology on the weekends. I began to discover that one could be smart, socially engaged, and still, as they say, devout.

I can’t abandon a belief in God: He makes life far too interesting and complex for me to cease thinking about Him.  I want something to order my life around: I want things to make sense or at least have some guiding principles. I care about the shape of life; I want it to have a direction. I still don’t understand anything at all. I’m so confused about life. But – but.  I can’t rationalize anything about belief, can I?  Just as I can’t rationalize my loves for anyone or anything or anyplace or my moods or – my certainty that this matters.

Stories and art are not just stories or art. Everything we do and create comes out of belief and worship, and so every creation, whether or not it elaborates and exegetes, reflects beliefs and narrative.

* * * *

“You know,” Simcha Katnelson, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, tells me, “you could pass for Jewish, yourself.”

I am Jewish, in the sense that she means. My father’s family is Jewish, and he reminded us of that often when I was young. He was adopted by a non-Jewish family, though, so both he and I grew up with genes as our only connection to our Jewishness.

The Penn Hillel website states that approximately 25%, or 2500, of Penn’s undergraduates are Jewish. I asked students at Hillel, who cite that number frequently, or even round it up to thirty percent, what being Jewish means. “It means you’re Jewish,” they said to me. What is it to be Jewish? I asked.  “You’re Jewish,” they repeated.

I wondered for a long time if I did count. My father’s parents are both Russian Jews, but that’s my dad’s side – traditionally, Judaism is passed down through the mother. And I’m a Christian.

* * * *

In my conversations with Jews and non-Jews alike, people told me again and again that modern Judaism is a religion of, above all else, tradition and shared narrative. The word “God” rarely came up. Sim is the only one to use the word “belief.”

This lack of faith-language baffles students who identify as Christian. As twenty-first century children, we’ve been taught that everyone else is similar to us. We set out to address other religions carefully and respectfully with the same language we prefer people to use towards us, but we find that other religions do not mirror our own at all.

Like me, Benjamin Notkin (CAS 2014) is highly churched. The summer after freshman year, he went on a service trip with Hillel. During one discussion, he referred to Judaism as a “faith.” “No, no, no,” students corrected him, “it’s not a faith.  It’s a religion.”

His and my kind of Christianity wants life to be about a faith in God – faith being a belief in existence, in stories and promises and a “relationship” that’s the least tangible thing imaginable. By appropriating that faith-language, Ben meant to empathize with the Jewish students around him; to dutifully recognize, as we’ve been taught, that we’re all basically the same and only a little bit different. The differences, however, proved larger than they had seemed. While the Jewish students Ben knows recognize a God, a story, and a covenantal relationship, their lives aren’t about faith.  They’re about religion.

* * * *

If it is, as Simcha tells me, difficult and dangerous to enter or depart Israel as a Christian, she should not have kept the cross necklace on and expected a quick trip through security. “It was kind of dumb,” she says, toying with the small pendant. I hadn’t noticed the detail before: it’s a Star of David with a cross inscribed inside. “But I had a scarf on over it anyway, though,” she shrugs, “and it wasn’t even me who held us up.”

Getting out of the country had been hard. Her trip was organized by a group called Chosen People Ministries – not something to say out loud in the airport. One of the girls had slipped up and said something wrong. Four of them were going through security together. Sim finished first and looked back for the others. They waved her on surreptitiously, nodding sideways to tell her their fourth member had been held back. So Sim went on. The other three caught up, but before they boarded the plane the power went out. Sim froze for an instant: “Are they going to kill us?” she wondered. It wouldn’t have surprised her if the power had gone out because of them.

As she works through her Jewish-Christian identity, Sim adopts and twists language. She identifies herself as a “Messiah-believer” rather than as a Christian. Messianic Jews, like Sim, believe the God of the Old Testament exists and that the Jesus of the New Testament is the necessary savior He promised and the prophets foretold. Messianic Jews are, in terms of belief, Christians, but they want to push against the cultural and theological associations linked to that vocabulary.

Trouble with the words “Christ” and “Christian” go back to the Holocaust and earlier, Sim tells me, with accusations of Jews being “Christ-killers.” That phrase has stuck so insistently in minds and culture, Sim says, that she cannot use the words about herself or about Jesus. Rather than using the name “Christ,” she calls him “Jesus” or “Yeshua,” or “Messiah.” All of these terms, like “Christ,” translate to “Anointed King.” She calls Messianic Jews “Messiah-believers.”

Sim also doesn’t use the word “convert” for Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah. The move from Judaism to Christianity, she argues, is not a conversion at all. A conversion is a change from one religion to another, but Jesus, in Sim’s view, is the continuation and fulfillment of Judaism. He is the Messiah that the Old Testament prophets promise and the physical embodiment of the God they already worship. Jesus wants the Jews and wants them to want him. Their acceptance of him is the completion of their story and faith.

