Jewish People Telling Their Stories
Testimony of Jeremiah Zaretsky
“Who am I?” I have asked myself that fundamental question many times. I begin my story by stating that I am the grandson of holocaust survivors: I am alive because they persevered and lived. It’s a sobering thought, even to this day. My maternal grandparents are gone now, but their survival experience has had a profound impact on me and on my Jewish identity.
My grandparents grew up in Hungary, with my mom being born in Budapest. Neither of my grandparents believed in God before the Holocaust and, for them, they certainly didn’t have any reason to believe in Him after the horrors they’d experienced. My grandfather told me that he survived by escaping in the woods while on a death march. His bravery inspired others to have the courage to escape also. My grandmother ended up in a ghetto where she survived by eating horse meat that her mother gathered for her.
Anyone who has family that lived through the Holocaust knows that the impact and scars affected not only the survivors but also their children: it’s inescapable. Therefore, it’s amazing that my mother, who immigrated to the United States as a child and spoke no English at all, could ever become a believer in Yeshua, Jesus, the promised Messiah of Israel. However, that’s exactly what happened!
My mother put her trust in Jesus during her college years. Christian friends kept talking to her about Him and of His love for her. But, why would the daughter of Holocaust survivors buy that narishkeit (foolishness)? After all, she had every reason to believe there was no God at all and that if He did exist, there was no way He loved her. Therefore, it was difficult for my mother to believe and trust in Jesus. It’s a miracle of the heart; that’s the best way I can describe it.
I lived in Montreal with my mom and her then-husband for four years before they divorced. I thought he was my dad, but in fact, my actual father was an Irishman named Ian. He and my mother had a short-term relationship, which resulted in my birth. I didn’t meet Ian until I was ten years old. Not many people have memories of the first time they met their fathers, but I do.
My mom and I left Montreal when I was four years old and moved to Toronto, where I spent my childhood. I grew up with my younger brother and sister: we are half-siblings, sharing the same mother but having a different father. Needless to say, I have a colourful family tree! When I was eleven years old, my mom married a Jewish believer from Toronto named Aaron Zaretsky. He too was the first of his Canadian Jewish family to believe and trust in Jesus as his Messiah. One year later, Aaron adopted me, and I took on his family name.
I find solace in knowing that my struggle with identity has always been a part of the shared Jewish experience. Our forefathers indeed had to struggle to discover who God was and who they were in light of Him. Abraham was a wandering Aramean, an Iraqi who became the first Jew. Jacob had an all-night physical battle with God in order to receive His blessing. Jacob’s new name, Israel, literally means “he wrestles with God”. Moses was a Hebrew who grew up an Egyptian, only to identify with his people and fully embrace who God called him to be after a personal encounter with Him. Joseph, Jacob’s son, shared a similar life story.
Struggling to figure out our identity has been an existential crisis for our people from the very beginning. My story is no exception. Growing up with a Jewish mother who believed in Jesus, having a Gentile father whom I didn’t know, being adopted -- all of it had an impact on me, but like Joseph, I can now say with confidence that “God meant it for good.” Genesis 50:20
My mother’s coming to faith and trust in Yeshua was a miracle, but the fact that I followed suit is doubly remarkable. One might say, “You grew up that way, so of course you believe in him.” However, that logic fails when you consider that nearly ten million Christians come from Muslim backgrounds (Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion: Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census, page 10). It’s hard to imagine: almost 10 million former Muslims believe and trust in Jesus! That seems impossible, given that many of these people hail from extremist countries that impose the death penalty on those who forsake Islam for another faith. Therefore, just because I grew up in a messianic Jewish home didn’t necessarily guarantee that I would follow in my parents’ footsteps. The reason why I did is of particular importance!
Like any good Jewish parent, my mother spent lots of time telling me the precious faith stories of our people. My siblings and I grew up observing the Jewish holidays and yet, because of our faith in Jesus, we also celebrated the Christian ones. For me, it just meant more food and more presents; it was the best of both worlds, especially in December! My mom also told me about Jesus, an observant Jewish rabbi born from Israel who claimed to be the Messiah King. At the age of five, I told that King that I wanted him to be my King, although of course not in those exact words. As I grew up, I matured in my understanding of what it meant to be Jewish and a follower of Jesus as my rabbi and King.
