I just finished reading Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark’s book, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith. And I was deeply affected by on it several different levels. Her story begins when, out of the blue, she learns that her grandparents had been Jewish. Not only that, they’d been sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp by the Nazis, where her grandfather died. The revelation was even more confounding because her father had been (she thought) a life-long Lutheran: baptized, confirmed, and very active in his congregation. Pr. Neumark, raised in this setting, went on to seminary and has served as a Lutheran pastor for 30 years.
The book is powerful, just on the merits of a heart-wrenching story of the Shoah (her preferred designation) and its aftermath. It also stirred things up for me personally, a Lutheran pastor with a name that had been changed generations ago from the “Jewish” spelling. I’ve never been able to get any good answers about this, just speculations, and any relatives who might have known more are now gone. Could there be a Jewish great-grandmother or great-grandfather on my family tree? Quite possibly. As difficult a journey that Neumark had to undertake, I envy her a bit in the discoveries and self-discoveries she experienced.
The third level of interest is the intrafaith questions Neumark raises. Her first chapter is entitled “Crossing Over,” and I smile because I learned my intrafaith methodology from John S. Dunne’s The Way of All the Earth:
What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.
Neumark certainly has had a crossing/ passing over and coming back experience, but I would call it a far deeper experience than a spiritual adventure. More like a spiritual earthquake.
Take the sacrament of Holy Communion. While visiting ancestral villages in Germany, she learned that in 1510, Neumark Jews were expelled under the charge of desecrating the host. She laments,”How is it possible that I, descendant of these Jewish outcasts, stand at the altar every Sunday, saying prayers of blessing over bread and wine and repeating the words, “The body of Christ given for you” “The blood of Christ shed for you” as I place the host in the hands of my congregants? I’ve done it for 30 years now without thinking of those slaughtered Jews, my namesake Jews, who died over a perversion of this very sacrament. Now, I cannot do it without their painful presence beside me.”
And on the sacrament of Baptism. “As a pastor who has perfumed hundreds baptisms, rejoicing at every single one, I find myself in a very unexpected and undesirable place. My grandparents drowned their Judaism so their children might rise as newly created Germans, pure as any Aryan. Baptism can even be seen as an assent to Nazi propaganda; being a Jew is no good. What can we say when . . . baptism itself is a demonic act that defies God? How can I unreservedly find my identity at the font?”
At one point, she asks, “With this legacy, how can I be a Lutheran pastor?”
Pastor Neumark does not leave us in the depths of this despair. She allows us to listen in as she works through this painful “coming back” to Christianity. But when she says, “I’m getting stuck here and I wish the Church would pause to get stuck with me,” I want to say that I wish we would, too.
Recovering and honoring the Jewish roots of our Christianity is long overdue. For Lutherans, acknowledging and understanding the dark side of our history, is a necessity that should never be glossed over. We should view our scriptures and rituals taking these into account.
I feel privileged to have read Pastor Neumark’s story. But I also believe that it isn’t necessary for all of us to have similar life-changing revelations in order to bring our “coming back” insights, questions, struggles, and learnings into our churches.
This is how I find I can be a Lutheran pastor. And I’m glad that Heidi Neumark is one, too!