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I’m Telling You, Child, You Are a Gentile

I’m Telling You, Child, You Are a Gentile

A spiritual journey: from Tonica Marlow to Tova Mordechai

Tova Mordechai
Tova Mordechai

Tonica Marlow stood looking down into the main hall of the synagogue. She couldn’t take her eyes off the rabbi or the Torah scroll he held in his hand as he faced the congregation. What am I doing here? she kept asking herself. So many times she had promised herself never to come here again, and yet here she was again, dressed in a brown wool habit, her hair covered with a brown scarf.

Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad,” the rabbi’s voice rang across the synagogue, and the congregants repeated after him. Tonica, too, found herself mouthing the words, though she knew not what they meant. She didn’t understand why her feet kept carrying her back here; but the more she came, the more she longed to hear those precious words again.

Her mother had been born a Jew, that much she knew. But then she’d converted, abandoning her Jewish faith at age 25 and marrying a gentile. Tonica, the youngest of five children, had been raised as a non-Jew. Nonetheless, the question cried out from her very soul: Who am I? It gave her no rest, the question; it tormented her, robbed her of her peace of mind.

Tonica watched as the rabbi lovingly replaced the Torah scroll into a wooden sculptured cabinet and drew the dark blue curtain over it. Then she hurried back to the theological college where she was studying to become a minister.

But she’d tarried too long; she was late for her responsibilities. The principal summoned her to his office. “Where were you?” he demanded.

“Why, I just popped into the synagogue for a few minutes,” she said.

“What?” the principal yelled. “I’m telling you, child, you are a gentile. I forbid you to go there.”

Tonica returned to her room in a haze. She knew that she understood that she was a gentile—her father was. So what was that void she felt, that unending yearning that dwelt inside her? Why was she so drawn to the Jews? She didn’t understand it. Yet her feelings gave her no rest.

Her thoughts turned to another meeting she’d had with the principal, one that had occurred several years earlier. It had been before Uncle Sammy, her mother’s Jewish brother, was due to come visit her at the college.

“I’m warning you,” he’d told her then. “Your uncle just might offer you a ticket to Israel. You know what to say, don’t you?”

How happy she’d been to see her uncle at last. Sitting in her room now, alone with her racing thoughts, Tonica thought about that visit, remembering with a sigh of pleasure the time spent together as they walked and talked in the garden outside.

“Tony,” Uncle Sammy had said at one point. “What are you doing here in those dark clothes, behind these high walls? Don’t you know that G‑d gave you life to be lived, to be enjoyed? C’mon, cheer up a little, laugh a bit.”

She’d laughed at her uncle’s naiveté. What did he know? This was the life she’d chosen for herself, a life of complete dedication to the religion she was raised with.

“You know what, Tony,” he’d said, “I’ll send you a ticket to Israel. You’ll live as a daughter in my house. Auntie Maria will take care of you—she’s such a good cook. You’ll be like one of my children. Give yourself the opportunity to see what it means to be a Jew. You know, the Jews will accept you as Jewish, because your mother was Jewish.”

Uncle Sammy spoke about other things as well. He told her about the mezuzahs that the Jews placed on their doorposts. He regaled her with stories about Jews living in Israel, and of miracles he’d witnessed in the Israeli army during the war. But nothing had moved her.

Finally, he turned to leave. “Tonica,” he’d said at the gate, “ask me for anything you’d like, and I’ll send it to you.”

“Send me a mezuzah,” had been her reply.

And, true to his words, the mezuzah arrived ten days later. How she cherished the mezuzah; she kept it near her, hidden inside her bedside table.

Audio: Tova Mordechai tells her amazing story

But now, as she sat in her room immersed in thought, the question came back to taunt her once again. Who am I really? she asked herself, perhaps for the millionth time. Was she, Tonica, a Jew, as Uncle Sammy had claimed, or a gentile, as she was raised to believe? She would give anything in return for the clarity she craved. Desperation gripped her mind. She must still the confusion whirling inside her.

Somewhere outside her room a door closed, followed by quiet footfalls treading across the corridor. A cold breeze drifted in through the window, rippling the hairs at the nape of her neck. Her head throbbed.

Tonica raised her eyes heavenward. “To the G‑d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” she silently pleaded. “Please hear me and lead me to all truth, whatever it may be.”

Time passed, and Tonica discovered a leaflet printed by Chabad. The Hebrew words were foreign to her, but she rejoiced with it nonetheless. And then it occurred to her to write a letter to the address at the bottom.

“All I know is that my mother’s a Jew,” she wrote. “I don’t know if I’m Jewish or not. I had no Jewish education whatsoever, but I came across this leaflet.”

Her letter was answered. She was soon contacted by a rabbi, and they arranged a time and place to meet.

The principal, upon learning of her correspondence with the rabbi, was livid. “I’m telling you, child, you are playing with fire,” he said. “Leave it alone.”

