—The Beatles, Baby You’re a Rich Man
Stately, plump Jesús Christos came from the elevator, bearing a bowl of oranges upon which an iPad and a Wall Street Journal lay crossed. The billionaire scion of a Mexican pre-mixed concrete family crossed to the rampart on top of Christos Tower and surveyed his kingdom, laid out beneath him, through the haze of early smog. He cleared his throat and spat over the side; the sputum fell a few feet and then a gust caught it and threw it back in his face. Angered, he shifted the bowl into his left hand, wiped the spit off his face, and tried futilely to throw it back over the side of the hundred-story building.
Setting the bowl and its cargo down on a side table, Christos threw his bulk into the nearby lounge chair and scanned the newspaper’s front page before lifting the iPad and settling it on the bulk of his stomach to get the real news. He checked his family’s stock price and then checked Twitter for mentions of his dotcom company, Jewish.com. After answering a few text messages, Christos opened the manuscript he was working on, the story of his life. Most of the writing had come easily—the story of his successes online, his continuing conflict with his family and relocation to Bangladesh, his recent marriage to María Magdalena at 28. But he was struggling with writing about his early years, including his spiritual awakening at five, and a particular family trip to Jerusalem when he was 12.
Sighing, he began to write, again, his first chapter.
Chapter 1—My Young Awakening
From an early age, I felt alienated from my family. I remember at age five wondering who these people were. How had I come to be involved with a collection of semi-shady avaricious fools? These are not my real parents; my real father is coming back for me. My mother didn’t help matters with her oft-repeated joke about finding me under a bush by the side of a country road. What a horrible picture this conjured in my young mind: lost among low hills of terraced farmland, baking under a hedgerow of agave.
I concocted a different fantasy: My real mom and dad live somewhere else and when they get enough money they’ll come get me. I’m just staying with María and José for a while until my real parents get on their feet. My real parents are fallen nobility, king and queen deposed by banditos. They placed me here for safety until the day I can regain my rightful place at the right hand of my father.
My alienation also stemmed from our family name. Like many Mexican Jews, my family did not have a typical Jewish name. My father couldn’t be Josef; he was José. In fact, it was not until in my late teens, when I came upon my father’s birth certificate, that I found out he was born with a different surname: Khaldei. I was further surprised and disgusted to learn that around the time I was born, the whole family, perhaps fed up with persecution, perhaps seeking a more acceptable identity to help extend the family business overseas, changed the family name to Christos. The name may have been chosen partly in sardonic honor of the religious crackpot Maria Devi Christos from our native Ukraine, a favorite obsession of one of my uncles, but probably primarily to fly under the anti-Semitic radar.
Consequently, my parents and the rest of the family were not outwardly, or even inwardly, religious and cared nothing for the Torah, which was my passion ever since I taught myself to read it at age five. My family only managed to drag themselves to temple a few times a year, mostly to hobnob with other important people on the various holy days. This secular disinterest in heritage and tradition helped make my growing obsession with the word of Yahweh seem even stranger to them. I was a precocious kid, and I yearned for a connection with God.
I learned Hebrew so I could know the word of God and I also taught myself Spanish so that I could learn more about the Jewish people in Mexico. Of course, Mexico in general, and Mexico City, where we lived, was not exactly a paradise for the Jews. I read the histories: the arrival of the Conversos with Cortés; the forced conversions to Paulicism brought on by the Spanish Inquisition and its Mexican counterpart that killed 29 Judaizers; the immigration of the Crypto-Jewish Carvajal family; the European Jewish influx of the late 19th century—especially the bankers who were invited by the government for their fiscal skills; Benito Juárez’ Reform War, and on and on. I may have been precocious, but I was still a young child, and these terrible injustices affected me deeply, haunting my dreams, and causing me to hunger to learn as much as I could about my heritage to try to understand the treatment of my people.
My father made his fortune in concrete, a substance as hard and unyielding as his head. He took over the business from my grandfather and built it into a multi-billion-dollar international building materials company with a presence in 50 countries. In fact, cement is part of the reason I moved to Bangladesh, where the company has an outpost. It was an easy way to put an ocean between me and my family without seeming to escape their grasp.
