Arts & Books

Book review: From the Kippah to the Cross

The dome of Sacre Coeur drew Jean-Marie Elie Setbon towards Christ (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

From the Kippah to the Cross: A Jew’s Conversion to Catholicism
by Jean-Marie Elie Setbon
Ignatius Press, £10.50

Conversion stories are not unusual, but what makes this particular story stand out is that the author, who relates that he was drawn to Christ from his childhood, later spent some years as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, before being baptised in 2007, aged 43.

Setbon’s was an unconventional path to the Church and his book reflects all the impulses, setbacks and contradictions of his journey. He was impelled both towards Christianity, yet also towards Jewish mysticism. As with all conversion stories, his life reflects the endless patience and mercy of God.

What is moving in Setbon’s account is that, although from a secular Jewish family, he was attracted to the Cross from an early age. Growing up in Paris he would gaze at the dome of the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre from his bedroom window. A cross on the wall of a holiday house “drew me to it like a magnet” and he secretly practised making the Sign of the Cross in bed at night. “I had a strong impression of being in contact with a person,” he relates.

When Setbon grew older he secretly visited Sacre Coeur every month. With the money he was given after his (rather perfunctory) bar mitzvah he bought a cross and chain, worn concealed under his clothes.

In his teens he became interested in Jewish traditions and prayers and started to attend a synagogue on Saturdays. Aged 18 he made the decision to move to Israel, living on a kibbutz, in the army and at a yeshiva. He even joined an ultra-Orthodox community and spent his days studying the Talmud. “Wracked with guilt and remorse” at seeming to betray his yearning for Christ, he would gaze at the cross on top of a church in Jaffa where he lived.

After five years Setbon returned to Paris, married and had seven children. After his wife’s tragically early death he had to raise them alone, cooking kosher meals and observing Jewish laws and prayers as well as the Sabbath. During this time he began to make clandestine visits to Sacre Coeur again. He read the Gospels and St John of the Cross and the family was befriended by a community of nuns. Staying with them and his children in a convent in Nemours, Setbon had a mystical experience while looking at a painting of the Holy Shroud. “I was illuminated,” he writes. All his hesitations instantly disappeared.

Conversion changed him. Notably, he writes, “I was now sensitive to the sufferings of all, even if they were not Jewish.”

Although ostracised by Jewish friends, Setbon makes it clear that he does “not renounce anything that Judaism has given me”. His book is a heart-warming story, recounted with humour, humility and honesty.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/7/15).

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