“If you’re so sure that this is the right way, what are you so worried about?” she asked him. “So I’ll ask a rabbi some silly questions, and I’ll come back . . .”

“There’s something the matter with your soul, child,” he said, “and I just can’t put my finger on what it is.”

Tonica went ahead with her plans and met with the rabbi. “You owe it to yourself to spend two weeks with an Orthodox Jewish family in London,” he suggested.

“Two weeks?” she was incredulous.

“Give yourself the opportunity to find out about Shabbat. Jewish life is mostly in the home, not in a synagogue.”

“Don’t you know how hard it was for me to get a half-hour to talk to you? How can I leave for two weeks?”

“Don’t you have a holiday?”


“Can’t you have a mad moment?”

“Mad moment? No. That’s not my way.”

“Think about it.”

“I can’t,” she cried in exasperation.

“Take it easy,” the rabbi said softly. “You don’t have to be upset. I promise you that I will not leave you on the street. If this college won’t take you back, I’ll find another one for you.”

But Tonica was consumed with doubt and uncertainty. She was 25 years old. How could she throw away a life in which she’d invested so much effort and emotion and time? How could she turn her life upside down and inside out, when she didn’t know for what?

Yet the turmoil inside her gave her no respite. Overwhelmed with a profound feeling of emptiness, she felt a terrible, unceasing sadness, though she couldn’t understand why.

One Saturday morning, Tonica, who had been due to preach on that day, suddenly knew she couldn’t do it. “If I’m going to leave,” she told herself, “it has to be now.” Somehow, she discovered within a reservoir of strength she didn’t know she had. “I’m going to find the one and only true G‑d,” she repeated over and over again. “If I have to sleep on the gutter, I will do it. If I have to do any kind of menial task, I will do it. But I am going to find G‑d and the truth.” And with that, she stepped outside of the theological college for the last time.

Today, Tonica, now Tova Mordechai, lives in Tzfas (Safed), Israel, with her husband and five children.

Tova relates that some years ago her mother was lying on the operating table before undergoing life-threatening surgery. From the depths of her mother’s soul, a desperate cry shot forth, “Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad.”

Throughout the ages, the cry of “Shema” was always on the lips of the Jew. It is the first prayer taught to children, the codeword that introduced one Jew to another in the worst of times, and the prayer uttered by millions of Jews who went to their deaths for the sanctification of G‑d’s name. It is the ultimate affirmation of our faith in G‑d.

It was the Shema inside the mezuzah that Tonica’s uncle had sent her, it was the Shema that had stirred her yiddisher neshamah (Jewish soul) when she’d first entered a synagogue. It was the answer to the question that all her young life had tugged at Tova’s soul.

Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad—“Hear, O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One.”

Note: Click here to purchase Tova Mordechai’s fascinating autobiography, Playing With Fire.

Mirish Kiszner is a teacher, counselor and lecturer living in Jerusalem. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications. Her latest book is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary People (Artscroll), a collection of true stories about real people. She is also a regular contributor to our Help! I’ve Got Kids . . . parenting blog.
Tova Mordechai, formerly an evangelical minister, is the author of her acclaimed auto­biography, “To Play With Fire”. She resides in Zefat, Israel, with her husband and three sons.
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Discussion (63)
February 2, 2015
ORJH" I am surprised by your perceived rejection by individuals in Chabad. I also wonder what you mean by "tried to enter Chabad>' Even the Rebbe acknowledged that not all Jews, even all Orthodox Jews should become Chabad. It is a very demanding role and lifestyle that the schlihcim must live. "Entering Chabad" is not necessary to living a full and committed Jewish life. Chabad, as I understand it,holds that being Jewish is like being in the army, not every soldier is equal, but every one is equally important. Your "heritage" ias not the key to Chabad. Your "heritage" can allow you to teach others, to serve as an example for others in you involvement in either or both Yiddishkite or contribution to your broader community. If you give up on Judaism, you will be giving up on your heritage as well. Every person is who they are, the challenge is to become the person you were meant to be. There are those who are willing to help. Shalom Zusel ben Shlomo
Zusel ben Shlomo
January 30, 2015
re: Of Rich Jewish Heritage- me too
I am sorry to hear this. Chabad is normally very accepting to everyone. Remember that G-d is always keeping your soul even if it seems lost. Just have peace, much of my Jewish "documentation" is skewed as well. Still, my family is Jews from Hungary and Germany, but they wanted to hide it and now it is hard to find. Just have peace. We know that we are Jews just the same. No matter what anyone says.
December 10, 2014
Of Rich Jewish Heritage
I too have similar story. My mother's side is Jewish Orthodox from Ukraine. My great, great grandfather was a rabbi outside Kiev. My mother is pure Jew. My father was eastern orthodox Christian. I always favored the Jewish side but was never accepted by the Jews. Throughout my marriage I tried to enter Chabad but was not welcomed warmly. I have a rich Jewish background but it does not seem to want me. I am now 55, and I have given up seeking Judaism because of difficulties. I too wonder, do I belong and why I am seeking here when no one is willing?
Alexandra Parks
November 5, 2013
Sophia this means the world to me. Such encouragement is what I have so desperately needed for so long. I "have" had encouragement in small forms here and there and especially on this site which is I am so grateful to Tovia for her shared story. I recognize that if I truly want to be converted then I must never give up regardless. After all only the best and strongest can be called by G-d. I have been living "Jewishly " since age 36 but as a young person studied it since age 20. I find it so hard to explain what is going on with me but inside I just grieve a loss. Sounds crazy I know but I just feel as though my soul is at odds with the rest of me and as though I must find my way back "home" THIS life. Almost as though I was sent to do this. I am a shell of a person hanging in limbo and alone without a people even though I pray without ceasing. I think you are right that I need to keep trying until I find my way home. At least I can say I gave it my all in the end! :) Hugs!
November 5, 2013
Response to Anon July 20, 2012...a year ago.
Sorry you feel or have had such a negative experience. Some of the most respected members of my Orthodox congregation were not born Jews. No one questions them, Many newer members have no idea of their religious roots. The completion of a recent conversion process, along with a new Jewish marriage for the couple, was celebrated by the entire congregation. If a convert wishes to disclose their path, they will be respected. If they wish to put it behind them, their wishes will be respected. To be candid, I have found that converts are more readily accepted in Orthodox circles (all though there are extreme elements) than in many conservative or Reform congregations where Judaism is sometimes seen as more cultural than religious.
Zusel ben Shlomo
Upstate NY
October 31, 2013
To "Anonymous" 6/20/12
I hope you will be back here and read this...