The one belief all Jews share, before a belief in God, Sim says, is a belief that Jesus is not the Messiah. It’s okay to be a Jewish atheist, but never, she has found, a Jew who believes in Jesus. In fact – and here she quotes a Hillel rabbi’s quip – “Modern Judaism is a response to Jesus.”

* * * *

Jews, Sim and Jewish students from Hillel told me, are connected by a shared narrative. Judaism today is about having the same ancestors, having inhabited the same land at one time, and knowing what happened to one’s forefathers thousands of years ago. Even if a Jew doesn’t know the stories of Abraham and Isaac, she knows about the last hundred years of Jewish history. She knows about the Holocaust – that her people were targeted, and that they survived.

As for Sim, she grew up in northeast Philadelphia with her mother, younger sister, and grandparents. She’s first-generation American: when her mother was sixteen, the family of four (Sim’s grandparents, mother, and aunt) moved to America from Odessa. Sim’s grandfather survived the Holocaust. One sister and two brothers did as well; the rest of the family died in the gas chambers. Sim doesn’t know much about her grandfather’s childhood or family. There were a lot of siblings, but how many she doesn’t know. How often her grandfather went to synagogue, she doesn’t know. What his childhood was like, she doesn’t know. They’re painful memories, and he won’t talk about them. The one sister her grandfather spoke to died when Sim was seven, so now little opportunity remains to learn about their history.

The family was forced to leave Odessa after a run-in with the KGB. Sim’s grandfather worked as a tailor, making next to nothing. One day a woman came into his shop and pressed him to accept extra money from her. He refused, and she went home and told some story to her husband – who knows now what she said or why – and soon the family was in deep trouble. They left the country for America. Why not Israel, Sam doesn’t know. She wishes she’d asked.

* * * *

I met with senior Daneel Schaechter at Penn Hillel – “I think the best place to meet,” he wrote me, “would be Hillel so you can get to know where all the Jewish stuff happens.” He was at a table in the dining hall when I arrived, finishing lunch with a friend. Freshman year, I ate at Hillel occasionally, dragged by friends who insisted it was the best dining hall food on campus. We sat at tables around the edge of the room to eat as Hillel regulars mingled around the rest of the room, laughing and talking loudly, often distinguished by their dress. It’s typical to see a few tables of outsiders on the fringe, and Daneel’s “heart goes out to them,” he says, those tables of non-Jewish students seeking out a new dining hall, or Jewish students who spend little time at Hillel.

Hillel is a welcoming and friendly place, but a tight community, the Orthodox community especially. There are about two hundred students who eat at Hillel twice a day, attend services multiple times a week, and stop by to do homework and hang out between classes. You come for dinner and spend hours, Daneel says, hopping from table to table to talk to people. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Even incoming freshmen know each other already from life before Penn: Jewish day schools, Jewish camp, and so on. The rest of Penn feels far away from there. “God, or whoever it was who made up all these rules, really knew what He was doing,” Daneel tells me. “They really force you to build community. When you can only eat certain things, when your phone is off from Friday night to Saturday night, you eat together twice a day, you hang out together all weekend.”

While the rules can build tight, tight community, they can also easily become broken. Last summer, Daneel was in Italy with a friend who doesn’t keep Shabbat. He came up with various ways to get around the rules in order to sightsee with her on a Saturday. Boarding trains, he held up his card to show the conductor rather than swiping, in order to avoid conducting a transaction. That worked for a while, but on the return trip from the Coliseum there was no conductor to let him on the train. Daneel started asking people around him to swipe his pass for him. “Technically,” he explained, “if a non-Jew does it, it doesn’t count, so I was pretending I didn’t know how to do it because I was a tourist. But nobody stopped to help me and the trains were going by, and so finally I swiped my card and broke Shabbat. And it was so easy. I didn’t get struck down by lightning. Nothing bad happened. I realized it was a slippery slope.” That swipe – one thin plastic card through one metal reader – a grasp and pull of the wrist – and Shabbat was broken. There was no lightning, but months later, Daneel still remembered and wanted to talk about that moment. Breaking Shabbat disappointed and confused him. It had become so fragile.

* * * *

It’s common for Christian kids to put a verse in the Facebook space for religious views, in lieu of the term “Christian.” To us, that name doesn’t represent what we believe. We define ourselves instead by what pushes each of us individually forward in the faith most. I’m off Facebook now, but for years my line was “surprised by hope.” It’s a phrase taken from Anglican bishop N. T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, a book on eschatology and how it informs our living now. Wright is not my God and his book is not my holy text, but his view of the world struck and drove me as a teenager and still. I am a perpetual defeatist and pessimist. What amazes me about the world and my faith is the surprise and hope they offer. That, thus, is how I summarize my religion: it’s the story of being surprised by hope.

