Last Christmas, I was searching for a book to take with me on Christmas holidays. I asked God, the Divine Librarian, to help me choose one. Since I was going to France, a book that had been on my shelf but that I had not yet read caught my eye when I read the back cover. That book was, From the Kippah to the Cross, the conversion story of Jean-Marie Élie Setbon.The back cover mentioned that Jean-Marc, as he was initially named, was the son of a non-observant family of French Jews. He grew up in Paris, not far Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre.
In his memoir, he chronicles his mysterious attraction to the person of Christ, how he snuck into the basilica a few months before his bar mitzvah and then, after it, used his bar mitzvah money to buy a small crucifix from the cathedral bookshop. Eventually, though, he sought to shake his interest in Christianity by connecting more deeply with Judaism. He moved to Israel where he learned Hebrew, lived in a kibbutz, served in the Israeli Army, and studied the Torah. He then became an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, married, and had seven children. Still, his interest in Christ persisted and the book tells the story of how and why he came to enter the Catholic Church.
I read this dramatic, moving, existential book between December 24-December 26, 2016. It was a marvelously engaging read – the sort that you are sad to finish simply because you would wish to see the story continue unfolding.
And this is when it occurred to me to try to contact the author, express my gratitude for his book, and – audaciously – ask to meet.
Imagine how ecstatic I was when he invited me to join his family for a Sunday meal on January 1st at their home in the south end of Paris!
And so it happened that, one week after reading his book, I was following Jean-Marie to his home on the first morning of the New Year where I was greeted by each of his children with kisses on both cheeks as I entered their front door. They each introduced themselves – living characters out of the memoir I had just read.
We sat down around the table and the children began pouring water and wine and bringing in the dishes of chicken and potatoes. Jean-Marie’s grace wasn’t the usual Catholic grace before meals. He spoke in a spontaneous and heartfelt way. He prayed for his family’s material and spiritual health and wealth, for his children’s exams, and for little Nathanael’s life on the celebration of his fifth birthday. After the meal, Nathanael, the youngest was responsible for getting the Bibles off the shelf to hand to each of us. Every Sunday, the family discusses a chapter together. “We are in Genesis 28,” he said to us as we all flipped open our bibles, the teenagers opening the passage on their phones.
Then, Jean-Marie began questioning his children. At first the questions were fairly simple: “Isaac is the father of who?” “Abraham is the father of who?” He read, “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’” Then he asked, “Now, why does Jacob wake up from his dream and say this? Doesn’t it seem a strange thing for him to say since he knows that God is everywhere? What does he mean by it?” The children all proposed different answers. It reminded me of Shabbat lunch at a rabbi’s home in Toronto.
Jean-Marie discussed these questions and others for a while. At the end of the chapter Jacob says, “And of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.” Jean-Marie remarked, “People tend to think that tithing is a Protestant invention but see – it’s right here in the Book of Genesis, with Jacob. And it’s not just a matter of tithing income, but of tithing our whole lives. “Do you tithe one tenth of your day?” he asked his children. The children were silent, reflective, and a bit surprised by the question.
One of his daughters finally exclaimed, “A tenth of your day! But that’s enormous!”
Jean-Marie calmly asked, “What is one tenth of 24 hours?” The children were thinking. “It’s more than two hours!” Jean-Marie was gentle and encouraging: “Pray when you wake up and ask the Lord to help you through your day. Pray while you do your schoolwork. And before you go to sleep, say a short brief of thanks to God.”
I was deeply moved to witness this model of reading the Bible on Sundays and of a father leading his family in becoming familiar with scripture through questioning.
I had never seen Catholic families study the Bible in this way. Rosaries and pious family devotions, yes. Biblical exegesis around the dinner table, nope. One year later, this experience still fills me with joy and hope.
Jean-Marie’s goal is to promote more catechesis within the family home. Education in the faith is not restricted to teachers and priests. It was attractive to see these elements of Jewish tradition that he has retained while raising his family in the Christian faith.
He has written a new book currently only available in French entitled, Dieu au coeur de notre famille: des outils pour l’intelligence de la foi [God at the heart of our family: tools for the intelligence of faith].
May our new year be filled with deepening reflection on how God will be the centre of our lives and the heart of our families.