A Jew Twice Born
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 was thrust on 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 was beginning to show its age.
I was behind the large grill 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 greeting. Instead, she startled me with a question. “Young man, are you saved?” My response must have been equally startling. “What do you mean, am I saved, I’m not drowning!” I responded. She made some unintelligible 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 threw the pamphlet into the trash, I thought with my thirteen years of wisdom, “What boat did she get off of?”
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. She got right to the point. “Young man,” she said, “you’ve got to accept Jesus.” Smiling, I assured her that I was Jewish, and Jesus was not for the Jews. Not easily put off, she said, “I’ve seen your profile, I know you’re Jewish, and you still need to accept Jesus as your Saviour.” This time she left two pieces of literature — this time two unread brochures were dropped into the “circular” file. I was certain that she had serious mental problems.
Fannie 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 For This Woman Who she could “convert” us. After all, we were Jews — my grandparents were orthodox — and Christ was for the Gentiles. Fannie, we came to learn, was a Jewes herself, a missionary to the Jewish people. One day a week she did door-to-door visitation in our neighborhood and came to our store for lunch. It seemed obvious that Fannie was not welcomed in our neighborhood, and she certainly was not warmly received in our store. Strange, I thought, that she should return week after week—though an unwelcome guest.
One day an incident occurred that bore that opinion out. She began to talk to one of our regular customers. He was an older Jewish man with deep religious convictions. When he realized she was suggesting that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, 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 the store. When my glance returned to Fannie, her head was bowed, cradled in her hand. Concerned that the incident may have seriously upset her, I asked if she were all right. As she raised her head I saw tears, but through them shone the radiance I had observed at our first meeting. Then I heard her say, “Yes, Marvin, I’m fine. I was praying for the gentleman’s salvation.” 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 Saviour while dying on the cross, “Father; forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
My mother and I did not share Fannie’s belief, but slowly a respect began to emerge for this woman who had simple courage and a profound faith. 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 imprisoned the Jewish people for two thousand years? Did the Old Testament say that God had a son, and if so, how could 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? Slowly, patiently, tactfully, she answered these questions and many more.
Two years had now passed since we first met Fannie. On this occasion she and another missionary, who occasionally accompanied her, were seated with my mother. “Mrs. Rosenthal, what have we been saying to you these past years that is wrong — what have we said that is inconsistent with your own Old Testament Scriptures? If you really want to know the truth, 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 quoted Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” She paused and knocked three times. She continued, “If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and sup with him and he with me.”
My mother went to bed that night, but sleep wouldn’t come. I’m the middle of three sons — one brother is five years older, the other is five years younger. Raising three boys without a husband, and running a luncheonette seven days a week and sixteen hours a day were no easy tasks. In the midst of her restlessness, God 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 saying is really true.”
That night my mother prayed to the God of her forefathers and fell soundly asleep. She was awakened at about three in the morning. What awakened her was three clear knocks and then the words, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” Quickly she dressed, went down into the store and gathered up unread tracts and a Bibie which had by now gathered dust. Returning to her room, she read the rest 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. That was twenty-eight years ago.
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 as I had anticipated. Quite the contrary, her faith which had begun as a little sapling was now growing into an oak. 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 plain.
So it was, that six months after my mother found the God of her forefathers, the seed of the Word of God was about lo take root and “set up business” in my heart. Fannie 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 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 a thing — not a thing.” We Jews are supposed to know a bargain when we see it, and I asked, “How do I get into heaven for free?” Her response can never be erased from my memory. “Heaven is free to you, Marvin, but heaven is not free. The Passover Lamb had to suffer. God’s Son died on the cross of Calvary; 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.”
There in the luncheonette, next to the soda machine, I bowed my head and invited Christ into my heart as Saviour and King. I was fifteen years of age— I had never been inside a church. No one in the fourth largest city in “Christian” America had ever told me that God cared — that He demonstrated that care at Calvary -— no one until Fannie came along.
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, I would soon see how wrong I was.
