Jewish and Catholic: An interview with my father, Phil Prever
Back in 2018, I interviewed several people for an article about what it means to be both Jewish and Catholic. The interview never made it to print for various reasons, but I have always wanted to share the conversation I had with my father.
He and my mother both grew up in Brooklyn with a cultural Judaism. They married young, had two children, became hippies, drove cross country and back, moved to Israel and back, dallied with Buddhism, moved to a ski lodge in Vermont, had a dramatic conversion to evangelical Christianity, briefly landed in a cult, had two more children (including me), and eventually made their way into the Catholic Church, where they stayed (and had four more children).
Here is my father’s account of what his Jewish origins meant to him.
What was your experience of Judaism growing up?
We were cultural Jews. We celebrated Chanukah, but it didn’t mean a whole lot. It was just something Jews did around Christmas time. We never had a “Chanukah bush!”
The only other thing we did in my family was we fasted on Yom Kippur. My father . . . I don’t even know what he believed. He felt a great lack in his life, because he had never been bar mitzvah’d. His parents wanted to get away from all that. He felt he had missed out, so when I was studying for bar mitzvah, I had to learn scriptures, and recite in front of the congregation in a synagogue, and he asked the rabbi if he could be bar mitzvah’d, in his 50’s.
On Yom Kippur, we would all fast. He would sit in a room with the lights off, no radio, no entertainment, wouldn’t read, would just sit there for all of the whole day and night. I don’t know what he was doing. It was a very solemn kind of thing, really spooky. Everyone tiptoed around him.
As kid, on the whole block, we were all Jewish. The joke was, “Are you fasting, or are you feasting?” Most of the kids fasted. We didn’t go to the synagogue, but we hung out around the synagogue and peeped in the windows.
Everything was done in Hebrew. The way they did it, the men who went there knew the prayers so well, they recited them at a very high speed. I don’t know if they knew what they were saying, but it was just a jumble and it didn’t seem very meaningful to me, but that’s what you did.
Why did you hang around, if it wasn’t meaningful?
There was a lot of horseplay. We weren’t in a devout frame of mind, or anything. But we were drawn to it. We didn’t understand it, but we knew we were Jews and this was what Jews did on the high holidays. Our families didn’t go to Shul, but somehow we wanted something to do with it.
There was a synagogue where I was growing up, and one day I’m walking along the street and a man comes up and says, “Are you Jewish?”
“Have you been bar mitzvah’d?”
“We need one more for a minyan.”
I must have been in my early teens. I sat through the service that was meaningless to me, but on the other hand, I felt like I was doing something devout. After I was bar mitzvah’d, I took it somewhat seriously. I got phylacteries, and for at least a month I used to put on the tefillin every day and said the prayers. Eventually I got tired of doing it.
Some years, we would go to my uncle’s father from the old country. He used to do a seder. He did it all in Hebrew. That’s the only time I ever went to a real seder. Other than that, on Passover, we’d have a special meal with Passover foods, but no seder. I went to Hebrew school until I was bar mitzvah’d, to read and write Hebrew to an elementary level. Then once I was bar mitzvah’d, that was all over with.
My mother used to light yarhzeit candles on the anniversary of someone’s death, which I still do. That’s about it. And a lot of Jewish food.
All the people we knew were like us. None of my friends were observant. I didn’t know any Catholics or Christians when I was growing up. I never saw anyone who wasn’t Jewish until I was in sixth grade. There was an Italian girl in my class from a couple of blocks away.
How did your parents respond when you converted?
My mother was distressed. Ima’s mother was, too, even though they were less observant than my family.
But what happened was, they saw we started to live differently. We had lived a crazy life before, with drugs and hippie craziness. We were leading a disordered kind of life, and they saw we cleaned up our lives and stopped messing around so much, so they were impressed by that. That made a difference. My mother softened over the years. She wasn’t actively hostile. She got over it. She came to live with us, so it couldn’t have been too uncomfortable for her.
Early on, when we were protestants, Ima’s mother and my mother came to visit. They drove up. At that time, we thought it was our duty to preach the Gospel to everybody we met, so we started working on our mothers. They weren’t having any of it. We tried to explain to them why they needed to be saved. They didn’t want to hear it. I said something like, “You know, driving home, you could be in an accident and die, and where would you be then?” That was the wrong thing to say. That was the approach that was favored at the Community Bible Chapel: Hit ’em between the eyes. They were horrified, probably rightly so. We never did that again.
Does anyone respond negatively to your explanation of who you are?
Early on, Ima and I ran into some Catholics who didn’t understand why we, as Jews, wanted to become Catholics. They had been taught the idea that there were two covenants, and that Jews belonged to one covenant and Christians to another, and there was no necessity for Jews to become Christians to be saved. There was a time in the Church when that was the going explanation of the relationship between Jews and Catholics. It’s kind of passé now. That was in the early ’80’s. Ima converted in ’78 and I converted in ’79.
I know some christians have a kind of fascination with Jews. Did you run into that?
