Coming Full Circle

A Jewish Woman's Journey through Christianity and Back

What’s Your Story?

I’ve been thinking about spiritual journeys lately.  I’m currently working on a new book, which is an anthology of stories of Jews who have come home.  I haven’t decided yet whether or not it will only be about the people whose lives I have been honored to impact, or if it will include others.  I am also not sure yet whether it will only be stories of Jews who have returned or if it will include some people who have converted to Judaism.  But even with all that unsurety, one thing is for certain – everyone is on a journey and everyone has a story.

You can read a few of those stories here: Jews Who have Come Home

Sure, some stories are more dramatic or exciting than others, my story has some elements that are almost unbelievable, but everyone has a story and everyone is important to God – everyone matters.

Right now I am preparing for my fall speaking tour and I’ve had inquiries from all over North America – Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Toronto, Montreal, Minnesota, California, Washington… As it begins to come together, I ponder all the different kinds of Jews I will meet along the way, and I look forward to hearing their stories, too.  I am also looking forward to meeting a few of the people who regularly email me or follow me on Facebook and Twitter – it’s always so nice to put a face to those names and identities.

I was recently asked what the most important thing I learned through the process of writing this book was.  I don’t know if the questioner was referring to the technical details of writing and/or publishing or if they wanted to know what happens emotionally when a person documents their life in that way.  After a few minutes of thinking about it, I realized that the most important thing I have learned because of this book is to look for the story in everyone.  What’s your story?

July 26, 2010 Posted by | Faith, Judaism, Penina Taylor, Spiritual Journey, Uncategorized, Writing | Leave a comment

What’s an editor to do?

What’s an editor to do?

I had two amazing book reviews this week.  One of the reviews was from The Washington Jewish Week http://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/main.asp?SectionID=27&subsectionID=25&articleID=12181 and the other was in the magazine section of the Jerusalem Post http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Books/Article.aspx?id=167242.  Both articles had a lot in common.  Both articles used phrases like, “a page turner” or “compelling”.  But they also both said the book wasn’t well written; that I needed an editor – or (gasp!) a ghost writer.  So what happened?

Over the past few years, my writing has received nothing but positive reviews and people who have read the beginnings of the other books I’m working on have complemented my writing style as being captivating and vivid.  What happened with my biography?

First of all, writing your autobiography is a different animal than writing a textbook, a novel, or any other piece of literature.  Yes, its story telling, but still, it’s different.  And then, the question – did I have an editor?  Of course I had an editor, an excellent editor.

An autobiography comes from the heart, it’s a part of who you are.  The process of writing an autobiography is, in many ways, like giving birth to a baby – only far more painful. In deciding how to write my book, I consciously chose to let my own voice tell the story – the four-year-old Penina, sounds like a four-year-old, the teenage Penina sounds like a teenager, etc.  My style of writing was not the flowery writing of a novel or even the academic style of a textbook.  I chose to write in an uncomplicated and forthright style that would communicate the details without losing the reader in a pit of beautiful literary sludge.

This, of course, presented my editor with a huge challenge – how to edit the book without losing my voice?  In the end, my editor had to accomplish three things when she edited my book, and in some opinions, in trying to accomplish the first two, the third may have suffered – a little.

The first thing my editor had to do – a monumental task, by the way – was to take a critical outside look at the book and to help me say all the things I felt needed saying without offending anyone.  I needed to share difficult things that happened to me in a delicate way so that the book was not too difficult for sensitive readers to absorb.  I needed to explain the mindset of a Jewish girl who had embraced Christianity without making the book too Christian for a Jewish audience, and I needed to write about difficulties I experienced within the Jewish community without pointing fingers, blaming or embarrassing anyone.  My editor accomplished this herculean task fabulously.

The next thing my editor needed to do was to preserve my voice.  She could have re-written the book, as so often happens in the publishing world, but then it would have been her book and not mine; her story and not mine.  How many times did she send me a paragraph that she had edited to which I responded, “But that’s not the way I would say it”?  Too many to count.  In this test as well, she passed with flying colors.

