by Paul Robbins, Ministry Director
I do not go grocery shopping very often, perhaps on occasion for a few needs, but certainly not for the entire week. It would take too long. When I stroll down the aisles of the supermarket, I am still in awe of the many choices that I encounter for each item on the shopping list. I consider it my duty as a representative of my family to bring home the best product at the best price. That is the dilemma. The comparisons are overwhelming.
I know that not everyone fits into the same category as I, and that is a good thing. I have come to realize that my food shopping experience is not really about reading labels and doing the math on price versus quantity ratios, but it is a search for authenticity.
The search is really one in which I am looking for something that I can come home with that is beneficial to my family and was worth the exchange that I made with my family’s money. I want them to not only trust me with what I bring through the door, but to share in my excitement that what I have is good.
The problem that I encounter is that the claims that I read on the labels of the bottles, boxes, and jars are self-proclaiming. According to each of them, I have finally found that which I have been seeking. Could they all be true?
It is the same situation I found when I looked into the world of religion. With each religious product I purchased, I found something lacking in substance or in flavor or both.
My problem in the grocery aisle was parallel to my shopping experience in the spiritual aisle. The product claims sounded alike.
Peace, Joy, Nirvana.
Basically they were saying, “All products lead to the same Cashier at check-out time.”
What I really needed in both circumstances was not one more product on the shelf, but someone who had a personal experience with the object on my shopping list. Be it a can of tomato sauce or the road to bliss, I needed somebody who could say, “I know exactly what will satisfy”—someone I could trust.
However, that posed another problem. Trust. How does one trust that another person’s opinion will become your own? What if there is some self-interest involved, say, his last name is Macintosh or Kellogg? I needed someone with whom I could experience a deep sense of trust, especially when I was in the market for eternal life. I had been up and down those aisles numerous times only to go home, and after a season or two, realize that I had been sold a bill of goods and not the item advertised.
Growing up in a Jewish home
I grew up in a Jewish home. Both of my parents were Jewish. Most Gentiles out there will not understand this, but the Jewish reader will.
My father was a Jewish atheist, and my mother was a Jewish agnostic. My mother came from an Orthodox family; my father came from the non-practicing side of Judaism. They met in the middle and raised us as Conservative Jews. Neither of them really believed that God had a clue what we were doing here. My mother was more superstitious than religious, so she believed that we had to be bar mitzvahed. She also believed that we had to celebrate Passover and fast on Yom Kippur.
So, off the children went to Hebrew school. We would go twice a week after school in addition to a mandatory Saturday morning service. The Saturday service was dependent upon a “minyan,” though: ten Jewish men in attendance.
Not such an easy feat on a Saturday morning in the unbelieving suburbs of Long Island.
However, someone would get on the phone and begin calling down the list of everyone in the Men’s Club until they found one who could not come up with an adequate excuse. Meanwhile, my friends and I would be wishing and crossing our fingers (not praying) that no man would show up. I do not know how much time God allowed, or that the rabbis assumed God allowed, but He must have been longsuffering, because someone always showed up and the service went on.
I suppose you could rightfully assume that I did not grow up in a believing community.
In fact, we would more realistically fall into the category of “gastronomic Jews” than any other.
We loved bagels and lox and whitefish.
My father was even more extreme. He would have eaten chopped liver at every meal.
However, when it came to believing that Judaism had all the answers to eternal life, I wonder how few stopped to consider. Hear me out, though; I had a good family. I loved my parents and my relatives, but as far as seeing life beyond Grandpa, it wasn’t a thought.
For me, though, it was different. As a child I had dreams I could not explain. I would dream about infinity and infinitesimal. In those dreams, all of the universe, of which I was a part, would grow and grow and expand beyond measure, and then it would begin to shrink and shrink until it was too small to see, but it was always as real as ever it was. Then, it would start over.
Those dreams seemed more real to me than when I was awake at times. Sound weird? Welcome to my world. The fact is, I knew that this life was a small part of something much bigger, and it lasted much longer. I assumed that adults understood that and would tell me about it, but they didn’t. I suppose that was the beginning of my search for the authentic. Deep inside I wanted a livable explanation, with no artificial color or flavor.
Why all the suffering?
I did not see authenticity in my Jewish community. It was not that love was missing or we had no community, because we did. We were Jewish. We were different. Our roots went deep into the world’s history, and I was proud of being a Jew. Yet. we had no depth. I didn’t get it. What little I did learn was that nobody I had known took God as seriously as Abraham or Moses seemed to have done. It appeared to me that the Judaism the rabbis were teaching was nothing as adventurous as the Judaism that Abraham inherited.
And why all the suffering, the hatred towards us, and why did people think we were so different?