From as early as I can remember, I detested being rich. Even while quite young, I felt demeaned by the attentions of the servants who performed all my grooming and toilet chores as if I were a cherished object to be polished rather than a person. Although I was this shiny valued thing, I felt I had no worth intrinsically. I was just a reflection of what my father owned. I began to feel that I was meant for better things, and that I needed to strive for some meaning to justify myself and break out of my father’s shadow. Simply put, I felt destined for greatness, but in a way that transcended the materialist world of my family.
Around the time of my birth, my father was making the company’s first international moves, acquiring European and South American companies. That’s when he built his first palace, a ghastly faux Tudor affair, but actually quite tame compared to some of his hideous later mansions. I grew up on its cold marble floors. We had many servants, of course, and my parents treated them like dirt. I was aghast at the cruel treatment, especially by my mother, who would have the maid clean and re-clean a floor until she was satisfied, and the maid’s fingers bled.
I hated all the cars, and boats, and airplanes my father bought, and all the clothes my mother wore once and then discarded, and all the diamonds and gold and other ridiculous excesses. The toilet in my bathroom was trimmed with gold.
There were various aspects of our wealth, however, that I did enjoy, sometimes to my shame. When my father determined that I would not be dissuaded from daily study of the Torah, he unloaded the dozens of bookshelves in his fake English library, tossed the books in the trash, and restocked with possibly the finest library of Jewish religious thought in the New World. I was like a kid in a candy store.
Another perk of wealth that I enjoyed was our frequent trips abroad. My favorite trip was one we took when I was 12, to Israel. We were only scheduled to be there for a day because my father had some business to do. One thing that made this trip particularly memorable was the weird behavior of two old people we ran into while doing some sightseeing. One was a doddering old man whom we met at the Dome of the Rock. He said his name was Simeon, and he told us he was waiting for “the consolation of Israel.” We had no idea what he meant by that. He raved on, saying that he had been promised by God that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. As soon as he clapped his eyes on me, he embraced me and went on and on about how he could now die, because he had met the Messiah. He mumbled some other rubbish about rising and falling in Israel and signs, and something about a sword as well.
I was pretty disturbed by this encounter, as were my parents who, once they recovered from their surprise, got their bodyguards to usher the poor fool away.
No sooner had Simeon been swept away than another old crank came up to me and started making a fuss as if I were something really special. She said she was the Widow Anna, and that she’d tell everyone about me. My folks were all shook up by that point and practically dragged me away from that holy place. I didn’t want to leave because it was my fondest desire to seek out learned rabbis to discuss the Torah.
By that time, we traveled with quite the entourage. There were maids and valets, and perhaps a dozen bodyguards as well as three nursemaids for me, for around the clock attention. I had no use for any of them and, especially at age 12, was resentful of being treated as a child. My parents had a big diplomatic event of some kind that night, and I managed to run a little game on my nannies so I could slip away. Each thought the other would be in charge of me that night and the next day, when we were to take the family 757 on to Paris. This was the most tricked-out plane you would ever want to see, with multiple bathrooms, and several private compartments all resplendent in gold, diamond inlays, and other opulent decorations. I had often hidden myself for hours on the plane on longer trips, my nose in a religious book.
I was able to sneak off the plane and hailed a cab to take me to the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem where I was determined to find Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and engage him in Talmudic discussions. When I got there, I found a great gathering of rabbinical scholars. When I asked to be allowed to join their discussions, they were at first amused, but when they realized I knew my stuff, they began to include me almost as an equal. Rabbi Steinsaltz himself was quite kind to me, and expressed surprise as much for the questions I asked as for my answers to his. I can’t remember a happier time in my childhood than the time I spent with these learned holy men. As I grew older, I harked back particularly to our discussions of the tribulations of Jeremiah and Job, and especially the prophecies of Isaiah. I often feel like a voice calling in the wilderness myself.