The third goal of the editor is to produce a work that flows well, doesn’t ramble and isn’t disjointed or choppy.  I am guessing, based on the reviews, that the resulting style didn’t come across well, at least in some minds.  Of course, for every negative statement about the writing style, there have been a dozen readers who have commented that the style accomplished exactly what I was aiming for – they felt like we were sitting on the sofa together chatting over tea and biscuits as I confided in them all the details of my unbelievable life.  Most of the readers have told me that they couldn’t put the book down – one even stayed up all night just to finish it!  So, I guess the end result couldn’t be that bad.

I appreciate the opinions of those who “know” literature, the reviewers, the critics.  And I am sure that I am overly sensitive because I have not yet developed the tough skin that goes along with being in the public eye, being subject to critics.  I also appreciate my readers, those who are supporting me and the work I do.  But most of all, I appreciate my editor, who gets little thanks and an awful lot of criticism, but who invested nearly as much of herself in my book as I did, and did a fabulous job at it, too.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Christianity, Editing, Judaism, Penina Taylor, Spiritual Journey, Uncategorized, Writing | Leave a comment

A person can do the impossible

What follows is a piece that was originally supposed to be the prologue or pre-introduction to my book.  It was left out of the final printing, but I thought you might be interested in reading it…

In April 2005, I gave my first Toastmasters speech in Baltimore, Maryland.  This speech, called the “Ice Breaker” speech was the beginning of a part of an amazing personal journey which just continues to get better each and every day.  In this speech I talk about the fact that I have been told many, many times that I should write a book and I discuss all the different subjects pertaining to my life that I could write about.  This book is the end result of that first speech, which I have included below.  My one wish is that all who read this book will be inspired and encouraged by its content and that in touching the lives of those who read it, I might be an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to bring about healing and wholeness to those who can relate to any part of it.

Doing the Impossible….

On my refrigerator there is a piece of paper with a quote on it.  In my library, taped to my desk is another piece of paper with the same quote on it.  In my schedule book there is yet another piece of paper with the same quote on it. The quote says:

A person can do the impossible if she has enough reason to make it happen.

I keep this quote in prominent places in my home to remind myself, that I am the one who authored this maxim.  It is the underlying theme in my life.  It is a testimony to the strength of the human will. A strength that I believe was part of how man was created in the image of G-d.  It is also a reminder to me of how much I have been through in my life.

Ask any of my four children, and they can quote this phrase to you from memory.  It never ceases to amaze me how many times a child will say “I can’t” to something, only to realize after a lot of coaching and maybe even a few threats, that they “can”.

There have many times in my life that people have told me that I ought to write a book.  When I think of all the amazing things that have happened in my life, I have to stop and wonder which subject to write about, which part of my life do I tell?

I could write about the fact that I was conceived out of wedlock and that I thank G-d that abortion wasn’t legal when I was born, or I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you today.

I could write about being an alienated youth who got hooked up with the wrong crowd and ended up experimenting with alcohol and drugs.

I could write about the importance of faith and the strength it gave me to clean myself up and turn myself around.

I could write about being sexually assaulted and learning how to live life as a victor and not a victim.  Learning that sexual abuse was not about love or sex but control and power, and that although I had no choice in becoming a victim to my abusers the first time – they were bigger, stronger, older and more powerful than I was, I did have complete control over whether I allowed them to continue to abuse me emotionally by giving them “permission” to haunt me for the rest of my life.  I had to make the choice to pick myself up by my bootstraps and move on with my life without making the excuse that the painful past was the reason for my lousy present.  Continuing to make those excuses would have been the most self-defeating thing I could have done and would have destroyed me eventually.  The road from victim to victor begins with a single conscious decision to start down the path, to cut off the abuser’s right to haunt you and to give yourself permission to begin the healing process.

I could write about having been physically abused and learning appropriate parenting skills that would allow me to break the cycle of violence and raise my own healthy and whole children.

I could write about home schooling my four children and the honor and privilege of having graduated my oldest child from high school even though he had never stepped foot in a “school”.

I could write about growing up so poor that there were times when rice was all we had for dinner, and then as an adult, devising a method for creating menus, budgeting and time management that I have been able to pass on to others in the form of a workshop.

