"I was planning to get rid of the chametz, the leaven, from our home. I also said, “We’re not eating any of that during the Passover week.” Jesse’s response was shock."

Jesse + Lucy Eshleman’s Story

Tuvya:  Hi, everybody. This is an interview with Lucy and Jesse Eshleman in Southern California. These are two really special people. Their story is about coming together through very different cultural journeys and now continuing to develop their spiritual lives together. Jesse, you told me you were born and raised in Homewood, Illinois?

Jesse:  That’s correct, yes, a south suburb of Chicago founded by people from Holland. My family isn’t Dutch, but in that area, people would say, “If you aren’t Dutch, you aren’t much.” But it was actually fun, to be part of the community even though we’re not Dutch.

Tuvya:  Your family had deep spiritual roots. I never knew anyone like that until I lived in Chicago and met some Christian people there. What was the source of those deep spiritual roots?

Jesse:  Yeah, that region where I grew up has spiritual roots, for sure. My family was unique in that both of my grandpas, my mom’s dad and my dad’s dad, were both pastors their whole lives! So, both of my parents, mom and dad, were also very strong believers in Jesus. That obviously had a deep impact on my older brother and me.  I’m very grateful for that heritage. It’s definitely formed who I am today.

Tuvya:  Were you aware of the spiritual stability in your family? Did you ever compare your family to others, so it made you aware of the difference?

Jesse:  Yeah, definitely. I think there were several experiences like that growing up. I had  Catholic friends, for instance, who had to go to their Sunday school or Mass, and for them it was doing a checklist. In my case, I genuinely wanted to go to youth group, even as a 5th grader. And I genuinely wanting to tell my friends about Jesus. Only later did I realize how strange that was. Not all kids liked going to church and Sunday school like I did. But my parents lived their faith in such a way that those activities encouraged a desire in me to attend church where I could learn more about Jesus, about God and the Bible.

Tuvya:  One of the things I encountered in that region was a spiritual custom of a time after dinner where the family sat together and shared. Did you have anything like that?

Jesse:  Yeah. My parents were very confident about the importance of having family dinners together. So, we never had the TV on while we were eating dinner. We talked about, “What was your day like? What did you learn today?” And Mom and Dad did whatever they could to emphasize the importance of family dynamics and structure into us.

Tuvya:  That’s such a powerful influence that formed your culture. You noticed that was a unique way to grow up?

Jesse:  Yeah, it was frustrating when I went over to a friend’s house, and they had TV on during dinner. I was like, “You guys eat spaghetti and watch The Discovery Channel? This is awesome!” But that was not what we did in our family.

Tuvya:  Lucy, one of your parents are Jewish; the other one is Christian or at least a Gentile. Is that right?

Lucy:  Yeah. So, my father is the Jewish person. He grew up in a mostly secular Jewish family. And my mom comes from a very nominal Catholic background. So, neither were spiritually rooted at all in those traditions. They found their ways into New Age spirituality, astrology, yoga, all sorts of different spiritual paths. But we also celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, and like that as I was growing up. I was definitely a spiritually confused child, the only child in our family, so I was pretty much on my own.

Tuvya:  Where were you raised? And if people asked, “Were your parents hippies,” what would you say? 

Lucy:  I was raised in Northern California, in the North Bay Area. You might say they were Hippie adjacent. I think my dad certainly was. My dad was older than my mom and grew up in that era. He avoided the Vietnam War military draft and joined the Peace Corp. So, yeah, he kind of fit that mold. But my mom, not quite as much.

Tuvya:  So, you had this spiritually eclectic experience.

Lucy:  Yes. A smorgasbord of spirituality.

Tuvya:  Okay. So, where was it that you stopped along that spiritual buffet line? 

Lucy:  So, my mom became a believer when I was about 10 years old. She grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school, did confirmation and those sorts of milestones. But once she was out of her parents’ house she walked away from that path.  When I was a kid, my mom became best friends with our neighbors. The mother of that family shared the gospel with my mom. She came to that faith, and we started going to church with them when I was 10 years old.

Tuvya:  What was your father doing spiritually at that time?

Lucy:  My dad didn’t go to church with us. That caused a stain, that made it like I had to choose between my parents.  Could I join my dad in his sort of Reformed Jewish route, or should I follow my mother in the born-again Christian route? So, the spiritual confusion continued from my earlier years.

Tuvya:  Do you remember what it was that helped you sort out those different cultures?

Lucy:  Yeah. I remember early on, my experience of being around Christians through our time at church. My family moved to Southern California when I was in Jr. High when I started going to church on my own. I was really lonely as a Jr. High kid. But I saw that church was the place that I could find community and people that cared for me. So, I was first drawn to the community before I was drawn to the person of Jesus. 