Because of my duplicity with my nannies, nobody noticed I wasn’t on the airplane the next morning. My parents were quite used to not seeing me, sometimes for days, and assumed I was on board. When they got to Paris, they realized I’d been left behind, and immediately turned back to Jerusalem to search for me. After three days, they found me in the Steinsaltz Center, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
When my parents saw me, they were astonished. My mother said to me, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Being a rebellious smartass, I replied, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” I had hoped this would particularly sting my father, whom I had regularly and loudly accused of not being my real father. My parents were flabbergasted and furious. They turned on their heels and let our bodyguards extract me from the company of rabbis and return me to the plane.
Around this time, I became obsessed with Paulicism and studied its version of the Bible intensely. How could this obviously crazy Roman Jew have concocted an entire religion out of whole cloth based on a few claims of miracles and mediated by a talisman so fraught with cruelty: the Roman crucifixion cross? And why did they revere the nails used to affix victims to the cross as holy relics? It doesn’t make sense on so many levels. For example, kinesiologically speaking, the cross is a weakening symbol. Try it sometime. Lift a weight and then try it again while holding a cross. You’ll be surprised.
The whole origin of this strange religion confused and fascinated me. The odd insistence that Paul was born of a virgin, baptized, and was a carpenter. It seemed to me that this was a mashup of the origin story for Krishna (second person of the Hindu Trinity, divinely conceived, son of a carpenter, baptized, called the Son of God), Buddha (entered his mother’s womb from her side, in the form of a white elephant), the Akkadian birth of Marduk (created in the heart of Apsu) and the Persian god Mithra (born of a virgin on December 25th and known as “the Way,” “the Truth,” “the Light,” “the Word,” “the Son of God,” and “the Good Shepherd”). Paulicism was plagiarism personified! The miracle birth meme was almost as old as civilization as an indication of holiness. Hell, I was a miracle birth myself. Mother was 46 and years into menopause when I was born, just like Isaac.
I felt the fact that Paulicism claimed a common heritage with Judaism was a particular insult to my religion. How could a religion with just Moses’ 10 commandments truly be the successor to Judaism, with its mature, comprehensive laws for living and relating to God?
Even more insulting was my father’s purchase of a firm that manufactured crosses and nail talismans. This was a type of business that was completely out of his bailiwick! In my self-centered young mind, this was a deliberate attack on my growing religiousness, and a way for him to assert the dominance of his materialistic worldview, and lifestyle. I didn’t speak to my father for weeks after I learned of the transaction. I doubt he noticed.
Judaism had become the central devotion of my life by my early teens. Two things obsessed my thoughts during this time: the worldwide persecution of the Jews, especially the Holocaust, and a growing conviction that the Jewish aversion to proselytizing would ensure that the hatred of my people would continue forever. It was in this period that I conceived Jewish.com as a way to spread the word about Judaism.
My religion had always been an exclusive club—the Chosen People. We begrudgingly accept conversions, but true Jews are those with a Jewish mother. I felt that as long as we held ourselves above others, and made no effort to increase our ranks other than by in-breeding, we would continually suffer.
Jewish.com came into being in my bedroom. I had, like many of my peers, become fascinated with the power of the web as a communication tool. What better way to spread the word about Judaism than to harness this online power? I obviously had access to virtually unlimited funds, and so I bought a state-of-the-art web server and all the software necessary to begin to build a website. I took a number of online courses in web development, and began to piece together the structure of the site.
My goal at first was to just create an online community for Jews all over the world, sort of like a Facebook for Yids, although I wasn’t yet aware of Facebook, which hadn’t spread far beyond a few colleges when I began Jewish.com. I thought if Jews from all cultures and walks of life could establish a kehila, a place to exchange thoughts, prayers, and viewpoints, then Judaism would not only be enriched, but could grow in stature and number.
From the start, I was conscious that there is no real tradition of proselytizing in Judaism and in fact, such an idea is anathema to the core beliefs of my religion. Traditionally we have believed that eventually all people will come to recognize the God of Israel as the One All-Powerful God of the Universe. It will either just dawn on people that Judaism is the one true religion or the converted will otherwise fulfill the seven universal commandments God gave to Noah. In Deuteronomy there is also the belief that Jews adhering to God’s commandments “will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”
Some Jews feel that to encourage conversions would doom many converts to fail, in part because to convert, one must accept all 613 commandments of the Torah. Discouraging conversion in this way weeds out those who aren’t truly devout. Whatever the reason, the result is Judaism is one of the smaller worldwide religions: Paulicism and its offshoot Islam comprise well more than half the world’s population—almost 5 billion. Judaism, claiming a mere 14 million adherents, doesn’t even make the top 10; it’s basically a rounding error religion.
