CROSSING THE DIVIDE (November 2007)

by Dana Snyder-Grant

 

I started this column in August when I read in the New York Times that the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, had just been recited at Notre Dame Cathedral for Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. What was this all about? The Kaddish in a Roman Catholic cathedral? I was used to reciting the Kaddish in synagogue. Who was this man?

I continued reading and discovered that Aaron Lustiger was born in 1926 to Polish Jews who had moved to Paris around World War I. When Germany invaded France in 1939, Lustiger was just thirteen years old. Before the war, he had come across a Protestant Bible in Paris, and became captivated by its stories. His parents were not religious Jews, and this may have been the first time the young Lustiger was drawn to the Bible. This attraction continued after the war began when his family moved to the home of a Catholic woman in Orleans. He converted to Roman Catholicism in August 1940, much to his parents' dismay. It does not seem that the newly-baptized Jean-Marie converted to escape the Nazis; rather, as a budding adolescent, he had become enamored with Catholicism.

Here, the story goes in two very different directions. After war broke out, Lustiger's mother, Giselle, returned to Paris to run the family business. As a Jew, she had to wear the yellow star and was deported to Aushwitz-Birkenau in 1942. The next year, she was exterminated. Lustiger, his father, and sister remained sheltered in unoccupied Southern France.

It was after the war that Lustiger entered the priesthood and became student chaplain at the Sorbonne. He would later publicly forgive his countrymen for the Holocaust, stating in a 1998 lecture,

“ ...I do remember the ones who provided me with forged documents...I do remember those who warned me that I might be arrested soon. I do remember those who put me up without asking any questions. I do remember those whom I trusted and never betrayed me.”

When Lustiger was ordained in 1954, his father attended the ceremony, but watched from a seat far in the back. Lustiger rose up the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy, training French chaplains and becoming a close confidante of Pope John Paul II. He became Archbishop of Paris in 1981 and remained so for 25 years. He was even mentioned as a possible successor to the Pope. A Jewish Pope?

Even though Lustiger became leader of the French church, he always maintained that he had “remained a Jew after his conversion.” On becoming Archbishop, he said, “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many.”

Cardinal Lustiger championed interfaith relations, helping to close the divide between Christians and Jews. On his first visit to Aushwitz in 1983, he slipped away to kneel in the grass and say Kaddish for his mother, something he did every year on her yahrtzeit, the anniversary of her death.

Lustiger was known for his charisma, good humor, and compelling lectures. But my fascination with this popular priest sobered as I learned of his conservatism. He was against the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood. He viewed abortion and homosexuality as sins.

So why have I been so compelled to learn all I can about this man? Because, despite his conversion to Catholicism, Lustiger never forgot his Jewish roots. He ached for the loss of his mother in the camps. A reminder of this came in 1999 during the National Day of Remembrance for Holocaust Victims. The Cardinal joined in reading the names of those who died. When he reached the name of Giselle Lustiger, he paused and softly said, “my Mama.”.

And I, too, am Jewish and will always be. My college applications stated my intention to attend rabbinical school, but my studies at a woman's college in the 1970's expanded my interests beyond the familiar. Now, my marriage to a non-Jew has led me to find a spiritual home with the Unitarians, whose integration of Judaism with their liberal faith fits for us. The Unitarian focus on the inclusion of all faiths and their message of traveling an inner journey, finding harmony in nature, and seeking peace and social justice speak to me. I attend synagogue on the Jewish holidays and I help to lead an affinity group of Unitarians for Jewish Awareness. I feel closer to my Jewish roots than I've felt in a long time.

But I ask myself, am I betraying the six million with my actions? Like Lustiger, can I straddle two faiths? Am I straddling two faiths? Can I be Jewish and Unitarian? I can't answer these questions, yet.

I end this column more than two months after the Cardinal's death. I remember my roots and honor the journey. Lustiger's story reminds me that there is a universal quality to faith which transcends the differences that can drive us apart.


Dana Snyder-Grant is a social worker and a free-lance writer who lives in Acton, Massachusetts. Her new book, Just Like Life, Only More So and Other Stories of Illness, can be purchased at Willow Books in Acton or on the internet at http://www.justlikelifeonlymoreso.com/. You can send email to:

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