Tuvya:  So, it was more community than it was the message.

Lucy:  I think at that time, God was drawing me in how to have a relationship with him. He was doing that through people. The kids and the leadership of this youth ministry really felt like a home at a time where I felt very lonely.

Tuvya:  So, Jesse, did you know any Jewish people when you were growing up?

Jesse:  Yeah, I actually did. I had a couple Jewish friends. I remember in 5th grade, I met an Israeli who had just moved into our school district, straight from Israel, straight to Homewood, Illinois. I remember just being so amazed at who is this kid? We believe very similar things. They’re adjacent, but it’s not the same. And I remember the whole Jesus thing to him was very confusing. But he knew Hebrew, and I wanted to know, what is that about? Should I know Hebrew, because I’m kind of the Jesus guy around here? I was like, “Watch out guy; you’re stealing my territory!” I was an immature 5th grader, and I felt that was a challenge to my understanding about Jesus. 

Tuvya:  So, you had some acquaintance with Jewish culture, and Jewish people. Jewishness wasn’t a total anomaly.

Meanwhile, Lucy, your family was enduring different kinds of spiritual challenges. What Jewish culture were you picking up from your dad while you were getting to know Christian culture and beliefs at church?

Lucy:  We celebrated the Jewish holidays. That included Hanukkah and Passover. We didn’t host Seders, but we would do them with Jewish friends and others. We had a mezuzah on our door.  I grew up in an area where there were a lot of other intermarried Jewish families as well. So, I was one, among many of mixed background kids.  We’d often do Seders with them.

Tuvya:  Who put that up at your front door?

Lucy:  My dad did. I remember we had this mezuzah. It was a brass mezuzah, and it had a person holding up the letter shin. And I thought it was someone with a baseball mitt. It’s because he played professional baseball for the Minnesota Twins. So, I always thought we had a baseball catcher mezuzah on or door. 

Tuvya:  That would be a whole other story to hear about your dad being a Jew who played Major League Baseball.

Lucy:  Yeah.

Tuvya:  Okay, so you had Jewish culture and holiday experiences with some selections from your eclectic Jewish spiritual buffet. So, how did you end up coming to a faith in Jesus?

Lucy:  Well, I had been around the church and I was drawn to the community there. I felt like I belonged, even though I didn’t yet believe. When I was just 17, one of the youth leaders in this community passed away suddenly overnight. He was only 22 years old. He just didn’t wake up one morning. I had never known anyone who died, and especially someone so young without any explanation of what happened. 

It was at his funeral that I came to faith in Jesus, in Yeshua. In that moment I said, “God, I don’t want to live without you.” And from that point my faith was definitely in Jesus. Also, my Jewish identity was an element of confusion at the same time.

Tuvya:  Why was that confusing?

Lucy:  Well, I knew I was Jewish. That had always been a part of who I am.  That was part of my identity growing up. Then suddenly, I was believing this one thing that, according to my dad and other Jewish people, was “off limits” for Jewish people. Now, it felt like, “You’re Jewish, but not really.” 

Tuvya:  How did your father react?

Lucy:  He actually kind of upped his own Jewish identity to encourage me to pursue more Jewish things in my own life. He didn’t want me to lose that part of my identity. He never told me that believing in Jesus disqualified me from being Jewish. But I knew that he didn’t love the idea that I believed in Jesus.

Tuvya:  Were you in touch with his extended family?

Lucy:  Yes.  But I like to say the religion of choice for my Jewish family is politics.  So, they are not quite connected with religion in any particular way. However, as we were growing up, my cousins observed the holidays and the cultural traditions, but in a mostly secular fashion. 

Tuvya:  Did you have an awareness from your dad’s family that Jesus and Jewishness just really didn’t go together? 

Lucy:  I understood that in my home.  That’s why I felt like I had chosen one over the other. And people at church often didn’t understand when I would explain that I am Jewish and believe in Jesus. There was just a lot of confusion on both sides.

Tuvya:  . So, when was the first time you ever met somebody else that was Jewish and believed in Jesus that all of a sudden made you feel like, hey, I’m not alone?

Lucy:  The first time I met someone who was Jewish and believed in Jesus, was just after I graduated high school. I had met someone in a church service who was reading the Bible in Hebrew on her phone. I asked her about it. And she said, “Oh, I’m a Messianic Jew.” And I said, “Well, what does that mean?”  She explained it to me, and I said, “Well, that’s me.  That’s what I am, too.” Odd, but I’ve never seen that girl since then. But I suddenly identified, are more Jewish people who believe like me. Now I had a name for my identity; I’m a Messianic Jew. That was pretty cool.

Tuvya:  How long was it before you met person who shared your unique identity?

Lucy:  I suppose I was 18 at that point. I’d come to faith only a few years earlier. But until then, I had never met anyone else.