It has always pained me that the Jewish community treats outsiders this way. We have an obligation of ahavas ha'brios, love for the strangers and the whole world, which includes the non-Jewish nations. I feel that too many Jews do not take this seriously and forget their/our charge to be a light to the *WORLD* and not just other Jews. It is a real pity, a shame, and, IMO, a desecration of G-d's name. We must do better.

Please do not judge the Jewish people on the basis of how you have been treated by some. And know that if you truly, truly want to join the Jewish people, you can...but you must be strong and keep pushing through the walls, with G-d's help. Ask and ask until you can find someone to talk to you about conversion. Don't give up. You will only have G-d's help at that time, not the help of people, and I cannot imagine how difficult that must be. But if you are meant to be a Jew, G-d will provide for you to be. Just don't despair.
May 10, 2013
Amazing story - We can learn so much from those who choose to embrace Judaism with such intensity
Thanks for the great article and audio of Tova's story
I have been watching and listening to many stories of converts
recently and it really inspires me to do more when I see the struggles
others have gone through to become Jewish.

There are some great sites to hear the stories of others who become
frum and most become rabbis (except for Ahuva) after being deeply rooted in the christian ministry.

We all can learn from them to have more conviction and immense gratitude to Hashem. We take too much for granted when we have been given so much in life for the fact that we are יהודים/Jews - and the word in Hebrew means to give thanks and we have to all thank Hashem more every day even for the things that seem trivial.

Check out the following people: Rabbi Gavriel Aryeh Sanders, Rabbi Yaakov Ephraim Parisi, Ahuva Gray, Rabbi Asher Wade, Moshe Hattori, Yehuda Tebbitt, Aaron Abraham, Baruch Gershom, Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger, Yochanan Castallenos, Moshe Leviy, Yaniv Ben-David, Rabbi Gamedze
Boynton Beach, FL
February 20, 2013
Thank you very much for writing this wonderful and encouraging piece.
July 31, 2012
Reply to Joel
Thank you for your sound advice and I might add that your advice is the same thoughts I had in the beginning of my journey. Somehow along my way of "returning" I allowed that vision and main goal to be distorted by my own great sensitivity AND the overwhelming joy I felt deep inside that finally I was going to be accepted. And I do now realize that it isn't how I look at all but more how I "react":. I was told it would not be easy but never understood. Now I do. I was raised in a Christian home but I never accepted it and often found great contradictions and had more questions than could be ever be answered by Christian clergy. Along the last 21 years of my fight to seat my soul where it belongs I have NEVER tried to bring any other religion along. When I visited shul I was HOME but I couldn't understand ever why others couldn't see my joy and my resolve and accept me. I have now tried to convert 5 times going thu the same rejections again but am finding it not necessary any longer. :)
Rock Hill, USA
July 30, 2012
thank you
I want to thank all those who replied to my letter. I want you to know that your words comforted me and gave me the strength not to give up. I am going to speak with a Chabad Rabbi here in Rome. Thank you for making me feel part of this wonderful family and may Hashem bless you all.
Patrizia Miano
rome, Italy