The exhibit at the Jewish Museum, in Berlin, caught my attention in such a way that I almost heard myself gasp. A rainy day and a long line had diverted us to the Jewish Museum instead of the Museum that had been at the top of our list and I found myself secretly glad. I was intrigued by all the history and stories that I was seeing—the names, the places of origin, the pictures, the artifacts. All of these exhibits captured my attention and settled into my heart as I moved through the museum.
It was toward the end of the several hour tour when I stumbled upon this exhibit that made me gasp. It was a display that told the story of a very enterprising woman from the 1700’s who, when her husband died took over the management of his business and through hard work, honesty, and intelligence gained much respect in her community. Throughout the exhibit, as her life story was told, she was referred to simply as Glikl, just toward the end I stood before an exhibit sign where her full name was revealed—Glikl bas Judah Leib. It was her last name that made me gasp.
Throughout my life, I have been interested in who I am. Really, that is not unusual for most people, but for me the question has gone beyond my parents and grandparents, my last name and my mother’s maiden name, the primary origin of my ancestry, or the region where I grew up. For me, a lover of history and theology, of lover of family story and faith story, the question includes the interest in the people who raised the people who raised the people who raised me.
I am aware that we are all products of those who came before us, that our family environment shapes our beliefs as much as educational and social environment. And in my family of generations of pastors, the question expands to ponder how the faith beliefs of those who have gone before me have shaped me. I know that I am a mixture of United Methodist, Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, English Quakers, English Baptists, and German Dunkards. Learning about who all these people were and how their beliefs passed down through the ages might have settled in me has been a delight and passion for me for the last decade or two.
And this passion and study have kept before me this question: Who am I really?
About three years ago, I made a discovery as I was seeking to answer that question. I discovered that I am descended from three German Jewish families that had converted to Christianity somewhere in the late 1500’s or early 1600’s. And while I have not discovered the reason for this conversion, the discovery took me down another path in trying to know who I am deep within.
I think about these families and wonder. I wonder what it took to leave the expression of faith that had always been a indicator of who they were. I wonder if the conversion was forced or deeply felt. I wonder how much their faith played into my father’s passion for the Old Testament, even though he had no idea of our ancestry.
So, as I was touring the Jewish Museum, that day back in July, I had these thoughts in the back of my mind. When I got to the exhibit with Glikl bas Jonah Leib my heart stopped and I stopped and stared. Something deep within me stirred as I noticed the family name—Leib. This name is not at all unfamiliar to me as it is a name I find in my mother’s family. Although the name is now anglicized to Lipe, tracing the family back to Germany reveals that the name was originally Leib. And now, in Iredell County, NC the Lipe families are Presbyterians, Lutherans, and United Methodist, but there is no mistake that the name was originally Leib, revealing another connection to the Jewish faith and another mystery for me to solve.
Who am I, really? Who are any of us, really?
The recent surge in the popularity of websites that focus on ancestry and family history along with television shows that focus on tracing one’s ancestry and the rise in home DNA tests that can pinpoint the percentage of different worldwide regions where one might come from indicate that this is a burning question for many people. Most of us know who we are and where we come from based on two or three generations, but the further we go back the more we might discover about why we are like we are or why we believe as we do.
Several years ago, I heard a feature story on NPR about a college student from one of the Central American countries whose family had Spanish roots and had come to Central American centuries ago. This college student, raised in a Catholic home, had gone home for Passover with his Jewish roommate. As he sat down with his roommates’ family for the Passover meal, he felt odd because he realized that this was the same meal and much of the same ceremony that occurred in his own family every year in the spring. The foods were the same. Many of the prayers were the same. Parts of the ritual were missing, but there was enough there that made him start to wonder why this Jewish meal of celebration was a part of his own family tradition.
That evening he contacted his parents and asked them what they knew. This sparked a new search into who they were as a Catholic family of Spanish descent and what they discovered was that their family had been Jewish and forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. Like many families of that era, they became Catholic, but also continued with their Jewish traditions in secret. Over the generations, the explanation had become lost and the family no longer knew their story, but they continued the family traditions.
In the midst of this discovery, the young man’s relationship with God grew. His family’s connection to God and to both the Jewish and Christian faith increased his desire for a deep and profound relationship with God. He indicated that this relationship might not have developed, that this profound longing for God in his heart might not have been recognized if he had not embarked upon the discovery of where he came from.
One of the most fundamental questions of life is this question of who we are really. Deep inside of us all is this unseen longing to be connected and to know the intricacies of life that have been passed down to make us who we are. And for those of us who are people of faith these questions can be even more important as we explore the depths of our relationship with God. Discovering my Jewish roots has prompted me to study the Old Testament more and to really seek to understand the prophets and their calls for justice. Their calls for justice have not ceased to be important for all people of faith to hear in any period of history. The words of the prophet Micah have been important words for me throughout my ministry and especially in these days in my job as director of the Upshur Parish House and Crosslines, Inc.:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)
As I think about these prophetic words, I wonder about my own families—the Goldtmann’s, the Starhing’s, the Klein’s, and the Leib’s–that might have heard these words in Hebrew. How did these words effect their daily lives? How did these words shape their families? How did these words bring them closer to God?
And I think about Jesus as he sat in the synagogue, listening to these words. Could it be that these words might have been deep in his heart as he preached the Sermon on the Mount, when he spoke about who is blessed?
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy….
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (From the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5)
Especially in these current times, when we hear so much about how the differences of people’s lives—race, religion, creed, gender, orientation, and national origin—cause divisions that lead people to jealousy and violence, I think it is important to focus on the reality that all of people, everywhere, worldwide, are children of God, whether they know it or not. That very important reality gives us all something very basic in common—that we are all worthy to receive God’s love and mercy and we do. Doesn’t that give us the basic information we need to treat others—to strive to live together in peace? Doesn’t this give us the basic information we need to try and put our own selfish ideas and needs aside and try to work for the good of all humanity?
The older I get, the more deeply I want to know who I am as a child of God and the more I want to know my brothers and sisters throughout this world.
I hope you do too.
To God alone be glory!