I could write about a lifelong battle with low self-esteem and recurrent situational depression, and that it amazes me to this day that I am still here on this earth.  This battle has led me on a search for my purpose in this world and a desire to not only find out what it is, but to fulfill it.

I could write about being a morbidly obese adult who was in an electric wheelchair, in pain everyday of my life and bound to die before the age of forty.

I could write about making the toughest decision of my life – one that many people are quick to judge but have no clue what it means to walk in my shoes, to take my health and my future in my own hands and risk everything by making a very difficult medical choice that could have killed me and ended up saving my life.

But maybe, in reality, I have already written all of those stories, all rolled up into one infinitely complex and yet oh so simple statement:

A person can do the impossible if she has enough reason to make it happen!

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and especially not yourself.  Understanding not just in your head, but deep down in your heart that you can do anything you set your mind to is the key to accomplishing great things with your life.  It’s never too late to start.

A person can do the impossible if he has enough reason to make it happen!

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An apology

My journey through Christianity was a long and complex one, some might even say, too long.  While I am one of the first to recognize this, I never would have thought it could have such far reaching ramifications…

This past week I was sitting in a business meeting when one of my colleagues stood up and told us how the day before had been one of the worst days he’d had in a very long time.  It seemed as though his customers were all difficult to deal with, his staff couldn’t do anything right, even his family was getting on his nerves.  Then he went on to explain that this was all the fault of one of the members of our group.

He turned to me and said that I was to blame.  I was horrified.  What could I have done to possibly have caused my colleague to have such a horrific day?

He explained that he had bought my book and had begun reading it earlier in the day.  He couldn’t put the book down.  At 2:00am, my friend said, he was at a point in the book where I was still a Christian and he didn’t want to put it down until I had come back to Judaism.  Apparently, he finished the book at 5:00am.  My colleague had pulled an all-nighter reading my book!  No wonder he had a bad day.

If this had been the only story like it, I probably wouldn’t feel obligated to post a public apology, but since it is only one of many similar stories I have heard, I thought it might be a good idea to take this moment to apologize to my amazing readers out there who may have lost  a night of sleep, or a day of work because they just couldn’t put down the book.  I’d also like to say thank you for purchasing the book and hope that in the process you would feel not that you have lost something, but rather, that you have been inspired.

I have been told that perhaps my book should come with a warning sticker:

Danger – this book may cause loss of sleep, distractibility and the inability to put it down.

(Don’t yet own a copy?  Visit the website at www.comingfullcirclebook.com)

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

You’re so Vain

Someone once said, “If you don’t think you can, no one else will either.” This sort of echoes the sentiment expressed in the famous quote of Hillel in the Ethics of the Fathers: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Marketing experts know this to be true, counselors and coaches know it to be true, too, but most of us are not quite so sure. For me, the next part of Hillel’s famous aphorism hits much closer to home, “But if I am only for myself, who am I?” I have spent the greater part of the last 2 decades trying to become LESS self-centered, LESS arrogant, Less…well, you get the picture.

So here I am, an author and lecturer, a person with something to offer the world, and I have to sell it to them. If I don’t think they want to hire me, why should they think they want to hire me? So, I took the advice of my sage friends and business coaches and did a video promo.

Do you know how hard it is to talk to the camera and tell it how amazing you are? This is far more difficult than speaking to the most oppositional audience I have ever had to face.

Well, I did it. And thanks to my videographer Eli, I don’t think I come across too full of myself. You be the judge.

http://vimeo.com/7903635

December 1, 2009 Posted by | Faith, Judaism, Penina Taylor, Teshuva | Leave a comment

A relationship?

I always enjoy staying with my friends the Cohens in Far Rockaway when I have a speaking tour in NY.  Besides being a generally wonderful, kind and generous person, Mrs. Cohen usually offers me opportunities to sample the area’s abundant offerings of shiurim (classes and lectures).  Yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear Sarah Yocheved Rigler speak.

Last March a mutual friend of ours suggested that I connect with Sarah Yocheved;  that we might have a lot in common.  Sarah lives in Israel as I do, and yet, somehow life got in the way and I allowed the opportunity to connect with Sarah in Israel to slip through my fingers.

