A Jew for Jesus

Marvin Rosenthal

Marvin Rosenthal is an internationally-known Jewish evangelist who has had a world-wide prophetic ministry, reaching a multitude of people with the gospel, including a number of Jews. His books and magazine are always of the highest quality. And Rev. Rosenthal has made seventy-five visits to Israel, each time leading a tour. As well, he’s the founder of the Holy Land Experience, a very popular tourist site in Orlando, Florida. Now, since we make his yearly original Christmas card available to families here, I thought you might like to read how he was saved.

First Impressions

I first met Fannie in 1948, the year that the modern State of Israel was born. The day started typically enough. There was no hint that an encounter was about to take place – an encounter which would touch thousands of lives. I was mature for my thirteen years of age. My mother and father were separated, and responsibility came to me early. On this day, I was tending our family luncheonette. It was a large store in a middle-class Jewish community. Strawberry Mansion had been an exclusive neighborhood; now it had passed its prime, and
was beginning to show its age. I was behind the large grill where sandwiches were prepared, when Fannie first entered our store. It was the busy lunch hour, and I doubt that I would have noticed Fannie except that her dress was long and old-fashioned, and there was something “strange” about her appearance. She ate quietly and then walked up to the cash register. Fannie was not satisfied with simply paying her bill and leaving with a customary “have a nice day.” Instead, she startled me with a question: “Young man, are you saved?” My response must have been equally startling to her. “What do you mean, am I saved? I’m not drowning!” As I recall, she made some vague comments about Christ, sin, and hell; gave me a little pamphlet; opened the screen door; and left almost as suddenly as she had entered. As I immediately threw the unread pamphlet into the trash, I thought, “Where did she come from?”

Perseverance Pays Off

I doubt that I would have given further thought to Fannie, except that the following week she entered our luncheonette again. She sat in the back, ate her lunch slowly, waited until most of the customers were gone, and came up to pay her bill. Once again she wanted to talk. “Young man,” she said, “you’ve got to accept Jesus.” Smiling, I assured her that I was Jewish, and “Jesus,” I confidently asserted, “is not for the Jews.” She responded, “I know you’re Jewish, but you still need to accept Jesus as your Savior.” This time before leaving she gave me two pieces of literature, and this time two unread brochures were dropped into the trash can. By now, I was certain that she had serious mental problems.  But Fannie, it turned out, could not be put off easily. She returned to our luncheonette the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that – month after month, for two years. Sometimes I was in the store when Fannie came; more often it was my mother. During those first months we felt deep resentment for this woman who was presumptuous enough to dare to think that she could “convert” us. After all, we were Jews – my grandparents were orthodox and had come to America from Kiev, Russia, in 1905. The name, Christ, which I had heard used in cursing on the streets of our city and occasionally when gangs came into the neighborhood and called us Christ killers, I was certain, was for the Gentiles. Fannie, we came to learn, was a Jewess herself – a missionary to the Jewish people. “Missionary” had a negative connotation to us, although we had little understanding of what it really meant. One day a week she engaged in door-to-door evangelism in our neighborhood and came to our store for lunch. It was conspicuous that Fannie was not welcomed in our neighborhood, and she certainly was not warmly received in our luncheonette. Strange, I thought, that she should return week after week, though an unwelcome guest.

One day an incident occurred that bore out that opinion. She began to talk to one of our regular customers. He was an older Jewish man who owned a store directly across the street. He still spoke with the accent of his European origin, and was deeply religious. When he realized she was suggesting that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah – God’s sacrificial Lamb for sin, he turned on her with a verbal barrage of insults of such intensity that I could not help but feel sorry for her. His scorn and ridicule vented, I watched, bewildered, as he stormed out of our luncheonette.
When my glance returned to Fannie, her head was bowed, cradled in her hands. Concerned that the incident may have seriously upset her, I asked if she was all right. As she raised her head, I saw tears, but through them shone that “strange glow” I had observed on other occasions. Then I heard her say, “Yes, Marvin, I’m fine. I was praying for the gentleman’s salvation.” I was stunned. I could not comprehend her kind response. How, I thought, could she pray for a man who had treated her so shamefully. Years later I was reminded of that incident when I read for the first time the words of the Savior while dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” But that’s getting ahead of the story.

My mother and I did not share Fannie’s belief, but slowly, almost inexplicably, a respect began to emerge for this woman who had simple courage and profound faith. Amazingly, my mother began to eagerly await her weekly visits, ready with an almost limitless number of questions. “Did accepting Christ mean one was no longer a Jew?” “Wasn’t it the Christians who had killed, robbed, and persecuted the Jewish people for two thousand years?” (How many times I remember my grandmother crossing to the other side of the street when passing a church, to get farther away from it. And that, because she well recalled the many times Russian Cossacks, on horseback, had galloped into her village to plunder the Jews in the name of Christianity.) “Did the Jewish Scriptures say that God had a son, and, if so, how would we recognize Him when He came?” “Why did He have to die, and if Jesus really was the Messiah, why did the Jewish people reject Him?” “And how can a man also be God?” Slowly, patiently, tactfully, she would open her Bible and answer these questions from what she repetitively called “The Word of God.”
Two years had now passed since that “uneventful” day when Fannie had first entered our store. On this visit, she and another missionary, who occasionally accompanied her, were seated with my mother. “Mrs. Rosenthal,” Fannie inquired, “what have we been saying to you these past years that is so wrong? What have we said that is inconsistent with your own Old Testament Scriptures – the writings of Moses and the prophets of Israel? If you really want to know the truth, why don’t you pray to the God of your forefathers – pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – ask their God if what we’ve been telling you is really true.” As they were about to leave, Fannie, in what had now become a familiar ritual, quoted from the Scriptures. This time her text was from Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” She paused and literally knocked on one the table tops in the luncheonette three times. Then she continued, “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” What a strange concept, I thought to myself; does God really knock on the door of men’s hearts?