People were interested in us because of that. The priest at St. Mary’s where we first started going said, “You know, people are watching you.” Really? What do they expect to see? They wondered how a Jew would deal with all this Catholic stuff. But nobody said anything to me.
When we were protestants, we had a special status as Jews who had become Christians. It was kind of a special prize, because here we were, members of the chosen people, and we had converted, when so many Jews were against Christianity.
We were kind of minor celebrities when we were protestants. Once Ima and I were up in front of some protestant congregation explaining Judaism, which we didn’t know all that much about. I remember explaining about the mezuzah on the door post, and the pastor said, “That has the blood of a lamb in it, right?” And I said, “No! It has the scroll that has the Sh’ma in it.” “Oh!” he says.
People expected us to be well versed in the Old Testament, which I was not. I became well versed in it when I became a Christian. Certain things in my background that I didn’t quite understand the significance of became clearer to me when I became a Christian.
I’m trying to think of an example. I had a cousin, quite a bit older than me, more of my mother’s generation. When there would be a funeral and the whole family would be there, he would stand outside the fence and not go in the cemetery ground, and I never knew why, until I read somewhere in the Old Testament that because he was called a Cohen, born in some kind of priestly line, he was forbidden to set foot in a cemetery. Some kind of taboo against dealing with the dead, somewhere in Leviticus, no doubt. A light went on over my head: Oh! That’s why Seymour Katz never went into the cemetery.
Why is it important to you to preserve your Jewish identity?
There’s a feeling among the Jewish people that Jew who becomes a Christian is kind of a traitor to his people I don’t believe that. Because I think Jesus is God, you know? And I believe in God! I don’t feel that I’m betraying the Jewish people. I feel like I’m accepting the Jewish messiah. But maintaining my Jewish identity is important to me because I want to assure myself that I’m not a traitor, I guess. I’ve never reasoned it out on such an explicit level, but I think that’s how I feel.
It’s a wonderful thing to be a Jew. It’s special. The Jewish people are like no other. I’m glad some of you kids have maintained that. Some of you haven’t. We let you go your own way on that, presented it as something that was meaningful to us. I feel a deep bond with the state of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people around the world, wherever they are. I feel connected, and I don’t want to lose that.
Do you also feel connected to Catholics around the world, or is it a different kind of thing?
I feel like I’d like to, but it’s not on the same emotional level. I do feel some connectedness, but it’s not the same.
How do you express your Jewishness now?
I go to my parents’ graves once a year. I say the kaddish prayers over their graves, and put a stone on the gravestone. One other thing: I’m a lector at church. There’s a three-year cycle of readings. Once every three years comes the passage from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Before I read it, I say the Sh’ma in Hebrew in front of the congregation, and no one has ever asked me about it. Once or twice I even chanted it, just for the hell of it. I don’t know why I do it. It seems like it should be said in Hebrew.
You’re pretty conservative. Does it bother you that many American Jews are liberal?
It bothers me. I wish they’d open their eyes a little and see who the friends of the Jewish people are. The left in America is getting really anti-Israel. On the other hand, who knows if the Christians in America are really friends of the Jews when push comes to shove. I always think of The Sopranos, with the Jewish character Hesh. He and his daughter go to visit Tony in the hospital, and this evangelical preacher comes in to visit. He wants to pray with Tony. Hesh is rolling his eyes around, but his daughter says Evangelical Christians are great friends of the Jews. And Hesh says, “Just wait.”
Catholics, Catholics are all over the place. Although it seems like, among Catholic theologians, there’s been an awakening to the connection between the Catholic religion and how it grew out of the Jewish religions.
Have you encountered antisemitism in your lifetime?
Believe it or not, I have hardly any experience with antisemitism in my life, that I’m aware of. Growing up, I never ran into it because I was surrounded by Jews.
I remember once, when I must have been a Christian already, and I was at a gas station in New York. I must have gone down to visit family. This guy also filling up gas was talking to me, and I could tell by his accent he’s from down south. He looks at the price on the gas pump, which was much higher than what he was used to, and said, “Aw, G-ddamn Jews.” Blaming the Jews for high gas prices. It was insane. I was shocked. I had never run across that kind of overt antisemitism. Afterwards, I thought of a thousand things I could have said, but I didn’t say anything. It was a moment of realizing what’s out there, so many people who feel that way.
Didn’t you once have a customer for your book business who made some antisemitic remarks?
Oh, this guy was a nut. He turned out to be Pope Pius XIII. Fr. Pulvermacher, was his name. He ordered a traditional Catholic book. I started out selling pre-Vatican II books, before I understood what a trad was. Now I look back and I realize I was getting a lot of orders from trads. They assumed I was one, too. Little did they know I was a Novus Ordo Jew!
Some of them found out we were Jewish and were thrilled, but not all of them. This Pulvermacher passed some kind of remark. Ima wrote back to him, had some kind of back and forth with him, and he backed off.
He didn’t want to kill us or anything. He’s the one who said, “If you disagree with me, you’re a heretic.” Later years, we found out he became Pope Pius XIII.
Why do you think antisemitism is such a perennial thing?
