This interview appears in the May 2016 issue of the Catholic East Texas magazine.
Deandra Lieberman converted from Judaism to Christianity, and now is studying to become a Scripture scholar. We asked her about growing up Jewish in East Texas, the difference between Orthodox and Reformed Judaism, what it means to keep kosher, and the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism…
What is Judaism? What does it mean to be a Jew?
Being Jewish is both an ethnicity and a religion. A person can be descended from Jewish people, but not necessarily practice the Jewish religion. Judaism, the religion, began in the Middle East around 3500 years ago. Traditionally, the first Jew was Abraham, who received a promise from God that his descendants would receive a promised land and be God’s people.
Tell us about growing up.
I was raised in Reformed Judaism here in Tyler, as opposed to Orthodox Judaism. Obviously, Jewish people are a small minority in East Texas, and my family is from New York, so we had a lot of differences from our friends and neighbors. We weren’t strict in our practice of Judaism, we were more “Hanukkah and Passover” Jews. Because there aren’t very many Jewish kids in Tyler, it’s hard to have Jewish activities, so I went to Alabama for Jewish Summer camp.
What are “Reformed” and “Orthodox” Judaism?
Basically, Orthodox Judaism is the branch of the religion which attempts to follow all 613 laws given by Moses. You can often recognize Orthodox Jewish people by their appearance. The men will usually wear black and have beards, and the women will keep their heads covered or wear wigs. They keep kosher and are very restrictive in their activities on Shabbat, the Sabbath, which lasts from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
Reformed Judaism blends in to society more. Reformed Jews stress personal observance of the laws much less, and typically don’t dress in a particularly Jewish way.
What does it mean to keep kosher?
It means to keep the traditional Jewish laws concerning food. The most well-known of these is not to eat pork, but there are many others. My grandmother told me about the first time she ate bacon and waited for God to smite her, and was surprised when He didn’t. Some Orthodox families go to great lengths to keep kosher. Because it is forbidden for Orthodox Jews to mix meat and milk, even in the cooking process, some families maintain two separate sets of cookware and dishes, two refrigerators, or even two entire kitchens. We did none of these things in my home growing up.
Can you explain “Hanukkah and Passover” and the other Jewish holidays?
Sure. There are a lot of holy days and festivals in Judaism, but some of the major ones are:
Rosh Hashanah – The Jewish new year.
Yom Kippur – The day of atonement for sin.
Passover – The celebration of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
Hanukkah – The celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
What did you think about Christians as a child?
Some of them seemed to place a lot more emphasis on my Jewishness than my family did. Every now and then, a Christian kid at school would say something to me like, “You are the apple of God’s eye!” and then again every so often a Christian kid would tell me I was going to hell.
I didn’t understand hell, or heaven for that matter. Modern Judaism doesn’t have any strong unified tradition about an afterlife since it’s not explicitly taught in the Jewish scriptures. Jewish prayers for the dead, for example, are pretty bleak, “as a candle is extinguished…” and so forth.
Particularly, the Judaism I grew up in didn’t teach me about sin, and this was maybe the first step in my conversion process.
What did you think about sin?
I was conscious of my own sin. I always had a copy of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. All through my teen years I read it, seriously, but I was mostly on my own, with no way to know how to interpret it. For instance, because there is nothing about eternal life in the Torah, I became terribly afraid of dying. I was reading about the sins of the Jewish people and how serious the punishments for sin were, and it made me feel extremely guilty and afraid.
I was also reading some commentaries on scripture, but there was no consistency to these. I felt sort of lost because there was no clear voice of truth. I wasn’t thinking, “Gosh, I wish I had a central religious authority in my life!” but I was thinking, “I wish I knew what happened when we die.” It bothered me a great deal.
I was also conscious of sin because I was living in a Christian context. The Jews in my life just didn’t talk about sin. I remember one conversation I had with a rabbi about sin, and it was about the sin of murder. As a teen, that’s not on the list of sins I was wondering about.
I became convinced that it was certainly possible to act against the will of God, and based on my reading of the Torah, I became convinced that God was going to punish me, and soon. I expected God to smite me like He did ancient people in the Bible. I was taking the theology of divine wrath taught in the Torah, as understood by Jews 3,000 years ago, and trying to apply it to my life as a teen in East Texas.
What made you start to consider Christianity?
I remember at one point in high school, we were studying John Calvin, the reformation theologian. We were learning about his idea of pre-destination, and I remember thinking that I would be really upset if I had not been pre-destined to be a Christian, because Christians could have hope. I realized that I was jealous of Christians because they had a relationship with God in which forgiveness was primary. I knew Christians who were peaceful.
I, by contrast, was not peaceful. I didn’t like myself, I didn’t like my actions, and I felt cut off from God, as if I had severed my ties to Him and didn’t know how to return. I was looking for exactly what Jesus offers, but it took a long time to realize this. I came to a point where I knew I wanted to believe in heaven, I wanted to believe that God was merciful, but I couldn’t rationalize it. It seemed silly. Attractive, but silly.
Then, for a school assignment at the Christian high school I attended, we read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and I was introduced to Christian philosophy. After only one chapter, I realized that Christianity made sense, and was logical. Next, we read The Screwtape Letters, and I saw that the person described by Lewis in the book, the subject of all of those temptations, that was me. Lewis had, in my opinion, a keen perception of human motivation. He understood how people think.
It came to a point one morning. I woke up early and walked outside and prayed a sort of surrender prayer. I prayed, “God, I want to know you really well, and if I have to go through Jesus to do that….ok, fine.”
What was your sense of the relationship between your Judaism and Christianity?
