Father David Neuhaus, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, sometimes finds a discreet welcome at a reform synagogue
By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem
It is evening prayers. In a small hall in Jerusalem, the service is being conducted in Hebrew. Some of the words - indeed some of the prayers - chime exactly with those of a synagogue prayer-book. But this is a Catholic Mass.
There are, it is estimated, more than one billion Catholics around the world. Within the Middle East, the great majority celebrate Mass in Arabic. A tiny sliver - about 400 - celebrate Mass in Hebrew.
Leading the service this evening is Father David Neuhaus. Hebrew, he says, has the distinction of being the first language, other than Greek or Latin, in which the Vatican allowed Mass to be said.
That was in 1956, almost a decade before the decision was taken to allow Mass to be celebrated in any language. The argument, from the petitioners to the Vatican, was that Hebrew was one of the three languages used to inscribe Jesus's cross.
A few days before conducting the evening Mass, Father Neuhaus relates his own, remarkable story in measured and thoughtful tones.
We are sitting in the garden of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, in the centre of Jerusalem - the end to a convoluted journey.
David Neuhaus's parents were German Jews who fled the Nazis and settled in South Africa. As that country descended deeper into the grim mire of apartheid, the teenaged David was sent to Israel, to continue his schooling. There he met a "powerful, mystical" Russian Orthodox nun, and he discovered Jesus.
"I had to then deal with what it meant for a Jew to join a Church which is perceived by the Jewish people as one of the enemies in the history of the Jewish people."
A compromise was struck within David's family. Everyone would draw breath, and wait. David's will did not waver. At the age of 26, he was baptised.
But he insists that through that period, and since, he has integrated what he calls "my two identities".
"I feel very strongly historically, socially, ethnically - in all senses other than religiously - a Jew. And then, integrating with that, who I am as a person in relationship with God. And it's not easy. There are no simple solutions."
Some of the community to whom Father Neuhaus ministers, as one of the five vicars of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, are Catholics who are living for a short time in Israel, and who want to attend a Mass in the local language; some are expatriates who have married Israelis; and some, as with him, have converted from Judaism.
Did he, I asked him, still go to synagogue? A pause. "I do go, discreetly," Father Neuhaus replied. And then a laugh: "Now I'm saying it [in] public."
Father Grzegorz Pawlowski allowed himself to be baptised out of fear, but eventually became a Catholic priest
He often goes to the Friday night services in a reform synagogue which welcomes non-Jews.
"I'm not exactly a non-Jew," he says. "In a certain sense, I'm worse than a non-Jew. And yet I've been welcomed for who I am, and with a sensitivity to this tension."
Not often will you hear a Catholic priest say that part of his identity is fulfilled through the synagogue service, or through participation, with friends and family, in Jewish feasts.
But Father Neuhuas is not unique. Grzegorz Pawlowski, a 78-year old Holocaust survivor from Poland, lives in a small and simply-furnished apartment in Jaffa.
In a level voice, but with his eyes still wide with the memory, Grzegorz related the long story that wound on from the moment, at the age of 11, he was separated from his mother and sisters - whom the Nazis then shot and dumped in a mass grave.
Grzegorz survived for three years by wandering the streets and the countryside, and hiding.
He ended up, after the war, in an orphanage run by the Red Cross.
"I'm afraid to speak that I was Jew," he told me, swapping for the moment from Polish-accented Hebrew to halting English.
"I'm afraid. Because Jew - you can kill him, yes?" And so Grzegor allowed himself to be baptised, before the orphans were to receive their first communion.
It was the start of a journey to Catholicism, which ended with him being ordained as a priest in 1958. But he kept his secret identity for another eight years.
"I felt uncomfortable that I was denying, to my mother and to my father, the fact that I'm Jewish. And so in 1966, I wrote an article in a Catholic Weekly, and there I told my whole story
how I got through the Holocaust, and how I became a priest."
Through that article, Father Pawlowski made contact with the one surviving member of his family - his brother, whom he thought was still living in Russia, where he had first escaped to.
Instead, his brother had made it to Haifa, in Israel. Grzegorz's conversion was a source of pain to his brother. "He never accepted it, never accepted it."
A long sigh followed. "He was a very religious Jew. We had very good relations. But he prayed that I come back to Judaism."
Much as Father Neuhaus explained, Father Pawlowski says that his identity, too, cannot be folded into neat boxes.
"I am a Catholic priest, and I also see myself as Jewish. I am connected to the Jewish nation. On Yom Kippur, I fast. At Passover, I eat matzah."
Sometimes, in synagogue, he says, he has to remember not to cross himself, and kneel; in church he has to make sure he is not wearing his kippa (skull-cap). Father Pawlowski delivers this last reminder to himself in a flat voice, before breaking into a loud, wheezy laugh.