Instead of opening the store Sunday morning, my mother began to take my younger brother and me to a Bible-believing church in the adjoining neighborhood. The store was opened when we returned. After a few weeks it became obvious to many of our customers and neighbors that the Rosenthals were attending church. The luncheonette was situated on a comer, and there were large picture windows facing both streets. Regularly now, we found the windows chalked up with remarks like, “This is Christ’s house”, “They’ve flipped their lids”, and “Don’t buy here”.
As if that were not bad enough, my mother now began to invite customers to attend a Bible study in our living room, A door in the back of our luncheonette opened into our living room and kitchen, and steps in the living room led upstairs to three bedrooms and a bath. We lived behind and above our place of business. I shall never forget that first Bible study. There were always ten or twelve young people “hanging out” in the store. Some played the pinball machines, other danced to the Jukebox, and still others were seated in the back booth talking, joking and passing time. And then came the shock—”the unpardonable sin”. From this Jewish home in a Jewish neighborhood, there came the clear words of a Christian hymn, “What can wash away my sins, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
If going to church had caused problems—this was far worse. Our family had become the open scandal of our community—we were “Meshumeds”—not simply Christians, but traitors to the Jewish people! The girl I was dating was forbidden to see me by her parents. Friends whom I had up with now avoided me or made me a chief target of ridicule. Fannie counseled, “If they rejected the Lord, they will reject the servant.” Maybe so, but I wasn’t ready to pay that price.
Jonah couldn’t flee from God, but I wasn’t sure it couldn’t be done. I planned to go off into the service, leaving God, religion and Christ behind. I had had it! I wanted no more peer pressure and ridicule. The day I turned eighteen I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
The night before I left home, Fannie had some farewell advice. “You’re a true Christian, Marvin. You have that insurance policy I told you about. One day when your earthly life ends you will go to heaven. But if, when you get there, there is a great big parade and if, in the front of the parade there is a great big band—if you don’t change your way of living, you’ll be so far back in the line you won’t even hear music.” Fannie never gave me a chapter and verse for that statement, but somehow it impressed my impressionable mind. Notwithstanding her advice, I stood firm in my rebellion.
During basic training I received two or three letters a week from my mother. I’m sure she was convinced that tracts were cheaper by the dozen. In every letter she enclosed ten or twelve. I was furious! In the rebelliousness of my heart I wrote home, “Mom, I love you very much, but if you can’t write without including Christian literature, then don’t write at all.” I received the next letter and opened it quickly to see if there was any literature. There was none.Then I read the letter. It began, “Dear Marv”, The body of the letter followed and she closed in her usual fashion, “Oceans of love, Mom.” Then followed a postscript. Keep looking up, for He is always looking down.” She sent no more literature. It wasn’t necessary. Whatever I did, wherever I went, the Holy Spirit was present to convict me of sin.
Through Closed Doors
I felt rather smug seated in the club car drinking my cocktail. The train would soon arrive at Philadelphia and I would be home. My three years in the Marine Corps had passed rapidly. They were, I felt, good years. I had experienced life—I had grown up, I was a man. I even had sergeant stripes to prove it.
Prospects for the future seemed excellent. My older brother and sister-in-law were both professional dancing teachers. I loved to dance, had won a dance contest on national television, and was certain that I would make my way in life as a professional dancer. Only one thing clouded my optimism that day. I had gambled away all my money while in the service and would have to live with my mother in her recently acquired suburban home. But that, I was certain, would be short-lived—about six months—long enough to save a few dollars. Then I could get my own apartment, a half-dozen suits, three redheads and a new car.
I moved into my mother’s home and soon started teaching at the dance studio. My life became a predictable cycle. I went to the studio at about 1:00 P.M. and finished at 10:00 P.M. This was usually followed by a visit to several of the after-hour night clubs. On occasion I broke that routine by playing poker until about 3:00 A.M. Both my mother and Fannie encouraged church attendance—but I wasn’t interested. Week after week they pleaded that I attend the Bible study conducted in our home, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
But God has ways of making the blind to see and the deaf to hear. It was my day off. It was also the night of the Bible study. I had been burning the candle at both ends and decided to stay home and get some much needed sleep. Of course, I took precaution to make sure that I was safely in my bedroom before my mother’s friends arrived. It was early evening and sleep would not come. I heard the guests arrive—heard them hanging their coats in the closet, heard them begin to sing some of the familiar Christian hymns, and I desperately didn’t want to hear.