Well, it seemed logical that, there being one God, the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity were the same, but this is a terribly complex topic. I had only the vaguest notions of that relationship then, and I’m still studying that today.
In this area of theology, there are two concepts, replacement and fulfillment. Both are pretty simple concepts, by themselves. Replacement speaks to the idea of the new covenant in Jesus Christ being the final covenant and the intended way by which God wills to save everyone. Fulfillment concentrates more on the idea that God never breaks His promises, and His covenant with the Jews is a promise that He would never break. Trying to sort out the exact theology of this gets really, really difficult even in the best of circumstances. In the real world, where people bring their emotions and fears and guilt to the discussion, it’s almost impossible. The Catholic Church has spoken very, very carefully about this in the last century, and I’m still learning this.
I tend to say my Judaism was always oriented toward Catholicism, in that Judaism is oriented to God. That desired union with God is best realized on earth in the Eucharist. I still get people, Catholics who are interested in Jewish stuff and know about my Jewish background, who will invite me to a Passover celebration or Seder meal. I always respond, “No thanks, I think I’ll just go to Holy Thursday Mass instead, and, you know…receive Jesus.”
Figuring out the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism in detail, that’s what I’m really in graduate school for.
Ok, so, you’re a high school senior and you’ve mentally converted to Christianity. What next?
I became pretty open about being a Christian, when I was outside the house. I was a pretty unpleasant person to my parents, and didn’t talk to them much, and so I kept all of this from them, until I figured out what I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to be baptized, and I did tell them that. They weren’t exactly excited about this development, but they are open-minded and supportive and so they didn’t try to thwart me. Even my grandmother took the news better than I expected. I was baptized in a Baptist church right after I graduated high school.
I had some strange reactions from friends and acquaintances. A few people started talking to me about the apocalypse, since they associated Jews converting to Christianity with the end of the world. A few people asked if I was moving to Israel, which was confusing. I remember my first several months as a Christian, I was so uncertain about what to do. I repeated Jewish prayers a lot, since I didn’t know any others.
I also had this feeling of disappointment because what I discovered in local Protestant churches was not like the great and beautiful Christianity I had been reading about. The historical, logical Christianity I knew was true, somewhere, was painted in bold colors. What I was getting on Sunday mornings seemed washed out and pastel.
How did you discover Catholicism?
I went to the University of Dallas for the English program. I wasn’t thinking in terms of Catholic and Protestant, I just knew it was a Christian school and that was fine with me. What I actually discovered at UD were those bright colors I was looking for. I found, in the Catholic faith, the profound and deep relationship with God which C.S. Lewis had described to me.
It started when I arrived on campus, and I had to find a church to go to. Someone invited me to Mass on campus, and so I just fell into Catholic worship. I knew already that Catholicism had a better sense of beauty and mystery than non-Catholic Christianity, but now it became real, and I immediately connected that with my Judaism. Even with my scant contact with Jewish worship as a child, everything I knew from the festivals was very centered around ritual and tradition. My mother had sung to me the Shema, one of the Jewish bedtime prayers, every night, and I had prayed the Jewish liturgical prayers alone in my room many times. The Jewish language and Jewish prayers sound old and dignified, and I immediately recognized this in the prayers of the Mass.
I joined the RCIA program my freshman year, and I was received into the Church at Easter.
What was your initial experience of Catholicism like?
Well, shortly after I joined the Church I came home to Tyler for the summer. I had to, by myself, figure out how to start being Catholic every day. I had to just head down to the Cathedral and start going to Mass. I had to figure out how to live the life. I have to thank Father Tim Kelly for helping me learn how to properly confess my sins. He was really patient with me and eventually I learned how to do it.
I was very lucky to do my first full semester as a Catholic in Rome in the UD program there. I don’t think I had as profound an experience as many of the cradle-Catholic students, who had more of a “finally coming home” experience in Rome, but I enjoyed it immensely.
Part of what I had to do as a new Catholic was to start thinking as a Catholic. I had to come to an understanding of Faith, Hope, and Love in my own life. I had to learn that the greatest of these is love, and so learn to love people. During my youth, my conversion and my brief time as a non-Catholic Christian, I focused a lot on how sinful I was, and how sinful everyone is. I spent a lot of time just thinking that people are awful. As a Catholic, I’ve had to learn to see people as created good but tainted by sin, and focus on that goodness.
How are things now?
Good. I’m a graduate student in the theology program at Notre Dame University in Indiana. I’m studying Sacred Scripture. About two-thirds of the students in the program are converts to the Catholic faith, so I’m among people who understand a lot of my experiences. I’m studying classical Greek literature, learning translation, and building the foundation necessary to delve deeply into sacred scripture. This semester I’m also studying 19th century theology. It’s tremendously exciting to me.
So, what do your parents think now?
Well, my parents are really wonderful people, and while they don’t exactly understand why I’ve become Catholic, they are accepting of it. Mainly, they want me to be happy, and if striving through all of this theology toward God makes me happy, they’re glad. They even come to Christmas Mass with me now, with the idea, “Well, this is your holiday, we’ll do this.”
Any final thoughts?
I find that it’s easy for people to live a shallow life. I certainly have to guard against this. One of my favorite books, Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, taught me to recognize this. We all have a tendency to live in the shallowest crust of ourselves, where we don’t really meet God. We all need to seek out the beauty and coherence in the world to find God there, and so much of that beauty and coherence is in the Catholic Faith.
I hope, in my life and my career, I can show people some of this beauty and coherence that I see, from my particular vantage point as a Jewish convert. I would like to help people see how the Church can help them live a beautiful life. q
Deandra is currently studying at Notre Dame University, seeking a Master’s degree in theology, specializing in Sacred Scripture.