Don’t shoot the messenger

Embrace that love and feel salvation, he proclaims; love floats in the air around him.

Jacob Damkani (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Jacob Damkani
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
There is a scene in The Messenger where Monty Python meets Greek tragedy; I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The filmed altercation between the Na Nah Nahmans from Uman and a shofar-wielding Jacob Damkani leading his band of Messianists has to be seen to be believed.
The Na-Nahs yell about Jesus being the root of all Jewish catastrophes, the Messianics yell back that he was a Jew and that loving him is the only road. Earlocks sway in the wind, elaborate white kippot bob over long lank locks, robes flap… it’s mythological.
But there is nothing comic about the subject. Messianic Jews, as they refer to themselves, believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah; they combine this belief with elements of Jewish tradition. This does not go down well with certain population groups in Israel; one Purim, for example, a booby-trapped misloah manot exploded in the face of a child of a Messianic Jew. Homes have been torched and cars burned, beatings are common, and broken windows and worse, according to Damkani, a leading light in the Israeli movement.
The soon-to-be-released movie traces Damkani, a poor boy from a large religious family whose parents, originally from Iran, immigrated here in the early days of the state. Damkani, who is now 64, negotiated a crime-ridden youth in Holon, relocation to the States when he feared the law would catch up with him, and a failed marriage, before he found salvation through Jesus, whom he lovingly calls “Yeshua.” Today Damkani is a “shepherd,” beloved by adoring members of his faith in Israel and around the world, where he is feted and idolized almost as though he were the Messiah himself.
The movie, directed by award-winning filmmaker Doron Eran, is one-and-a-half hours of adulation; there are big, big scenes of Damkani striding solo through desolate spaces where he lifts an impressive shofar to the heavens and blows one very plaintive blast that lasts and lasts and lasts, till it crescendos off the shifting sands.
Damkani’s journey from armed robber to shepherd of souls is lovingly documented: his initial encounter with the New Testament, his epiphany when he realized (for the first time in his 25 years of life) that Jesus was a Jew, and his gradual understanding that the Old Testament predicts his coming (Messianics believe this is substantiated by the prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah). We accompany him as he makes his first tentative steps into proselytizing by distributing leaflets on city streets, his return to Israel, his second marriage and divorce, his gutting pain (in retrospect) at his total lack of paternal care for his three sons for over 20 years.
Today Damkani jets around the world spreading the word: scrubbed Japanese schoolkids sing to him in Hebrew, black tribesmen adorned with leaves and beads chant to him in Papua New Guinea and wash his feet with coconut milk. In South Korea and the US he has one message: we are all sinners – with two successful armed robberies on Brinks vans behind him in America, and a string of safe-crackings in Israel, he should know – and that Yeshua loves us dearly.
Embrace that love and feel salvation, he proclaims; love floats in the air around him.
Damkani is a hero – with an international TV station broadcasting to the masses, an autobiography translated into 19 languages, regular outreach trips to communities abroad – he is a man adored. Married now to his third wife – a blonde, blue-eyed German Messianic 15 years his junior – and running the Gilgal Hotel in Tel Aviv, Yeshua has helped him to live the dream.
As we waited for the lights to go down, I chatted to Bob (not his real name), originally from the US, who believed that his father was a Hindu till he realized that he had misheard, his dad had actually answered “Hebrew” to his 20-year-old son’s question about his roots. Bob lives here now, with his non-Jewish wife, and they are both Messianics – though whether they qualify as Messianic Jews is not quite clear. According to Damkani, when Christians accept that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, they become saints, grafted onto the House of Israel through faith. The “Who is a Jew” humdinger doesn’t matter here.
What might matter, though, is what Bob told me in awe: the word on the streets is that God wanted Damkani to open a hotel, so he deposited a suitcase containing $1.2 million in an empty room for the shepherd to find. Damkani dismisses the legend, claiming the money came from friends. Money is also collected in all 100 communities in Israel; after every service, a bag is passed around for voluntary contributions.
“As happens in all religions,” Bob explained, although I’ve never encountered such a thing in my own shul-going experience, unless you count a whip-around for Israel during the Six Day War. None of the congregants I spoke to had information on exactly where the money goes; it may well help to feed the hungry, but who knows? Damkani didn’t do it for me, but I might have been a minority of one in the capacity crowd filling a spacious cinematheque hall in Tel Aviv last week. People of the faith were literally banging at the doors, begging to be allowed in; every seat was taken. The movie showcased adherents: an ex-haredi woman sitting symbolically on rocks in a crashing sea, telling of her abusive childhood in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, her 10 children and a marriage that was ultimately suffocating, her liberation as she decided to go “all the way” with Yeshua (and Damkani, who perches counterpoised on a rock, nodding empathetically).
Then there are the Israeli congregants whom Judaism never touched, who grew up totally secular in this Holy Land. Parched for spirituality and the intoxicating healing of a savior, they dive into Messianism with a passion; there are upwards of 20,000 members here. Damkani claims there are close to a million Messianic Jews worldwide, a figure I have not been able to corroborate. That doesn’t include Christian Messianics. It’s impressive.
And yet.
I watched in awe as black-robed haredim screamed that cultists should be shunned, and lost Israelis extolled the peace they’d found in Jesus, and all I could wonder was: Where did we go wrong? What’s happened in our little land? How has religion become so screwed up here that it either morphs into cult, or melts into nothingness, or makes us mad? Where is the comfortable sense of community we had in the Diaspora, even the non-religious among us; the knowledge we had of the prayers and the ritual, even if we didn’t believe, and didn’t adhere to any of the practices? Why weren’t we searching for spiritual truth? Why were we satisfied with who we were? Why do secular kids here grow up so anti-our religion that they fall headlong into random cults? Why is everything so fraught here, so extreme, so crazy? I ask my students often, in the colleges where I teach, if they feel Israeli or Jewish; the answers are complex and unclear. It’s a weird, weird thought to wonder whether Israel has been bad for the Jews when it comes to Judaism; when I watched the movie, the thought kept popping up.
Greater minds than mine have grappled with these conundrums and come up clueless; it’s an exhausting mind squeeze. At this point I think I’ll just turn the other cheek onto my pillow for a pre-Shabbat nap; it seems the most sensible way to go.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.