True story: There used to be a joke in Paris. What is the difference between the Chief Rabbi in France and the Cardinal of Paris?
“The Cardinal speaks Yiddish!”
Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger was born on 1926 to Polish Jewish parents who ran a dress shop in Paris. When the German army marched into their city, his parents sent him and his sister into hiding with a Catholic family in Orleans. Their mother was captured and killed in Auschwitz.
In 1999, as Cardinal of Paris, Jean Marie Lustiger took part in reading of the names of France’s day of remembrance of Jews who had been deported and murdered. He came to the name of Gesele Lustiger, paused, teared and said, “My Mama!” The effect in France during a time of revived anti-Semitism was electric.
He was just 13 and in hiding when he converted to Catholicism, not to escape the Nazis, he always said, because no Jew could escape by conversion, nor because of trauma:
“I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the nations. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”
He confessed to a biographer that he had a spiritual crisis in the 1970’s provoked by persistent anti-Semitism in France. He studied Hebrew and considered emigrating. He said, “I thought that I had finished what I had to do here and I might find new meaning in Israel.”
But just at that time the Pope appointed him bishop of Orleans.
He found purpose in the plight of immigrant workers. Then he was elevated Cardinal, the Archbishop of Paris. Jean Marie Lustiger was close to the Pope. They shared a doctrinal conservatism. He also battled bigotry and totalitarianism.
For years, Cardinal Lustiger’s name was among those who was considered to succeed John Paul. Without putting himself forth, the Cardinal joked that few things would bedevil bigots more that a Jewish Pope.
With thanks to my pal, Jason VanBorssum.
Originally published on Facebook
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.