Now, here I am back in the US at the same time as Sarah Yocheved, and my friend Mrs. Cohen informs me that she is speaking locally.  So, we walk into the room packed with women and Mrs. Rigler begins speaking about having a relationship with Hashem – not only is this a subject that is near and dear to my heart, but the subject I have been planning on writing about in my next book!  On top of that, Mrs. Rigler began to quote statistics about the number of Jewish people who have embraced some form of Christianity – I was listening to my own lecture!

It was very hard to sit still for the rest of the lecture, which Mrs. Rigler gave so beautifully.  But I am proud of myself that I did.  At the end of the talk I did stand up and introduce myself and confirm to the audience the statistics which Sara Yocheved had given during her talk.  In addition, I added, 90% of the Jewish people who believe in Jesus that I counsel cite a lack of a personal relationship with God as the reason that they didn’t look to Judaism when they were seeking spirituality and introduced to Christianity.  I would say that at least 80% of these people had never even heard of the idea of a relationship with God within the context of Judaism and didn’t believe me when I told them that Judaism teaches it too.

I am so thrilled to finally hear this being taught within the Jewish community with my own ears.  I knew it wasn’t a new concept in Judaism, and Mrs. Rigler did a great job of explaining that the Rambam, the Ramchal and the Chofetz Chaim were all proponents of this idea.  No, Rebbe Nachman was not alone in teaching that we all need to take time each day to develop a personal and intimate relationship with God.

Have you taken time to talk to Hashem today?

November 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

To Sleep or not to sleep

Monday night around midnight I boarded a plane to New York for my speaking tour. I figured it would be an uneventful flight and I would be able to catch up on some much needed rest. I am one of those very fortunate people who can sleep on the plane, albeit not nearly as soundly as when I am lying in my bed at home. Sometimes I think that I have become conditioned to sleeping sitting up under almost any conditions by the Israeli busses (sorry egged, but Superbus drivers beat you out on erratic driving). Whatever the reason, I can usually count on sleeping through a good part of my flight between the US and Israel.

This flight, however, was not to allow me a full night’s sleep, as I found myself sitting next to very friendly and interesting woman who engaged me in conversation from the beginning. A sabra (native born Israeli) a little older than myself, Talia* had moved from Israel to New York about 30 years ago. Talia never told me why she had moved, but since she was very upfront about being “secular” and about how difficult things used to be in Israel, I inferred that it was to make a better life for herself materially. After 30 years, Talia admitted that she is culturally more American than Israeli and even though she admires Americans like myself who make aliyah for ideological reasons, ignoring the sacrifices required, she doesn’t think that she could go back to Israel.

As we were talking, Talia told me that even though she is secular, she realized early on that in America her children, raised in a secular environment, could easily lose all connection to their Jewishness, and she didn’t want that. So Talia sent her boys to a modern Orthodox Yeshiva to make sure they had a Jewish upbringing even though they were being raised in a secular home. Now, one of her sons, Talia explained, was dating a non-religious Jewish girl. Somehow, the girl was inspired to start lighting candles on Friday night through her relationship with Talia. This made Talia very proud, and it got me thinking…

…approximately 16 years ago I started lighting Friday night candles as a Christian who was completely disassociated from my Judaism except for a few tenuous threads from my family. That one act of lighting candles started me on a journey which eventually led me to become a fully Torah Observant Jewish woman. That first time I lit candles I felt a thin connection to my great-grandmother, the last observant member of her family. Now, every Friday night I light candles and feel a very strong connection, not only to my great-grandmother, but to all the Jewish women who proceeded her – simple women, great Rebbetzins and matriarchs alike.

As I sat there listening to Talia and thinking about what an amazing journey lighting candles has led me on and I wondered if Talia or her son’s girlfriend could be inspired by my journey. I asked her if she would like a copy of my book and she excitedly agreed. Talia began reading the book during the flight. It was a little awkward for me to sit there while she read about my life, but I watched as she turned the pages, fighting off sleep to get to the next section.

Talia didn’t finish the book by the time we landed, but she did say that she found it fascinating and felt it had a lot of important messages that people needed to hear. She said that she would share the book with other people as she thanked me for it. I wish that I could afford to give the book away for free – I can’t, but I thank Hashem for this one opportunity to touch the precious neshama (soul) of a fellow Jew.