Tuvya:  I’m sure there were other people who are reading this and from a mixed family. Hearing you say this is really helpful. Finding community is important and you are not. alone.

You two are married now. You both attend a Christian college. How did you meet one another, and Jesse, what was your first reaction to meeting Lucy, a Messianic Jew?

Jesse:  I was interested in Lucy. I met her my freshman year. We were in a class together and had a good conversation in the spring. Then over the summer my feelings for her grew. Looking ahead to the next school term I thought, “I’m going to ask her out this fall when we’re back on campus. We’ll see what comes of it.” 

Finding out she is Jewish really was important to taking that step.  I was really intrigued about Judaism since meeting that Israeli friend in my younger years. As Gentile Christian I felt a very strange draw to the Jewish people. And so, I met Lucy and thought “I have to ask her out” when I found out she was Jewish. Now I knew “I don’t have any choice. This is going to happen.” One thing led to another, and we started dating. But it was when I realized that she is Jewish where I was like, okay, I’m all in. Yup. 

Tuvya:  So, Lucy, what did you think when you met Jesse?

Lucy:  So, when we had met in some classes, we just knew each other by acquaintance. Then at one point Jesse asked what my Jewish identity mean to me. And no one had ever asked me that before.  I didn’t have a very good answer. I didn’t know what I thought of my Jewishness. That prompted my journey to figure out what it does mean to be a Jewish believer in Jesus.  I started to see my dual identity as unique, not a hindrance but an asset to who I am. It might seem crazy, but no one had ever asked me that question before.

Jesse:  I thought it was ironic. She was an intercultural studies major and had not processed her own cultural identity. And so, I was thinking, “Certainly, you’ve processed this, right? What does that mean to you? What’s this about?” So, I encouraged her to go to Israel. Then she went over there that summer. I had just returned from a trip to Israel, and it was really powerful to me. I wanted her to have that same experience.

Tuvya:  So, Jesse encouraged you in your Jewish identity.

Lucy:  Yup. It was a surprise to us both.

Tuvya:  I find that happens very often. Religion aside, Gentile partners are often far more interested in the culture, history and religious traditions of their Jewish partner. And Jewish partners do not exhibit the same interest in the Gentile’s background. I saw that there is often fear about the possibility of opening an uncomfortable discussion about Jesus. Of course, that wasn’t an issue for you guys. That’s part of the blessing of finding a mutually comfortable spiritual harmony. Lucy, you said, you’d chosen to believe in Jesus, because you understood how valuable that belief is. So, you and Jesse were able to easily have that spiritual conversation.

Was there anything in your early cross-cultural conversations that produced some interesting challenges?  You said you found some surprises in your approaches to keeping Pesach, or Passover. 

Lucy:  Well, Passover was coming up and I thought this is what we’re going do, because it was my tradition.  I was planning to get rid of the chametz, the leaven, from our home. I also said, “We’re not eating any of that during the Passover week.” Jesse’s response was shock.

Jesse:  Yeah, I was shocked.  I told her Jesus never told us to do that. Sure, Jesus celebrated Passover. It was at somebody else’s house. He didn’t have a house. I asked if He did that with the leaven. I was curious. I think I was saying, “Lucy, this is a rabbinical thing.”  The rabbis do that. That isn’t something that believers in Jesus have to do. And we’ve already been cleansed. I just thought it was a weird tradition, and I was thinking, I just want to eat bread!  I’m a Gentile! I don’t have to do this! I’m gonna have my bagels and enjoy them.

Tuvya:  So, how did you resolve that cross-cultural tension?

Lucy:  Well, I think we saw it very differently. I just understood it as how you celebrate the holiday. For me, it was just a very morally neutral thing. 

Jesse: I remember we put all the leaven in a  high unreachable cabinet. 

I thought it was absolutely preposterous for us to sell it to our neighbors for a week or something. So, we were not going to do that.

Lucy:  Yeah, we put it just out of sight, out of mind. That was our first year of marriage. And since then, we’ve talked and figured out our own traditions about how we want to celebrate Passover and other holidays.

Jesse:  Yeah. For instance, I fast on Yom Kippur with Lucy as an act of solidarity with my Jewish wife. Previously, when we met, that would not have been something that I would have done.

Tuvya:  That’s a wonderful point. Culturally, we don’t have to agree on everything. We won’t necessarily harmonize everything that we believe about proper cultural ideas or practices. It’s really important to respect one another and the ideas or practices of each other even when we disagree. Respecting and loving each other means we don’t judge their cultural convictions. Instead, we can work to understand what really matters to them. You don’t have to be a Jewish-Gentile couple to benefit from that. 

Hey, thank you for sharing today. This has been wonderful.