I was born in the USSR in 1976. At the age of nine I heard some school friends talking about ‘the Jews’ who drank the blood of children. When I asked my father if he’d heard of these people, he started to laugh and rocked back and forth in his seat: ‘Sweetheart, you are one of them; we’re Jewish!’
Until that point, my parents had concealed our Jewish identity for fear of persecution. My grandmother used to speak a language that I didn’t recognise – it was all very mysterious. Only later did I learn that it was Yiddish, the language of European Jews which is a mix of German and Hebrew.
At the tender age of twelve, I heard another word for the first time, and I asked my eldest brother what this mysterious word meant. The word was ‘God’!
State-imposed religion was atheism, which had its own dogmas and priests. The over-zealous crusaders for state-sponsored atheism did everything they could to eradicate any consciousness of God from the Soviet people. Their anti-God inquisition was unethical and merciless!
During a school lesson, the teacher asked us if anyone believed in God and if anyone prayed. She then announced that we were going to conduct an experiment. First, we would all repeat the prayer: ‘Oh God, please give us our daily bread’. The whole class complied, and the teacher asked where the bread was.
We were then told to offer a prayer to the late, great Soviet leader Josef Stalin: ‘Oh father Stalin, please give us some sweets’.
As we prayed, a roof tile opened and someone showered sweets on us as we sat at our desks. The experiment was over, and the teacher declared that although God didn’t answer prayer, Stalin did.
I was puzzled but not convinced by this exercise in atheistic indoctrination. I thought for myself and rebelled against the system in my own way by not wearing the compulsory red neck scarf of the Communist Youth Pioneer movement.
I was often caught by the teachers and told to put it on. They were not happy with me and threatened to tell my mother but actually, she was proud of me!
One day, a woman on the bus gave my mother an illustrated children’s book. Knowing that I loved drawing, she took it home, unaware that it was an illustrated children’s gospel story. If she had known, she would not have accepted it.
Just as I had never heard the word ‘God’ until the age of twelve, or understood what the word meant, so too I’d never heard of this Jewish man who was born in Bethlehem. Yet, as I read of the revolutionary Jewish rabbi who grew up in Nazareth, I was captivated by his story and drawn into the powerful drama.
Suddenly, I turned a page and was shocked and horrified by what I was reading: ‘They can’t do that!’ I exclaimed. I was gripped by the unexpected twists and turns of the narrative, and my heart was broken as I read of the lies told about him and the injustice that was his trial. His execution left me distraught and in tears. But nothing could have prepared me for what I was to read next as I mournfully turned the page.
Tears of joy replaced tears of sorrow as I saw that Yeshua [Jesus] had risen from the dead. Who was this wonderful man? I went to my room, and not knowing how to pray or what to say, I recited the Lord’s Prayer as my confession of faith in Yeshua as my Messiah. In Hebrew the Lord’s Prayer is a very Jewish-sounding prayer.
In his childhood, my father used to go to Krym, near the Black Sea, for his holidays. One year, an elderly Russian lady dressed all in black beckoned him over and gave him a Christian book as a gift. This book sat on the shelf amongst the many Russian classics from Pushkin to Dostoyevsky.
When I had first picked it up, at the age of eleven, I didn’t understand anything and so returned the book to its home on the shelf. Five years later, after the revolution I had experienced reading the illustrated story of Yeshua, I picked up this book from Krym. This time things started to make sense. I realised that Yeshua was a real historical figure.
Each day after I got home from school, I would go to my room to read more of the Bible. After a few weeks, my mother wondered where I was all the time and what I was doing. When she found out that I now believed Yeshua to be the divine Messiah and Saviour of Israel, she thought I had gone crazy. She said to me: ‘Rita, you are a clever girl; you’re not stupid; you don’t need to believe in this’.
After a while, my mother realised I had not joined a cult or lost my mind. She accepted that I was following my mind, heart and conscience. My father, though not a believer, thinks that Yeshua was the greatest rabbi to have ever graced this planet.
Wanting to know more, I looked for a place where I could learn more about Yeshua. After visiting a few churches where they just sang songs all night, I found some people who seemed to study the Bible seriously.
However, they turned out to be ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’. When it became clear that they taught Yeshua was just a man and not also the divine Messiah, I left them. After all, if Yeshua was not both human and divine, what was the point of his death? He could have only died for his own sins and not mine!
Sometime later, as my family prepared to make aliyah (immigration) to Israel, a person in our town gave my older brother a Bible. It was an ordinary Bible, but on the back page was the address of a congregation of Israeli Jewish people who also believed in Yeshua.
It was these few ‘chance’ lines in the back of a Bible that led me to a congregation of Messianic Jews in a town south of Tel Aviv. And it was there that my faith developed and matured, and where I also met my husband. We now live in England.
9781845504144 The Usual
Abridged from The unusual suspects by Richard Gibson (Christian Focus; ISBN 978-1-84550-414-4).