And he has one final commitment to his Jewish roots.
"Close to where my mother and sisters were killed [in Poland], there's a Jewish cemetery, where there is a memorial to my mother and all those who were shot. And I will be buried there, next to my mother, in the Jewish cemetery."
FROM A FATHER TO A DOCTOR
After spending the late morning with Father Pawlowski, I stumbled across Dr Shakshuka, on the fringes of the flea market, in Jaffa.
I ordered the cheap, but laughably misnamed "business lunch".
Within moments of my choice, the waiter descended on my table with eight dishes.
There is no secret to Dr Shakshuka’s recipies – just Libyan cooking
There were four types of meat, the sort that appears to have been cooked for a day at a low, slow heat, then given a massage, then sent on holiday, and only when it has become at one with its surrounding ingredients and is so relaxed that it falls off the bone at the mere approach of your fork, is it then ready to be served.
All the dishes (bar the bed of couscous) went some way to explain why fat is such a good convection agent for flavour.
The good doctor's real name is Bino Gabso. His place has been serving shakshuka (a breakfast dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce) and utterly un-businesslike lunches for 17 years. Before him, his father also had an eatery in Jaffa. The family came to Israel in 1949, from Libya.
I was barely able to talk after lunch, even after a large, strong Arabic coffee, but I managed to croak the tired journalist's question: "Is there a secret?"
"No," Bino replied with fetching directness. "It is Libyan food. There is no secret. In Tripoli, people only have food. They have nothing else in their lives. They don't have music, anything. When they're at work, all they think about is food, and how they're going to make it when they finish work."
Many may take issue with Bino's reduction of Libyan life culture to a mess of lamb and beans. But one thing is certain. If you have business to conclude, do it before you order Dr Shakshuka's business lunch, not after.
Here is a selection of your comments on Tim Frank's diary.
At least in Israel people can convert and change religion if they want to.Its not really the case in the Arab world, in Algeria for exemple converts from Islam to Christianity are being harrassed and in some cases tried and put in jail by an extremely intolerant regime.
Paul, Algiers, Algeria
Beautiful article. Only way for Jews salvation is to accept Jesus and embrace Christianity. He will forgive them.
Behind Father Pawlowski there hangs a painting of Jesus holding a rather outsize lamb. The painting shows Jesus as white and with a very straight nose and looking very, very European. That, in a nutshell is the crux of the problem. He was and must have looked Jewish as must have his mother and all of his disciples. If Christians could come to terms with this simple truth then there would be less anti-Semitism. One is asking a Jewish woman for intercession, not a blond, white Aryan one.
Frank Bright, Martlesham Heath, Suffolk
Enjoyed both of your journal entries for May 4. In the first, I hear resonances with with Jewish Christian people I have known. In the second, I am reminded of my food-loving Taiwanese family. Just a small correction on Fr. Neuhaus' claim that Hebrew was the first language to be approved by the Vatican for mass besides Greek and Latin. Classical Chinese (rather than vernacular Mandarin) was allowed in the 17th century, though I am not sure for how long...
David Liu, Durham, NC, USA
I think your blog is interesting. However, I would like to point out that many Jews do not consider the Catholic church to be the "one of the enemies in the history of the Jewish people" There was historically discrimination, but I am Jewish and have Catholic friends. There is far more friction among Protestants and Catholics than there are with Catholics and Jews.
Marc, Chicago, IL USA
How wonderful it was to read your article. I understand perfectly what the two priests mean when they say that they feel Jewish even though, religiously they are catholic. My family is very similar. We come from a Jewish background on one side and Protestant on the other. Having been raised in both, Christianity and Judaism to me are not mutually exclusive. I feel Jewish, I know all my family's traditions and take part in them. I go to synagogue, but I also have the Christian side to my religious beliefs and go to church too. The Jewish side of the family is reform, and is very open and loving and does not discriminate against its Christian members, but Jewish society in general is very closed minded and non-inclusive. Yea for Fathers Neuhaus and Pawlowski!
Emily, Panama, Panama
A much younger convert to Christianity, I can tell of an ongoing discrimination against converts in the Israeli society. Eventually, in a complex chain of events, I became a recognized refugee in a far away country. It is hard to explain the Israeli behaviour in the light of their formal position regarding Nazi discrimination. Has the victim became a victimizer?
Roy Tov, Tel Aviv, Israel
Lovely! Really enjoyed reading this article and as an immigrant in the UK, really resonates my own journey. The conclusion was sweet and sent me laughing. I know just how heavy the Mediterranean meals can be.