There was a large percentage of Jewish students in my high school. All my friends were Jewish, hailing from diverse backgrounds and denominations. Most of them, whether they were orthodox or secular, thought they were more Jewish than I because of my faith in Jesus, despite the fact that many of them didn’t even know or believe in the God of Israel. Sadly, the irony of this was lost on them.
I learned that it’s one thing to “talk the talk”, but it’s another thing to “walk the walk”. All my Jewish peers who debated constantly with me about the impossibility of believing in Jesus and being Jewish weren’t really arguing based on their faith in God; rather, their objections were rooted in the mistaken belief that a Jew was not allowed to believe in Jesus. They thought that, as soon as a Jew adopted faith in Him, they lost their Jewish identity for good. Of course, that logic is ludicrous! Ponder this: if you are born Chinese and believe in Allah, do you suddenly cease to be Chinese? Of course not! However, I understood what my friends meant: you were no longer accepted in the Jewish community if you had faith in Jesus as your Messiah. Whether they accepted it or not, I was, am, and always will be Jewish, yet I was told by my Jewish friends that I could not identify as a Jew if I believed in Jesus. There’s that identity struggle again…
All the back-and-forth debating challenged and tested my faith. I searched the Torah and the prophets to see who this Anointed One, this Messiah, could be. The more my friends argued against Jesus, the more I was convinced He was the only one who could be the promised Messiah. Since Jesus was Jewish and all his original followers were predominately Jewish, I concluded then that it was a very Jewish thing to believe and trust in Him.
How do I know Jesus is real and not just a figment of my (or someone else’s) imagination?” You may be asking yourselves this question. I would challenge you to imagine this: If you could ask Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David or Isaiah the same question, they would likely answer, “I know Jesus is the Messiah because I have personally encountered Him.” Just as all these great men of Judaism met, saw, and conversed with the Living God of Israel, so too have I encountered Him in a transformative way. Can I prove this to you? Perhaps no more than anyone else who’s experienced a miraculous event. However, the proof is evident in my life. Jesus has changed me from the inside-out, and that’s not something I was capable of on my own.
The kind of change that knowing and following Yeshua has brought to my life is akin to when Pinocchio was transformed from a stiff, wooden puppet into a real boy. Without Yeshua, my heart would be stiff and my life would revolve around the most important person in my life, me! I’m far from perfect and I fail every day, but I now experience God’s power to soften my heart through the Ruach (Spirit). I now also have the ability to have my life revolve around the most important person, Yeshua. I have a reorientation to my Creator and his purpose for my life which is far more rich and others focused than it would be without him. To all those who disbelieve, I would challenge you and say, “You’ll know when you experience it. Just leave yourself open to the possibility.”
Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David and Isaiah were all changed and transformed by their encounters with God. I too am a new man as a result of encountering Jesus. Through all my struggles with identity, in my neshama (soul), I have always wondered, “Am I loved?” and “Where do I belong?” I found the answers to both these questions in Jesus. “Am I loved?” All I have to do is look at what the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would do to demonstrate His love for us, “But He was wounded because of our transgressions, He was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon Him, and with His stripes we were healed.” (Isaiah 53:5 JPS Tanakh). I am loved, and Jesus showed that by taking my sin upon Himself.
“Where do I belong?” I struggled with that question for decades. I’m Jewish but am not accepted by my community because of my faith in Jesus. I am a disciple of Jesus, but historically, messianic Jews have not been accepted by the Christian community. I am a member of two communities yet feel caught somewhere in the middle. Where do I belong? God says I have a home in Him, and that my faith in Jesus, His Son, makes me adopted into His family, which has always included both Jews and Gentiles.
My identity, my belonging and my self-worth are all rooted in me personally knowing the God who created me, and that’s the greatest miracle of all -- that a holy, awesome God would love a broken, messed-up guy like me. Yet, that is exactly the good news of what the Messiah came to do – to bring rebellious people back home to their loving Heavenly Father. I’m grateful I found my identity in God. I’m grateful I found love and meaning in Jesus who showed His love for me and gave my broken life new meaning. Now that’s an identity worth exploring!