At 13, in my first post on Jewish.com, I asked, irreverently, “How’s that Chosen People thing going for you, Jews? Centuries of persecution and murder for our beliefs. Oppression and coercion and relegation to second-class status in society after society. It’s just not working out.” My young self’s soul cried out for a better solution.
And so, I studied the Paulic evangelists, with their slick suits and eloquent speech, and their pandering to an audience that I—and they—regarded as morons. I also studied the sincere missionaries who, despite their sincerity, adopted often-horrific tactics to convert the heathens. I studied the Muslims, whose religion, although peaceful at its center, justifies holy war as a means to convert the unconverted. I concluded that unless the Jewish people adopted evangelism, not only would our numbers remain small, they would be small enough that another Holocaust could wipe us from the Earth.
Jewish.com is a major reason I chose to relocate to Dhaka. The history of our people in Bangladesh, a majority Muslim nation, is a sad one, but a typical one in Muslim Asia. After Shalom Cohen founded the Calcutta Jewish community in West Bengal, he started his trading company with Jewish employees in Dhaka. Cohen’s son-in-law established a prayer hall in 1817 to serve the small Jewish community there. However, most Jews doing business in Dhaka did not live there, preferring to reside in Calcutta where there was a much larger Jewish population. Today, until recently, only a few Jews remain in Bangladesh, but most hide their Jewishness and are assimilated. Until I built the company headquarters here, there had been no synagogue in Bangladesh since the police seized the last one decades ago, although some Jews gathered privately to celebrate the feasts.
A country that lacks a significant Jewish population and which seceded from India based on its desire to become a Muslim state may seem like a poor choice for relocation for a person seeking to spread the Jewish faith. My reasons for coming to Dhaka include my desire to separate myself from my materialistic, self-hating family, the convenient location of a family company office in Dhaka, and the extreme challenge of becoming a missionary in such an unpromising place. This challenge was brought home to me by the plight of Muslim Zionist and peace activist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of The Weekly Blitz in Bangladesh. What a rare bird! A Zionist Muslim! Choudhury was accused of blasphemy, sedition, and treason for frequently writing pro-Israel articles and criticizing radical Islamists. He has had the temerity to say, in public, “I am a Zionist and a friend of Israel.”
I simply had to meet this brave man who has been arrested and tortured with electric shocks, had his office firebombed, was kidnapped by the Rapid Action Battalion anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police, and was thrown in jail on fabricated charges of embezzlement. There is a Paulic parable about casting seed on rocky ground. Dhaka definitely was not fertile ground for a mission, but I’ve never been one to shrink from a challenge. I decided to march into the heart of the beast and change it with love.
To effect my relocation, I agreed to supervise the family company’s construction of the tallest building in Bangladesh on the condition that the building include the country’s first synagogue in many years. It was tough sledding to convince my father, but I actually think he would have done anything to get rid of me.
I now have built the tower, and the synagogue, and managed to get Choudhury released from jail. He now runs the synagogue outreach program, which numbers about a dozen souls. I maintain heavy security around the temple and the building, know whom to pay and with whom to ally, and am happy to report few incidents, and even a few conversions that add to the 3,500 Jews who lived in the country before I arrived. We are slowly convincing Bangladeshi Jews to stop claiming to be Jehovah’s Witnesses and to reveal their true identity. Nonetheless, most Jews attend our services by entering through a special door in the underground parking garage of the building.
I am not confining my missionary activities to Bangladesh, of course. Through Jewish.com, I have organized missions throughout the Paulic and Muslim worlds. Interestingly, many of our missionaries were not born Jewish, and have converted as part of our efforts. My goal is that, in two years, by my 30th birthday, I will announce missions in every country on Earth.
Of course, I have faced opposition and death threats from all sides. The attacks from fellow Jews are especially virulent. My response to all attackers is that God loves them and will help them see the path to Judaism someday.