I never asked those questions and no one ever addressed them. It was just the way it was…
…But I was adventurous, and my journeys as a boy took me to my neighbors’ yards.
One day, I was playing curb ball in front of the house of a Catholic family who lived on the corner. They had about nine kids, so there was always someone to play with. Once in a while the oldest sister joined us. She always seemed to be smiling. She never told me why she was happy, but I guess I never asked. I think that must have changed on another day. It was a day that my little sister, Joanne, was playing at their house. It may have been the last day she played there.
On that day, I learned why she was so happy, because on that day, she broke the code of silence.
On that day, she crossed the border. She told my sister about Jesus.
It isn’t that I had never heard His name. I am sure they talked about Him in the history books at school, but I never made any connection with His name and a normal person.
The only other time I heard His name was in my house when my father broke something or when my mother was overwhelmed. His name had no pleasant association.
The way that Claudia spoke about Jesus was different.
When Joanne came home, she flew in the house, bursting with excitement as one with news from afar.
“Mommy, mommy!” She threw open the door with excitement. Her little winter coat was unbuttoned as if she could not afford the time it took to button it with such important information to share.
“Mommy!” she cried. “Claudia said that we could know Jesus, too!”
Now, I do not know if it was a moment or an hour, but I do know that the temporary silence was cherished because I knew that it would not last. The only thing that I can compare that moment to was a classic Abbott and Costello episode. It was when Lou was in jail with some crazed man whose wife had deserted him on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. He was perfectly sane and under control until someone mentioned Niagara Falls. Then, he became undone.
My mother did not completely unravel, but the moment after she realized what my sister said, her countenance changed. Her attention was totally focused, and she spoke with clarity and in a commanding tone.
“I don’t want to ever hear you say that name again! Do you hear me? He is not for us.”
That was the end of the discussion and, so far as I remember, the last time I saw Claudia.
Some time later, I wondered if they moved because of us.
No one ever talked about Jesus again while we grew up in that house. Oh, you might hear His name mentioned, but like Costello’s Niagara Falls, it was never pleasant to hear.
What I did learn is that He died and that the Gentiles blamed us for killing Him.
That always puzzled me. If He was their God, how could the Jews be so tough that we could have killed Him?
Anyway, that was the last time I heard anything about Jesus. He certainly had no room for me, and I had no interest in Him.
How authentic a god could He be if He could not even defend Himself from a bunch of Jews who were on the run from their enemies all throughout history?
By the time I realized that I was shopping for authenticity—and by that I mean reality and purpose—I had already come to the subconscious conclusion that the Jewish perspective was not sufficient, nor was the Catholic or Protestant one. As far as I was concerned, the Western world was clueless as to the reason why I was here. With such a vacuum, I became open to a cyclone of philosophies that blew across my path.
I was not a pioneer, but I was an explorer
The paths in front of me had already been trod, some were well paved, some had only sandal marks. During the late sixties, my friends and I wore our marks into the pavement. In fact, when it came time to leave for college, we made a pact that we would not go the bell-bottom, hippie route. We had concluded by then that drinking and chasing girls was satisfying enough. Smoking pot and dropping acid was for losers—guys who couldn’t make it.
By the time Christmas break came, all that had changed. Our pact completely dissolved.
My new path was the way of the sandals.
Love, peace, and happiness. Far out.
Very far out.
Fortunately, I survived the sixties and the seventies. Not all of my companions who followed that same path can say the same. The road of experience without restraint took a severe toll on my generation. Many who survived physically, never recovered mentally.
When it comes to life, there is something to be said about making it up as you go along. It simply does not work. Instant gratification was the culture’s driving philosophy. “If it feels good, do it.” I needed more. Something deeper had to undergird why I did what I did. Rebellion against the norm was by itself completely negative.
Perhaps it was guilt. More than one Jewish boy could sense his mother’s eyes looking over his shoulders through life, and no doubt that watchful feeling was part of my thinking, but for me it was a bit more. Without clearly identifying it at the time, I was looking for something else. I really wanted my life to be marked by something authentic.
The explorer in me wanted the discovery of finding that “something” and bringing it back to the land from which I set sail.
My journey began with the rejection of the world that I knew.
The Western hemisphere immersed in the Judeo-Christian heritage had left me flat.
I needed to head east. Since I had renounced the Protestant work ethic along with their religion, I had no money to travel across the sea. My journey would be through books and teachers who had already been there and, in my estimation, arrived.
My presupposition was that there was “someplace” at which I would arrive.
As I look back at my experience and the frail nature of simply making it through intact, I wish that there had been some ground rules to follow, even though I would have rejected them.
But here is where I would suggest to all future explorers my perspective: the exploration process is a legitimate phase of growing up.