On Facebook, Sim lists her religious views as “Isaiah 53.” That chapter comes up again and again in her life, she tells me. Isaiah is a book of prophecy; chapter 53 describes the Messiah to come. When we speak, she pulls the passage up on her phone for me to read.

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? . . .

He was oppressed and afflicted,

      yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

     and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,

     so he did not open his mouth.

You can’t, Sim asserts, look at those verses and not see Jesus in it. She brought it, one night, to a Jewish friend who was asking questions about Christianity. They read the passage together. “That sounds exactly like Jesus,” he said.

The Jesus of the Bible is very Jewish. His sacraments are drawn from Jewish sacraments – Sim and I discussed baptism, a practice come from Jewish tradition, in which believers are immersed in water; and communion, a ritual recalling Jesus’ celebration of Passover with his disciples just before his crucifixion. Jesus, Sim argues, fulfills the prophets’ prophecies. He goes to synagogue. He knows the law. He’s Jewish.

* * * *

Growing up in church and a religious home, I read the Old Testament, learned about Passover and Shabbat, and read novels about Jewish children. My father reminded my siblings and me that we were Jewish – and all that meant to us, and as far as we could tell, to him, was that we should consider ourselves blessed to have survived the Holocaust. When I began attending a private school with a number of Jewish students, though, I thought it best not to identify as Jewish. I don’t count, I thought. My conversation with Sim confirmed that that might be the case.

“People are uncomfortable around me,” she said. She’s moved away from the Jewish community at Penn: as a Messiah-believer, she’s not welcome there. Sim calls herself Jewish, but there seems to be an incongruity.

They’re united by shared narrative, while my religion is united by shared belief and hope. They’re united by rules and practices, while my community hardly differentiates itself from the rest of the world in practice. They take pride in their religion’s name and history. We’re mortified by ours. They are united by all these things – while all that unites my religion is a belief in Jesus.

* * * *

I took a photo of my little brother’s best friend before the Good Friday service one year, on a disposable camera. He is standing in a dark wooden pew, turned towards me, tall, laughing, with bright red hair. Electric lights shine little columns down into the sanctuary but it’s still dark. He comes forward, glowing, from the dusty room faded around him.

The problem with disposable cameras is that so many photos – those taken in the dark, especially – don’t turn out. That one didn’t come back with the others, but it’s so visible in my mind.

Forty Lenten days precede the commercial Easter holiday, beginning with Ash Wednesday.  Trails and couples of somber churchgoers live in the city that day, going to work and class and the grocery store, and marked by grey ash crosses on their foreheads. The next Easter-related service is on the Friday before Easter. This is Good Friday, and we hold a Tenebrae service: tenebrae, Latin, “shadows.”

The sanctuary is lit by candles. As we proceed through the liturgy of readings, prayers, and song, dark and quiet, somebody extinguishes them one by one.

The Tenebrae service imitates the crucifixion of Jesus. The final candle is the Christ Candle. Darkness falls when it goes out. Each of us sits in prayer, most huddled over with faces on knees. Never have you been so separate from everyone else. It is dark; a dark, huddled mass of huddled prayers. Pray-ers and prayers. All is done.

And when you are finished, you unfold yourself.  It’s odd to stand up in the middle of the bowed congregation. You leave silently, and join the congregation outside. Children chase each other under shushed giggles. We gather in small packs, talking quietly sometimes, or staring at our feet.

This, I thought, is the way we should live the next day and a half before Easter, observing this period of grave darkness. Yet – the day between, that Saturday, is also the most day of days. If we, as Christians, live between one resurrection and another – Jesus’ Easter resurrection and our own future resurrections from the dead – and in a world still not completely redeemed – yet to receive the complete redemption and salvation of the promised second resurrection – then that Saturday, that day between brokenness and resurrection, is a day of expectation. It is the most us day it is. We are waiting; we are in between.

Sitting in Jewish services Friday night weeks before, I was struck by the hope and joy of the liturgy they sang.  If there is so much hope and joy in this anticipation, I thought, Christians should be so deliriously joyful all the time.

Who are we, anyway?


A year after first writing this piece, I say to people who ask, “Yes, I am Jewish.” I’m Jewish on my dad’s side, I explain, but a Christian in belief. I’m a Jewish Studies minor, first drawn to the field by the opportunity for Biblical study and drawn further in by the questions of belief, practice, culture, faith, and religion. Someday I’ll study Christian theology, drawn to and fueled by the opportunity to integrate academia and daily life, belief and practice, reading and living. Despite the chasms here, though we’re more foreign to each other than we yet know, Judaism remains, like my Christianity, an incredibly complicated, real, vibrant, living, thrilling, frustrating question and life.


Allison WattenbargerHear, O Israel: Faith and Religion at Penn

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