There are those who say that a person of privilege such as myself is not fit to minister to those less fortunate because I have never known privation. My response is that I have faced extreme privation of the soul growing up as a wealthy person. I have seen the disease of entitlement and arrogance that afflicts my family and others among the wealthy elite. I have seen scions of family friends turn to drugs or other risky behaviors because of lives barren of faith. I reject the trappings and privileges of wealth except in cases where my money can do good, and further my goal of converting to Judaism all those willing to be enlightened.
I know that some will fault me for fabricating a humble backstory, back when I started Jewish.com. To this, I plead youth. I was 13. And after all, for some time I had been creating a more acceptable family history—noble parents who would come back and rescue me from the filthy rich—and so it came easily to me. So, no, I wasn’t the bastard son of a family of impoverished pretenders to the Ukrainian throne, although my family did emigrate from Ukraine to Mexico during the pogroms that accompanied the establishment of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. And, no, I wasn’t 28 when I created Jewish.com. Similarly, it’s not true that I was a rabbinical student, and that’s still not true. I’ve never met many of the prominent Jewish scholars I claimed to be associated with, although, as I mentioned earlier, I have met a few.
I concocted some of my story so that I could be taken more seriously, but mostly I was afraid that my message would be obscured by people’s reaction to the wealthy messenger. Many believe the Paulic biblical verse, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” In fact, even today, many have said, effectively, “How dare you try to advise us, when you’ve never suffered as we have!” Please rest assured I have suffered more than you can ever understand. Part of the reason I started my mission was because I felt unsuited to the life I was born into. I never felt I deserved the advantages I had; they embarrassed me. Our wealth made me feel overwhelmingly guilty. I felt like an imposter in my own life. And so, I created a new identity for myself so that I could avoid the implications of my heritage. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a one-percenter.
I realize the irony involved.
María emerged from the elevator in a stunning one-piece swimsuit that accentuated her baby bump. “Join me for a dip, J?” This far above the Dhaka smog, the sun shines brightly, glinting off María’s giant frog-eye glasses and making her look like a shapely alien.
“Not now, mi vida. I’m working on the book.” Jesús regarded his bride briefly, flashed her a quick smile, and returned to his writing. Pouting slightly, María turned, dropped her wrap, and entered the gigantic pool. She swam over to the infinity edge and gazed out over the smog-fouled city.
“J, why don’t you do something about this terrible pollution?”
Jesús looked up, glanced about, took a beat to process what she’d asked, and said, “I’m trying to heal spirits, not bodies. But I suppose I could close up Father’s cement plants. That would be a good start at cleaning the air.”
“I dare you!”
“Not even a gringo’s double-dog dare would make me bring down the shitstorm that I’d be in if I ever crossed mi familia. Besides, I’m turning father’s dirty money into clean Yechidah.”
“Always the golden tongue,” María sneered, sticking out her own tongue at her husband. “And are you talking about your own soul or your followers’?”
“For the millionth time, María, I do not have followers. I am a humble missionary attempting to spread God’s word throughout the world.”
“Well there’s a few hundred thousand non-followers in the world who might disagree on that point.” María returned to examining the smoggy city.
Jesús had indeed assembled a multitude of missionaries and converts. With Jewish.com as the center of his message, he had first reached out across Mexico City, then across Mexico, then North and South America, and now Asia. The website he created in his bedroom at 13 had evolved over the last 15 years into a virtual synagogue in the cloud, supported by an efficient hierarchy of missionary managers, volunteers and evangelists.
Along the way, the message of Jewish pardon—humility, resolve, and rituals of penitence—in which rabbis serve solely as facilitators, with God as the forgiver, had tended to take on some of the Paulic notion of the priests dispensing penance as de facto grantors of absolution. Jesús was concerned about this and similar shifts in dogma, but pragmatically reasoned that with a massive influx of Paulics and people of other faiths, dogma was less important than enlightenment.
After a moment’s thought, Jesús replied to María, “I’m but a man. I do the best I can. If people start to regard me as some kind of prophet, there’s little I can do about it. I can think; I can wait; I can fast.”
“Yeah, amado, you could fast for a great while . . .”
Jesús tossed the newspaper in the general direction of his wife and returned to his writing.