November 4, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Preparing for the Journey

I am leaving in less than 24 hours for my tour in the US.  Wow!  What a lot of work it is to prepare for a journey.  I had to figure out where I was going and when and what I would be doing each step of the way.  Am I taking one suitcase or two? How much clothing does one REALLY need for 2 weeks?  Balancing sensibility with convenience, I ask, “do I really need THAT?”

Life is a journey that requires no less preparation.  In order to truly enjoy the trip, we need to figure out where we are going and what we will need to get there.  It helps to use past experience to guide us in future decisions, but we also need to realize that things may be different on the road ahead.

When I spoke the other night at a local Yeshiva, one of the boys asked me how, after all the changes I’ve been through in my life, I could know that I have reached my final destination spiritually.  Maybe in another 10 years I’ll be singing yet a different tune…

This question is asked about one in three times I speak.  I don’t know why some audiences ask the question and others don’t, I’m surprised it’s not asked more often.

Unfortunately, this is the one question I dread being asked because it’s the one question I don’t have an answer to.  How can anyone know the future?  I am pretty confident in my faith choices, sure that Judaism is the truth with a capital “T”.  But then again, 10 years ago, I thought that about Christianity, too.

Over the years I’ve found that honesty is always the best policy, especially when speaking with teenagers.  Better to admit that I don’t know than to give a confident but shallow answer that is easily seen through or torn apart.  So, I admit to the audience that I can’t say what the future will hold, but that answer doesn’t sit right with me even as the words leave my lips.

Have you ever taken a vacation and just decided that you were going to drive around the country aimlessly, stopping at whatever catches your interest next?  It’s fun for a while, but eventually you realize that you have to make some real decisions.  How long will you wander?  When will you stop?  What is your final destination?  At some point these questions must be answered, and the correct path must be chosen.

As a person born Jewish, we have already been given a specific path to take.  What stops we make along the way are our own choice, to be sure.  But, nothing is more fulfilling than really knowing where you are going and following it to the ultimate destination.  Learning what it really means to be a Jew, and learning to see the bigger picture makes the journey so much more enjoyable.

A journey can you take you on many adventures, but the best one is the one that takes you home.

November 2, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Tour Updated…

Want to hear me speak live?  Want a signed copy of the book?  Have a group that would like to have me speak? So far, here’s where I’ll be during my US tour.

NY November 3-8th

Thursday, November 5th – Shelhevet High School, Long Island

Thursday, November 5th – Rambam High School, Long Island

Sunday, November 8th – Five Towns  Women’s Rosh Chodesh Group

Sunday, November 8th – Radio Interview with Shalom Baltimore

Baltimore November 9-13th

Wednesday, November 11th – Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Baltimore

Thursday, November 12th 7:30pm  – Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation, Baltimore

NY November 14-18th

Shabbat, November 14 –  Young Israel of Woodmere

October 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Glad they didn’t think that (spoiler alert)

After my husband converted to Judaism and we were married under the chuppah, I was hired to work at Jews for Judaism of Baltimore.  During my time there, I fielded phone calls from all sorts of people.  There is one phone call though, that stands out in my mind.

We had just done some advertising about a few local programs we were holding in preparation for a local campaign by Jews for Jesus and someone in the community felt he needed to call and voice his opinion.  The man informed me that we were wasting our time (and valuable resources) trying to keep Jewish people from converting to Christianity.  After all, he explained – the only Jewish people who convert to Christianity are those who are emotionally unstable or needy and, besides, who needs them anyway?  Judiasm, he argued, is better off without them.

“Well!” I huffed, “I sure am glad that the people involved in my return didn’t think that way!  They thought I was important enough to expend valuable time and resources helping me to understand Judaism and to answer my questions concerning Judaism’s answer to Christainity’s claims.”  I explained to him that I feel that I am a valuable and contributing member of Jewish society.

The man was left with nothing to say.  After hanging up, I thought to myself again, “boy I sure am glad they didn’t think that way about me!”

October 2, 2009 Posted by | Faith, Judaism, Penina Taylor, Teshuva | 1 Comment