Then the Bible teacher began the lesson. I pulled the covers up over my head, but I could not drown out his voice. In a last desperate attempt, I clamped the pillow over my head. I lost, but won! For from the living room, down the long corridor, through the closed door, and in spite of the up-pulled covers and pulled-down pillow—God was speaking to me. I could not flee from the “Hound of Heaven”. For the first time in years I lay still and let Him speak.
When the message was over, unknown to all of the guests, I got down on my knees beside my bed and, with tears streaming down my face, prayed. I still remember the prayer. “Father, I have no gifts that I know of—I have nothing to offer to you but my life. I give it now, if you will receive it.”
In my heart I knew that the words of Augustine, the fourth century theologian, were true. He had written, “O God, thou hast created man for thyself, and man is restless until he rests in thee.” King Solomon expressed the same thought when he wrote, “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Solomon’s words can be paraphrased this way: “Soap bubbles of soap bubbles, all is soap bubbles.” Soap bubbles are attractive, colorful, appealing, float leisurely by, and hold out so much promise; but when you reach out for them, they break! I knew in my heart that that’s what life is like without God.
When four years of age, a boy wants a three-wheel bike; at six, he wants a two wheeler; when twelve, he wants to play spin the bottle; at sixteen, a car is the appeal; at eighteen, the desire is to get out of parental control; then marriage, a family, a beautiful home and financial security. Each new goal is like a soap bubble; it promises much but when you reach out for it, it breaks! There is nothing wrong with any of these things inside the will of God, But outside of it, they leave man with “an itching heart he doesn’t know how to scratch.” I knew that to be true during this period of rebellion. My heart had been “itching” something terrible, and I didn’t want anyone to know it.
A Desert Place
Needless to say, my mother and Fannie were thrilled to know of my new commitment. They shared the news with the pastor, and within a week I found myself at the Sandy Cove Conference grounds. Hearing of my decision, they graciously made a job available to me.
It was winter and the conference grounds were closed. But there was a lot of work to be done to get the grounds ready for the next conference season. The director came down on the weekend and assigned work for the following week. And work I did — digging a trench for the pipes to be connected to the new pool, scrubbing and waxing the large dining hall, painting, cleaning cabins—there seemed to be no end to the work that needed to be done. I remember saying, “Lord, I told you that you could have my life, but you’ve got me here in the middle of nowhere.” Somehow I sensed God’s response, “Did you say I can have your life—well, this is where I want you now.” As spring began to turn to summer, I welcomed the news that they wanted to send me to Hilltop Ranch—a teenage Christian camp—to function as a counselor.
For the first time I experienced the thrill of teaching others the Word of God. Each night after putting my cabin of ten teenage boys to sleep, I would sit on the bathroom floor—there to study for the next day’s Bible study, eager to share what God was teaching. The summer passed all too soon, and before me lay an uncertain future.
“Tomorrow’s your day off, isn’t it?” asked the camp director and his assistant. It was. “How about spending the day with us? I was to meet them the next morning—I had no idea where we were going.
We drove north for about an hour-and-a-half and entered the City of Philadelphia. He parked the car at Eighteenth and Arch Streets, and we walked into a large building. Over the entrance in bold letters was written “PHILADELPHIA COLLEGE OF BIBLE”. We climbed the steps to the second floor and entered the office of the registrar. I broke into uncontrollable laughter when they said rather matter-of-factly, “We have a man we think the Lord wants in the ministry.” The registrar sternky inquired, “What’s so funny young man?” Here I was at college — Bible college at that — and I hadn’t even completed the 11th grade! My laughter turned to bewilderment and then anticipation when, after an extended interview and examination, I was told to plan to start classes in two weeks.
During the next four years, the College would become God’s instrument to faithfully impart the Word of God—to dramatically change the direction of my life—to (missing word due to hole punch) a strong foundation for future ministry. How could I know in 1960 that fifteen years Later I would be a member of the College’s Board of Trustees? But then, doesn’t God use the weak things of this world to confound the mighty?
