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Over the course of an extraordinary year, Zev Chafets—former New York Daily News columnist and onetime director of the Israeli government press office—traveled the world to explore the improbable confluence of Jews and evangelicals. He spent quality time with Jerry Falwell, visited Jewish cadets at West Point, attended the world's biggest Christian retail show, embarked on a road trip with the rabbi with the largest gentile following since Jesus, journeyed to the Holy Land with a band of repentant Christian ...
Over the course of an extraordinary year, Zev Chafets—former New York Daily News columnist and onetime director of the Israeli government press office—traveled the world to explore the improbable confluence of Jews and evangelicals. He spent quality time with Jerry Falwell, visited Jewish cadets at West Point, attended the world's biggest Christian retail show, embarked on a road trip with the rabbi with the largest gentile following since Jesus, journeyed to the Holy Land with a band of repentant Christian pilgrims, and broke bread with George W. Bush and five hundred fellow Jewish Republicans.
A Match Made in Heaven is the penetrating, engaging, and often hilarious narrative of Chafets's determined quest to get to the root of a very serious question: Why do evangelicals support Israel so strongly? Equal parts history, comedy, travelogue, and political tract, it is a smart and adventurous odyssey along a rapidly changing religious and political border.
I've been keeping a sharp eye on Christians ever since an eleven-year-old first baseman named Monroe informed me that I, one of the Chosen People, would be going to hell when I died. It wasn't a threat, or a recruiting pitch. He didn't care. It was just a piece of information he had picked up at the Emmanuel Baptist Church Sunday school, in Pontiac, Michigan. We were Little League teammates, and he figured I should know.
The warning seemed absurd to me. I went to school with Christians. They were my neighbors. I learned to ride my bike in the parking lot of the Grace Lutheran Church, across the street from my house. The house was built by my grandfather in the 1930s, a place where my mother grew up before me. There were very few Jews around during my childhood. Mostly I knew Christians, and it had never occurred to me that, dead or alive, they were going someplace I wasn't.
Naturally I knew that Christians came in different varieties. The Sicilian kids went to Catholic school and put ashes on their heads every year around Easter. I saw different preachers on television on Sunday mornings, too. Oral Roberts was my favorite; I loved the way he pounded people on the skull, healing them in the name of Jesus and issuing dire threats to theunsaved. I regarded this as entertainment, plain and simple, something along the lines of pro wrestling.
But after Monroe's warning, I became interested in Emmanuel Baptist Church, and the more I leaned, the more interested I got. I found out it had its own football team, the Crusaders. The pastor, Reverend Tom Malone, owned a personal airplane--more than enough to qualify him as a celebrity in the Pontiac of the 1950s. In the summer, Malone held tent revivals in the empty lot next to his church. Sometimes I'd cruise by on my bike, just to hear the muffled shouting and singing going on inside. I didn't venture in myself, but I put it on my list of future adventures.
I was in high school when a traveling evangelist named Hyman Appleman came to town. He was a Russian-born Jew who found Jesus in Denver in 1925. I heard him tell his story on the local radio station in a Yiddish accent and I was determined to enter the big top and see him for myself.
I enlisted a friend, Jim Embree, as a guide. He was an Episcopalian who had never been to a Baptist revival in his life, but I figured he'd have some idea what to do. I figured he would give me a little cover, and possibly even some tent cred.
Appleman preached that night in his comical brogue, telling mildly sarcastic anecdotes at the expense of the Chosen People. My fellow worshippers guffawed, and I laughed right along with them. He struck me as a buffoon. Only later did I learn he was a world-famous evangelist and an early influence on Billy Graham. "Thousands of names are written in the Lamb's Book of Life because Dr. Appleman passed their way," Graham has remarked.
Appleman finished his stem-winder and instructed the congregation to close their eyes. "If there is anyone here who hasn't been saved by the Lord Jesus, I want him to raise his hand," he said. My friend showed his Protestant smarts by keeping his hands in his lap. I raised mine. I didn't know that spotters were deployed throughout the crowd. By the time I opened my eyes they were on me, half a dozen hyperexcited Baptists imploring me to come forward and accept Jesus. I tried to politely refuse but they didn't want to hear it. Someone handed me a little information card and a ballpoint. I could picture an evangelical posse turning up at my house the next day if I filled it out. So I did what any young. self-respecting Jew would have done--I wrote down the name and address of the local rabbi and hotfooted it out of the tent. I wasn't saved that night, but I came closer than any Chafets ever had, and I found the foray into foreign territory exhilarating.
Michigan in those days was a great place for a kid with an eye for exotic religious practitioners. I became a devotee of Prophet Jones, the ecstatic black spiritualist preacher who wore a crown and an ermine robe, spoke directly to Jesus on a disconnected telephone during Sunday night services, sometimes threatened to strike inattentive members of his congregation dead, and gave sermons with titles such as "God Don't Like Women." Eventually the Prophet was run out of Detroit by the vice squad for what was then regarded as illicit sexual activity, leaving behind a fifty-four-room mansion painted blue, a closet of expensive outfits, and a coterie of passionate admirers.
Father Charles Coughlin was another favorite of mine. During the Depression he had been a nationally famous radio preacher who specialized in railing against Jewish communists, bankers, and warmongers (1930s versions of the euphemism "neocon"). Coughlin's followers marched in the streets of Detroit chanting, "Send the Jews back where they came from in leaky boats."
World War II was hard on Father Coughlin. He bet on fascism and lost. By the time I caught up with him, in the 1960s, he was a spent force, a red-faced old priest who looked like he would be willing to drink hair tonic. I made it a point of attending Christmas mass at his Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak in suburban Detroit. I'd sit in the rear of the huge church and think, 'This guy would drop dead if he knew I was in the audience."
Around this time a local Reform rabbi named Sherwin Wine announced that he didn't believe in God and that he was starting a congregation for Jewish atheists. This seemed perfectly natural to me. Most of the Jews . . .
Excerpted from A Match Made in Heaven by Zev Chafets Copyright © 2007 by Zev Chafets. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 26, 2008
If there was a political union that was stranger or more haphazard than that of the fire-breathing evangelicals of America, and the more sophisticated secular Israeli Jews, theirs would be a story of immense interest to Hollywood writers, if they had any creativity in their bones left anymore, but they don't. What started during the Godfather of Zionism's dream of a 'Greater Israel' met with depredations in many religious circles in the 40's, resulted in liberal mainline churches and secular Israelis as not seeing eye to eye, lead to the fruitful forbearing of an unprecendentally powerful political movement in America marrying the fecundity and warrior mentalities of Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and others with the organizational strength and sophistication of the secular Jews. What has been the result is no less than the second Bush presidency and its huge impact on the Middle East.
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