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The ghost of Christmas past has haunted me since childhood. Jesus of Nazareth, born on that day, appears in the auditorium of my elementary school in High-Yankee New Haven, Connecticut.
I am one of six Jews in a student body of 600 gentiles. We sing Christmas carols.
The words go: "Born is the King of Is-ra-el..."
Now I know from my Sunday school that Jesus is no king of mine, so I can't betray my people by singing; on the other hand, the teachers are watching like hawks to make sure that everyone sings. My solution: I lip-synch the text.
Christmas is an inviting festival with its blazing evergreens, tinsel, log fires, stockings stuffed with toys, carols drifting over hoarfrost, holly, mistletoe, virginal snow and, of course, Scrooge.
But as a Jewish kid, I'm excluded from the merriment. And beneath the glitz I feel apprehension and even dread whenever the name, "Jesus Christ" is uttered.
Early on in life, he appears, after-hours, in the schoolyard. The two Finn brothers lured me out and stated their case plainly. They had an account to settle with me for what I'd done to their Lord.
"What did I do?" I asked.
"You killed God," David said.
"I never killed anyone."
"You stuck pins in Him and He died," said David's brother.
"I never stuck pins in anybody."
"You did too," said David.
"I never did."
"That's what you say."
"That's the truth."
"We'll show you what's the truth, Jewboy!"
And they proceed to administer my first Jew-beating, throwing me to the scuffed-up ground of the schoolyard and stomping on me - a thrashing that is repeated, that turns Jesus into a symbol of fear, violence and oppression.
As an enemy steals into his foe's fortress, Jesus infiltrates my child's consciousness. A key is inserted in the lock of the apartment door. It is so quiet I can hear the tumblers turn. I hold my breath: The Angel of Death has come - Jesus has sent him for me - he's in the foyer, and I must run to him and kiss the crucifix and die.
YET, DESPITE Christian hostility and persecution, despite the fact that Christianity - which owes its very existence to Judaism - uses Jesus as a battering-ram against me and my fellow Jews, there is buried deep within a sense that he and I are indissolubly related: And me? Well, what can I say? A Jewish boy, hanging here on a cross beside Jesus, his kinsman, on a hill which overlooks our city, Jerusalem. They will try to change the fact that Jesus and I are related. But the fact will remain. They will try to change the fact that this is our city. But the fact will remain.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence and on into my adulthood, Jesus never leaves me; but not Jesus the Christian (Christians didn't exist when he lived), but Jesus, the Jew. So, feeling safer, perhaps, in the Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn than I did as a child in New Haven, I begin, decades later, to confront Jesus in a novel. My own, personal gospel.
And who relates it? None other than Jesus' older sibling, Judas.
I WRITE a tale of two brothers: Judas, who rejects Judaism and embodies all that is immoral and evil; and Jesus, a Jew, who espouses the compassionate and good, and dies a man broken on the rack of the world.
Who is the "real" Jesus?
"The well of the past," writes Thomas Mann, "is very deep." What has come down to us of Jesus has come down through the gospels, written a century after he died. The Jesus of my allegory is not an attempt to present or revise "history" - it is the expression of my own experiential truth. Long after completing the book, I find that in writing about one of the most significant myths in the Western world I have burrowed into, exhumed, and found harrowing utterance for my own history as a Jew growing up in a Christian culture that, while professing love for Christ, execrates the very nation which spawned him.
I INTEND that reading my book will be a profoundly transforming experience. Writing it was. Those who digest it will gain a sense of indescribable freedom - freedom from the theological platitudes and psychological defenses portraying cruelty as an aberration that can be overcome by ritual condemnations and pious recollections of past deeds.
This freedom leads to a shatteringly new appreciation of the need for Torah.
I write my novel to assert that absolute, unredeemable evil exists in our world; to shatter the mummy-case of myth that stifles, suffocates and stunts us; to demonstrate that morality is a glue that scarcely holds civilization together; to maintain that betrayal of the self inexorably leads to the betrayal of others; and to reclaim with burning pride the kinship of my brother, Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth, unequivocally, irreversibly and irrefutably, for the Jewish people.
I am assuredly not a messianic Jew, and most cerainly not a Jew for Jesus. What I am is a patriotic Jew who wishes that Christianity will truly grasp and honor Judaism for giving it a moral compass. For when all is said and done, it is from the ancient soil of this Land of Israel that Jewish Jesus sprang into the gentile sky.
And I wrote Brothers out of my undeniable and irresistible need to finally lay my "Ghost of Christmas Past" to rest.
The 30th-anniversary edition of the author's novel, Brothers, has just been published by the Toby Press.