Historically, I think antisemitism was basically a kind of hatred of God. That’s not the basis of all antisemitism; but in Europe, some of the pogroms was done trying to get at God through the Jews in some weird kind of way. And it sure has lasted a long time, huh? Three, four thousand years. Come on, enough already.
My father was born in America in 1900, so his family came over in the 1880s or 90’s. The pogroms has something to do with it. Being a Jew in Eastern Europe was not a comfortable thing. My mother’s father, at one point, they were trying to get him to come into the Russian army, and he didn’t want to go. It’s a good thing; he would have been slaughtered in World War I. Living under the Czar was not a comfortable thing. You were on the razor’s edge all the time. There were pogroms, and no one knew when they were going to start up again. By the time he left, there was a lot of communist agitation or socialist agitation. They got out a year before the 1917 revolution.
My grandfather would not have done well. He was a capitalist, so that was part of it.
Other than that, I don’t really know why they left, other than that they figured they would be better off in America, and they were.
There’s nobody to ask anymore. There’s a lot of things I wish I knew, but now there’s nobody to ask.
How did you come to do the seder that you do today?
When we first started doing it, I had a Haggadah which was a Christian seder, and it was put out by protestants. It was completely Christian prayers all throughout, always drawing out parallels. After a couple of years, I said, “I don’t feel comfortable doing this.” It didn’t sit right. I went back to using the traditional Haggadah and adding onto it, and I feel more comfortable with that. I’ve never done a seder in a Christian setting, for a church group or anything. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that, but I know I reacted against over-Christianizing it.
If your Jewishness were somehow taken away, what would it do to your faith, or to your relationship with God?
Why would such a thing be necessary? I would feel less like myself. I would feel I had lost something, and I was less of the person I had been all these years. I don’t think I would feel like I had less of a relationship with God, but it’s hard to say what that loss would consist of.
Do you pray as a Jew?
Sometimes.What does that mean?
Sometimes I think of Abraham praying for Lot. Sometimes I fall into that mode of praying. I speak to God in a kind of overfamiliar way, and I say, “Hey, you know, what’s the deal here?” I’ve been in that frame of mind while praying. Sometimes I find myself davening unconsciously [Note: “Davening” means “praying.” I believe my father was referring specifically to shuckling while praying.] It wasn’t something I grew up with. I used to see the men in synagogue doing it, but I never did.
Have you heard much about a Hebrew Catholic Rite? Would you get involved with it if it came about in your lifetime?
I would be very interested in seeing that come to fruition, but I don’t think I could help, because I don’t know enough. I can sound out Hebrew, but I don’t understand it except a phrase here and there. I don’t have any experience of praying in a synagogue or different Jewish holidays. I just don’t know enough. I would definitely like to see it happen.
We did absolutely zero religious observation when we were in Israel. When we were in Israel, we were Buddhists. I can’t explain how such stupidity can happen, but it did.
What meant a lot to me, living in Israel: At that time, before the Six Day War, we lived in Western Jerusalem. Jerusalem was like a peninsula into Arab territory. It came about during the war of Independence in 1948. They fought so hard to get at least a piece of Jerusalem. They never conquered the historical Jerusalem. It’s mountainous, and when you come up from the farther western part of Israel, you go uphill, and the road winds on these different hills. All along the hill, you see these rusted out military vehicles, relics of the war of ’48. It made a tremendous impression on me. You could see how hard these Jews had fought to get to Jerusalem, at least to get a piece of it.
I’d love to go back. I think about it a lot, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it. It would mean more to me now. We were there for [a year, which extended into] a few weeks after the war in ’67, and we went into the Old City after the war. We were looking at the Via Dolorosa, and I saw lots of ancient sites, and then came up into some kind of building. We looked out a window, and there was the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. It’s a relic of the temple, all that’s left of the wall that supported what the temple was built on. All these people praying, and I never went down to it. People make pilgrimages from the ends of the earth to get to it. I was there, and I didn’t even take five minutes to go downstairs and go to the wall. It just didn’t mean that much to me. I’ve always been ashamed that I never did.
Do you think Jews have some kind of special mission or place or obligation in the Church or in the world?
If you go back to Romans 10, Paul talks about the mission of the Jews. He says the conversion of the Jews will be the resurrection of the dead. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it’s a big thing, something very important. He says the gift and the calling of God are irrevocable. There’s these gifts that have been given to the Jews, and when they come into the Church, it’s going to be apocalyptic. I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s going to be.
What do you want people to know about Hebrew Catholics?
There’s the idea that Jews in the Catholic Church will somehow subvert the Church. That’s crazy. I don’t know any Hebrew Catholic who would want to subvert the Church in any way. If you go far enough onto the fringe, they think the great sin of the Church was then the Church said the Jews didn’t kill Christ.
There’s this idea I run into with some Catholics that Catholics are Catholics and Jews are Jews, and Jews don’t need Christ. That bothers me that anyone should think that: That there’s anyone who doesn’t need Christ. Although I think the Jews are special in many ways, they’re not so special that they don’t need Christ. Everyone does.