J Omondi, Braintree, UK
That's the way our Lord meant it: [also] the Jews accepting Christ as the Messiah. Therefore the only correct way (although politically incorrect :-) is to kneel and cross yourself in a synagogue - as well as to wear kippa in a Catholic church! And feast on Good Friday AND Yom Kippur, and to eat Matzah at Passover.
Pawel Zak, Warsaw, Poland
Thank you so much for the article on the priests. I was born in Jerusalem and raised very conservatively Jewish. I was baptized three years ago and am a very happy, practicing Catholic.
Anna Phillips, Seattle USA
"But are they truly Catholic?", keeps nagging in the back of my mind as I finish up the last bit of reading. For instance, how do they reconcile the exclusively Catholic doctrine of "Mother God"? or as we Protestants affectionately refer to it, "Mariolatry"? To the true Jew God is not scismable, "Hear Oh Israel, the Lord your God is one." Which brings up several other doctrinal enigmas, the worst of which, the "Trinity". I venture to say the dioceses they serve is most liberally Catholic at best.
Nigel Bruce, Seattle, WA USA
How sad that in the abandonment of their faith they are still capable of bringing tears and sadness. They claim to have joined a new faith that preaches peace and brotherly love, yet this article indicates that an inner hurt still lingers and their attempt at finding inner peace is causing pain to those whose faith they abandoned. The Pope has been asked to open the files of the tens of thousands of Jewish children who found refuge in the church. In this act of kindness lurks the sinister plan of forced conversion of these tender Jewish souls. Children unable to seek help forcibly baptized and taught to forget their religion. Can we forget? Would you?
Rabbi Jack Engel, Delray beach Florida
I, too, have eaten at Dr. Shakshuka. There were four of us. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the ambience was of Arabic hospitality. At the end, a few of us needed to undo our belts to allow our increased size a chance to exist freely. I will always remember that night with great fondness.
Sheldon Tyber, Toronto, Canada
While I am not Jewish nor Catholic, I recognize in David Neuhaus the kind of kindred spirit that helps to bring all people of faith toward each other. As a guest in that hospitable synagogue, I'll never forget the kindly smile which David turned toward us, saying, "Welcome to our synagogue."
Gerald Shenk, Virginia, USA
The following misses one of the original languages of Israel and the Bible. The Syriac dialect of Aramaic. My wife speaks Assyrian and was baptized in Assyrian in a Catholic Church, their liturgy has been in Syriac for the last 1600 years, at least. Their church was re-united with the Roman church in the 1600s I believe.
Colin Murphy, Belmont, California, USA
Your article moved me deeply. I am just a run of the mill Catholic with Sephardic roots (Halevi of Burgos), with some of the identity experiences of Frs Neuhaus and Pawlowski, and who also believes that nothing about Christ makes sense if you do not see him within the context and the promise of "The Old Testament."
Thanks Tim, very interesting. I would like to hear more about David Neahaus and the Orthodox nun.
Ed Lucie, Weston, MA USA
What a wonderful article and insight into the complexity of being a Catholic convert from a strong Jewish heritage. All Christians would be well advised to remember that Jesus was a practising Jew, even up to His death. It might be a source of healing if Christians, Catholics in particular, were to revive the God-given Old Testament admonishments to commemorate forever the special Jewish feasts.
Margaret Stridick, Cherry Hill, NJ USA
There is one major omission: (it might be major only for me as I'm Slav, but nevertheless) there was one liturgic language before Hebrew. It is called Old Church Slavonic and still used in some places. It is artificial language brought by saints Ciril and Methodius to area of Great Moravian Empire. It was thought on Great Moravian Academy and used for both religious and government documents. It was ratified as an official liturgic language by pope Jan VIII in year 869, which is way earlier than Hebrew.
Ji?í ?evora, Uherské Hradit?, Czech Republic
It is beautiful to hear about Jewish Catholics who keep their identity as Jews. Would that all over the world there were such freedom for people to be true to their deepest selves as regards religion, nationality, family, society. Human beings are complex and it is important that there is a freedom which unites people rather than a fundamentalism which seeks to divide and ghettoize people.
Emer Manning, Portlaoise, Ireland
So inspiring to read such positive reports indeed! I am a Catholic myself and feel very strongly that this will augur well for the Pope's forthcoming visit to the Holy Land. Just like language which is the instrument of collective thought, religion is the spiritual force that brings people from all cultures together.
Thaddeus Loo, Singapore
It is a story that needs telling broadly: the complexity, and the peaceful way of being true to one's identity and history. I am a catholic but we all have the same deity with different, sometimes confrontational histories. Talking about it can help.
Eileen de Neeve, Montreal, Canada