You never know what event will spark a person’s desire to return to Judaism. Art Sherman was an assimilated Jew married to a Polish Catholic woman. He owned a non-kosher Italian “hero sandwich shop” and an unbelievable comment, one day by his Rastafarian employee, sent him on a life-changing journey.
After their wedding in 1973, Art and Karen moved from place to place, first to Philadelphia and then to Brooklyn. There, he decided to open a small sandwich store. He made all types of sandwiches, from five different kinds of cheese steaks to Italian hoagies stacked high with ham, pork-salami and provolone cheese. Customers loved the sandwiches and business was great.
Over time, he started noticed specific groups of people who would not eat particular sandwiches. He had lots of Jamaican, Seventh Day Adventist and Muslim customers who said they didn’t eat pork because it was prohibited in the Old Testament.
Art continued to devour his non-kosher sandwiches, but over time he began to sense the irony of his non-Jewish customers attempting to follow religious dietary laws, which he ignored completely.
“The Muslims would make me wipe off the slicing machine before I cut roast beef or corned beef for their sandwiches. For myself, I couldn’t care less,” Art said. “I could eat so much pork it would make the Pope sick. I had all these non-Jewish people coming in who had more respect for where I came from than I did.”
One of his employees, who was a Rastafarian, refused to eat meat altogether. He was a vegetarian, because as he told Art, “the Bible forbids the consumption of blood.” Rastafarians take this Biblical statement to further prohibit the consumption of any animal flesh.
Art continued to consume away. One day in his store, he had a craving for a huge hoagie, with everything on it.
“I wanted a ‘Marciano’ Italian Hot Ham and Provolone cheese. The sandwich had to have perfect balance. It was my place. I could put on as much meat or cheese as I deemed appropriate. But too much meat, not enough cheese, and the balance would be thrown off. I had to have room for the lettuce, tomatoes, thinly sliced onions, hot peppers, oil and oregano,” Art said. “I was in Alpha concentration. Totally focused on the task at hand when the Rastafarian guy walks up behind me and says in a deep voice, ‘you know Art, you really shouldn’t eat ham.'”
Something about the Rastafarian’s statement caused Art to stop and think about what he was doing.
“I felt like I had been slapped in the face! Shot in the heart! It woke me up,” Art said.
“I knew I really shouldn’t eat ham. I went to Hebrew school. But the last person I expected to call me on it was this guy. What could I say? He was right.”
Art made a commitment at that moment to keep what he called “Arab Kosher.” He decided to stop eating all pork and shellfish products. “It was a big step for me and I was proud to take it.”
Art came home that night and told his wife about his epiphany. She immediately agreed to join him. Although it created tension with her family, Karen remained steadfast in her determination. In the past, every other little Jewish activity, such as having a Passover Seder, had seemed to bring them closer together, and this action was no different.
The commitment to cut out pork and shellfish from their lives launched the Shermans on a journey of growth and exploration. Soon, Art closed his store and he and his family moved to his hometown, a small Jewish neighborhood in Margate, outside Atlantic City. Art and Karen, along with their two daughters, began going to a synagogue around the corner from their house, and he and his wife began taking Jewish classes. Over time they began keeping kosher and took on more mitzvot.
“I felt like there was something really familiar about it,” Karen said. “When the teacher talked about Sinai, I knew clearly that that’s where my soul had been. I finally began to understand the identity of my soul.”
With this newfound realization and excitement, Karen continued learning. She and her daughters eventually converted. Years later Karen learned that several of her ancestors had actually been Jewish.
Art and Karen say they still look back in astonishment at the extraordinary source that launched them on their growth. That one comment from the Rastafarian employee, of all people, sent them on an incredible life journey. But the fact that it came from such an unexpected source was a major reason it had the impact that it did.
“Sometimes you’re all ready to defend yourself from a religious Jew, but you’re not ready to defend yourself against a Gentile telling you things that the rabbis taught,” Art said. “I was like a tank. I was fortified, heavily reinforced from the front for a frontal attack, but my armor was not as thick on the side. When you get hit on the side, sometimes – boom – the rounds go through. The Rastafarian caught me in the ribs.”
Hashem has lots of quills of all different types in His quiver, depending on who He is trying to reach. And you just never know what quill He will use next.
Today Art Sherman makes Kosher Hoagies while speaking to Jewish groups about his journey. In early 2009 he will be opening a new kosher meat restaurant in Manalapan, NJ called “Just Good Food!” that will offer hoagies as well as Middle Eastern and Italian dishes. He can be reached at 347-581-4411 or Asher26593@aol.com.
Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars’ Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to email@example.com; to receive the column via e-mail or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com