My mother went to bed that night, but sleep wouldn’t come. She twisted and turned, but to no avail. She felt immersed in a sea of restlessness. I’m the middle of three sons – one brother is five years older, another five years younger. Raising three boys, without a husband, and running a luncheonette seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, were no easy tasks. But in the midst of her restlessness that night, the God she knew about only impersonally and from a great distance brought to remembrance the counsel given earlier in the day: “Pray to the God of your forefathers – to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and ask their God if what we have been telling you is really true.”

And on that night, perhaps motivated more by despair and the futility of life than anything else, my mother prayed aloud to the God of her forefathers and almost immediately fell soundly asleep. Her sleep, however, was not long in duration. She was awakened at about three in the morning. What awakened her were three clear unmistakable knocks followed by the words, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” She would tell me later that she heard, and yet she did not hear in the traditional sense – it was as if the words permeated her whole being. And, they were accompanied by a mysterious presence and tranquility she had never known before. Quickly she dressed, went down into the store, and gathered up all the unread tracts and Bible portions which Fannie had given her over the two-year period – and which by now, unread and untouched, had gathered dust. Returning to her room, she read the remainder of the night. When I came downstairs the next morning, my mother came running up to me all excited. “It’s true, it’s true, I know it’s true!” she exclaimed. “I’ve trusted Jesus as my Messiah – I’m saved!” I thought.

Oh, no, this can’t be! But it could – it was.

A Free Insurance Policy

I was sure that my mother’s newfound faith would not be long lasting. A week, perhaps two, a month at the outset, and then the novelty would wear off. That month passed, then two, and soon half a year. My mother’s faith did not deteriorate or diminish as I had anticipated. Quite the contrary, her faith, which had begun as a little sapling, was now growing into a mighty oak. Fannie began a discipling program, and Bible reading and prayer had become a regular routine.
There was a reality in her life that I could not comprehend. She still had problems; they had not disappeared. But somehow, she was able to live above them – to cope with life on a new and higher plane. I was confused. I didn’t know if what was happening to my mother was good or bad. I only knew that it was real.

So it was, that six months after my mother found the God of her forefathers; now the seed of the Word of God was about to take root and “set up business” in my heart. On this occasion, Fannie literally cornered me by the soda machine. “Marvin, do you believe in Heaven?” she inquired. My response was affirmative, I always had. “Do you believe in Hell?” she asked, probing further. Again I answered in the affirmative. Her direct questions were disarming, and she sensed my uneasiness – but she would not be put off. “Do you want to go to Heaven when you die?” she challenged. Rather abruptly I said, “Certainly, doesn’t everyone?” With bulldog tenacity she held on. “Well, Marvin, you can go to Heaven and it won’t cost you a thing – not a thing.” I blurted out, “How do I get into Heaven for free?” Her response has never been erased from my memory. “Heaven is free to you, Marvin, but Heaven is not free. The Passover Lamb had to suffer. God’s Son shed His blood on the cross of Calvary for your sin. He made the payment and satisfied the requirements of a holy God. The premium has been paid. You can’t buy salvation. You don’t deserve it. All you can do is receive it as a free gift.” She had been telling me these things since the first time we met – they seemed strange and inappropriate for someone of Jewish birth. But this time it was different. Somehow, I knew that what she was saying was very right and very Jewish. It was something that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets of Israel would approve of.
There in the luncheonette, next to the soda machine, I bowed my head and invited Christ into my heart, asking Him to save me from my sin and make me His child. I was fifteen years of age and had never been inside a church. No one in “Christian” America had ever told me that God cared – that He demonstrated that care at Calvary – no one until Fannie came along.

Unexpected Opposition

I was unprepared for the pressures my decision for Christ would generate. In my youthful exuberance, I concluded my faith had nothing to do with the here and now, but would be advantageous in the by and by; that my decision did not affect my living, only my dying – that I had a free, paid-up “life insurance” policy. I would soon see how wrong I was. Instead of opening the store Sunday morning (normally a very busy time in our Jewish community), my mother began to take my younger brother and me to a Bible-believing church in the adjoining neighborhood. Business could wait. For my mother, God came first. The luncheonette was opened when we returned from church. After a few weeks, word spread to many of our neighbors and customers that the Rosenthals were attending church. Our luncheonette was situated on a corner and there were very large plate glass windows facing both streets. Regularly now, on returning from church, we found graffiti on the windows with comments like, “This is Christ’s house,” “They’ve flipped their lids,” or “Don’t buy here.” We knew this was the work of people in our neighborhood. To them, our belief in Christ – particularly my mother’s public and vocal testimony – was an occasion for mischief. (Part Two – Next Week)