In fact, it is necessary…
For a belief system to be real and livable, it must have some historical consistency, recognizing that I am not the first person on the search for authenticity. The discovery had to include why the created world is so magnificent, yet life itself can be so hard. It had to explain the reason for the pain, the suffering, and the longing for relief. It could not ignore or dismiss this common human cry. Finally, the result has to leave us with a legitimate reason to hope. The discovery of the authentic would not simply end in bliss. It would be the beginning of a meaningful way of living here and now with the anticipation of a greater way ahead. For the life, which begins in this world, would be a shadow of the one to come in the next.
What I mean is this: at the end of this exploration, the process has to make sense. The outcome has to leave me in a “land” in which I cannot only survive, but also flourish, a place where I can sense that I belong, that I am vital and never lacking hope.
Without elaborating, personal experiences become a part of this journey of discovery. Whether it starts with the ocean or in the mountains, the desert, or the skies, we begin to discover the natural order of things. We recognize the cohesive nature of the properties of this world, whether we use our human eyes, a high-powered telescope, or an electron microscope. As far as the eye can see, there is farther to see in every direction. Is it endless? Or does it just appear that way? Is it created? Or is it random? Is there any aim or purpose for it all? Or does it matter? So far, the discovery has no answers, only observations.
In my quest for authenticity, I needed to know about this place. I was not only an observer; I was a part of what is here, whether by chance or by design. When I took my first look around, I surmised that not everyone seemed to care about these matters.
Why did I?
Before I ever began an honest quest for authenticity, I had already drawn some conclusions. In synagogue, I heard about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who once was. In school, I was taught about evolution and random chance. By the time I reached my senior year in high school in 1968, I began to consider the question posed on the cover of Time Magazine, “Is God Dead?” I assumed most believed that He was dead because those that I knew acted as if there was no other reality. I subconsciously convinced myself that if that was what I believed, that is the way I should behave.
The natural conclusion was to live for me. I began a journey of self-intoxication. Whatever it took to experience more pleasure was reason enough to pursue it. Although that became my reality for a time, it intersected with another reality: the Vietnam War.
Not long after passing through the magical realm of this new culture, I was confronted with a paradox. If this world that I was helping to define was like the “never-ending party,” then the Vietnam War was like an older brother at the front door telling me it was time to come home and do my homework. Which one was true? How could I submit myself to both worlds? In one, I was bound to no one, and in the other, I was forced to constrain my pleasure by an immeasurable, unexplainable horror in which my own generation was grappling.
In the midst of my search, I observed that a social conscience had begun to develop. My mind was collecting information that needed to be processed in order for me to find a valid conclusion. I was confused, but unwilling to admit it. I needed greater understanding in order to explain the meaning of life.
Because something has gone wrong, awfully wrong.
I had a lot of questions
I wanted so much to enjoy my life. As I grew into adulthood, I tried so hard to believe that the possibility of enjoyment had to exist—not just on special occasions or when the good times rolled, but in moment by moment living. The problem for me was that I had no visible model to follow. Everyone that I had observed had an “oy veyism.”
Don’t misunderstand: I saw many happy times and many happy faces, but they were always responsive. Whether it was a new car, job, or baby, the only things that made for happiness were external things. Sometimes, the external things were taken internally, like good food or drink, or in my era, the advent of the “mind-altering psychedelics.” Happiness on one day had no lasting effect. There was a default mechanism that returned to solemnity. It seemed that the longer a person lived, the more solemn he became. Perhaps that is why much of Jewish music is played with a mixture of major and minor chords. In this world, sorrow and joy are bedfellows. They co-mingle, and they are both legitimate.
I had a lot of questions. Why do I prefer to be happy rather than sad if both are legitimate? Why do we spend money and time trying to become happy? Is it not possible simply to be happy?
The leading philosopher of my adolescence was Alfred E. Neuman. He was the voice of authority of Mad Magazine. His mantra to us was “don’t worry, be happy.”
Was happiness a real possibility? Or was it simply a state of mind that could be “willed” into position?
What I really needed at that point of my life was someone who could help me to validate my conundrum. I would have greatly benefited from someone who could have explained to me that I was confused. It was not because I was messed up or weird, but because I was looking for something to grasp that had no handles. I needed to learn that happiness was a wonderful human experience, but it was not a permanent one. What I needed was to learn how to be content, and I needed to learn that from someone who had arrived at that understanding.
I cannot honestly say that I was looking for that “someone,” at least not then. I was more interested in the excitement of the discovery process. However, the more I discovered, the more I whittled away the prospect of finding someone who actually seemed to know and experience the meaning of contentment.
The surprise to me was that he would be from another generation and an entirely different culture, but he would be the happiest man I would ever meet.
He was the Milkman.
And that’s where the story continues: The Milkman Story – What Happens When a Jewish Carpenter Meets a Gentile Milkman