How does a woman passionate about the Jewish faith suddenly find Jesus? "I have spent my whole life…seeking God," writes Lauren Winner, and here, a 20-something, self-confessed "boy crazy, pointy-headed academic" shares the quirky path of her spiritual journey from Judaism to Christianity in this compelling book. As she unfolds her spiritual pilgrimage, she acknowledges "A literature scholar would say there are too many 'ruptures' in the 'narrative.' But she might also say that ruptures are the most interesting part of any text, that in the ruptures we learn something new." Her story, with all its "ruptures," makes for absorbing reading.
As the child of a Reform Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother, Winner grew up with both a Christmas tree and a menorah. Her parents raised her in the Jewish faith, and she details how she embraced Orthodox Judaism in college. "But, gradually my Judaism broke," she writes.
Although Winner is a scholar, with degrees from Columbia and Cambridge universities, she found the spark for her conversion to Christianity in a surprising book: After reading AT HOME IN MITFORD by Jan Karon, "I thought, 'I want what they have,' " she admits somewhat abashedly. She found herself "courted by a very determined carpenter from Nazareth," one who haunted her dreams.
This conversion, just several years after her former wholehearted conversion to Orthodox Judaism, caused some acquaintances to be skeptical that Christianity would stick: they wondered aloud if she would convert again to something else. And indeed Winner, like most honest Christians, finds that as much as she is at home now in her new faith, she is still plagued by doubt: "Sometimes, lately, I feel a sort of sinking staleness…this isn't working, I don't believe this Christian thing anymore, this is just some crazy fix I've been on…." But she also realizes about her Christianity that "How to fall in love is not, now, what I need to learn. What I need to learn, maybe what God wants me to learn, is the long grind after you've landed."
It is in the "long grind" that Winner finds she cannot divorce Judaism, hard as she tries: giving away and selling her Jewish library, eating forbidden foods, trading in her Hebrew prayer book for the Episcopal BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. When you convert, Winner writes, you lose all sorts of things: your vocabulary, your prayers, and many special relationships. As Winner tries to adapt to the Christian liturgical calendar, she finds her life still flowing in the rhythms of the Jewish holidays. Even as she gives away the trappings of her Jewish life, she finds she has not given up the way she sees the world, or the Jewish words she knew for God.
With resolve, it seems, to master every aspect of her new faith, Winner grapples with all of its accoutrements: confession, giving up reading for Lent, finding a church, taking the Eucharist, trying to be chaste. She puzzles over the idea of "speaking in tongues"; struggles with prayer ("I have a hard time praying. It feels, usually, like a waste of time"). Most compelling are her clear-eyed observations of her own shortcomings as she grows in her Christianity and her willingness to be vulnerable with the reader. She refuses to sugarcoat her experiences; rather, she offers frank and perceptive commentary on how real faith --- Jewish or Christian --- looks, with all its bumps and bruises. As she plumbs the rituals and disciplines of both faiths, there is the unspoken invitation to Christians to examine the Jewish roots of their beliefs.
Her rebuilding of her Jewish library metaphorically shows her burgeoning realization that she can welcome her Jewishness as it shapes how she sees Christianity, how she reads the Bible, how she thinks about Jesus --- and that this is the way forward.
Winner's thoughtful book, full of the longing, doubt, humor and poignancy that can accompany a search for God, is a captivating read and builds bridges for dialogue for all readers, no matter what their faith.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on December 30, 2003