Fruit For His Glory
During my undergraduate study and two years at Dallas Seminary, Fannie constantly encouraged my wife (whom I met at Bible college) and me. But more than that, she constantly held us up before the throne of grace, and somehow from her small income she managed to send cash gifts to help with our training. She was quietly present when I was ordained to the Gospel ministry, and again when I was called to the pastorate. And how very exciting the pastoral ministry was. Beginning with a small flock in a rented building, God saw fit to give increase. Souls were gloriously saved, backsliders were restored, property was purchased, buildings were erected, missionaries were being supported. How glorious to be a part of God’s program for building His Church!
After completing three building programs in five years, we thought we could rest awhile—enjoy the fruit of our labor. But the Lord, who had saved us through a missionary to the Jews, had other plans.
The Potter At Work
I always had a love for my brethren according to the flesh. I was proud (I trust in the right sense) of my Jewish heritage. I had a genuine concern for their salvation. But I didn’t want to be a missionary to the Jews. Not me! I had seen a great deal of work among the Jews—and I didn’t like much of what I had seen. There was very little response from the Jewish people and the Church seemed largely disinterested. Jewish missions just wasn’t where the action was. And that’s where I wanted to be! But Fannie prayed, she and my mother, that somehow God would burden me for my kinsmen—see their great need and respond.
I was approached by Dr. Victor Buksbazen, who would soon be retiring from his position as General Secretary of The Friends of Israel. He had given fifty years of service to the Lord’s work—-thirty in his present position. He was concerned about a successor—the continuation of the Mission’s ministry. I wasn’t interested. With persistence he kept coming back, convinced that I was God’s choice. “At least pray about it,” he said, “give God a chance.” My wife and I prayed, and the master Potter began His work. Slowly, the Potter began to fashion the now moldable vessels. We would leave our beloved pastorate to succeed my faithful predecessor, whom the Lord would soon call “home.”
The years with the Mission have been, for my wife and me, both blessed and fruitful. God has given opportunity for ministry beyond our highest expectations or.shortsighted faith. They have been days of deep joy, knowing that we are where He wants us to be—serving among the Jewish people, who, though still blinded, remain the apple of His eye.
But what of Fannie? Faithful Fannie. She never made the hit parade. She was never listed in anyone’s “Who’s Who”. Materially, she never had much of this world’s goods—she lived by faith. Educationally, her formal training ended at fourth grade, but few knew the Word of God better. The world never took note of her. Some would say her life never counted for much—were they right? You judge.
Twenty-eight years ago she was used of God to reach my mother with the Gospel. Six months later she reached me and the succession started; my younger brother, older brother, my sisters-in-law, and other relatives and friends. Home Bible studies were started where hundreds were saved. Today, we know of a large number of students studying for Christian service, men in the pastorate, and men and women on the mission fields as a direct result of our ministry. In part, one solitary woman faithfully served her God. She started a chain reaction that will continue into eternity. I never think of Fannie but that I’m reminded of the words of a chorus, It only takes a spark to get a fire going. Fannie allowed herself to be a spark for her God—her life started a conflagration!
I had it in my heart for some years to write a little article about Fannie’s influence in the life of our family. On Saturday, February 28th I felt an irrepressible compulsion to sit at my desk and write this article—I literally couldn’t pull myself away. I would learn two days later that on Wednesday, February 25th, three days before my “strange” compulsion to write, God had called this true daughter of Israel “home.”
Invariably, whenever I saw Fannie I would ask, “How are you today?” Her response was always the same, “Marvin, I’m just praising the Lord.” Fannie never had, nor wanted, the praise of man. She lived only to praise the God she loved. Doubtless her entrance into His presence was abundant and she heard those blessed words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
When I heard of Fannie’s homegoing, I didn’t weep for her. How could I? If mansions in heaven are of varying sizes (and I suspect they are), she’s got a large one—up close. And she’s doing what she loves to do best—praising her wonderful Lord!