First a Jew, then a Christian, now a Chassid — shell talk here

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A funny-sounding phrase changed Lieba Schwartz's life forever.

After 40 years of steadily mounting involvement with a Christian church, Schwartz now lives and breathes Chassidism. She's moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, keeps kosher and gives talks on her head-spinning return to her Jewish roots.

It all started in January 1997 when her mother's cousin, a Chassidic Jew, ended a phone conversation by saying, "Good Shabbos."

"I'd never heard that word before," recalls the 59-year-old Schwartz, who grew up in a completely assimilated Jewish household. "What was that word?"

Schwartz, who had recently become blind from a genetic illness, decided to do some research and ordered a book on tape about Chassidism. She got the only one available, a book called "Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family."

"It was absolutely enthralling," she said during a phone interview from her home in New York. "I'd read one chapter and said, 'My goodness, that sounds like fun.' I never thought of Judaism as fun."

Schwartz, whose birth name is Marcia, now lectures on the fun she's having as a Jew. She'll tell her story at Berkeley Hillel tonight, in an event co-sponsored with Chabad House of Berkeley. Tomorrow night, she will speak at Congregation Anshey Sfard in San Francisco, in an event co-sponsored with Chabad House of S.F. and the Richmond Torah Center.

She's titled her talk, "More Than the Eye Can See: A Journey from Darkness to Light."

"I used to lecture for the church," she notes.

That all changed when Schwartz, who was living in Boston at the time, went to visit her cousin in February 1997. She asked her a steady stream of questions over a 7-hour period, "the first of which was, 'What is Shabbos?'" Schwartz said. The following month, the cousin sent her a copy of "Toward a Meaningful Life."

That April, Schwartz went to her first Passover seder and the following month, she resigned from her church.

"I wasn't looking for anything," said Schwartz, who declined to identify the church where she practiced and worked as a high-ranking member.

"I was very happy. I was lecturing all over the world" and serving as a "troubleshooter for the church. I was busy, I was active."

She now refers to those 40 years with the church as "a wilderness experience," adding that "at the end of every wilderness experience is a promised land.

"I was a Jew trying to live a Christian life and it doesn't work," she said. "I was trying to be what I wasn't. I wasn't a Christian."

What appealed to Schwartz about Judaism was the joy it brought her — its many layers of meaning, its positive approach and the thirst it created in her for more knowledge.

Nine months ago, Schwartz left her home in Boston and moved to Brooklyn, where she has been embraced by the community. Schwartz said she's regularly invited for Shabbat meals with new friends, who also are teaching her Hebrew and Yiddish.

"I wanted to move to a more observant community," she said. Now, "I'm in the frum-est of the frum community," she added, referring to their devout observance.

"It's a family in Crown Heights," she said. "People know me."

An only child, Schwartz said she grew up "all over" the United States with Jewish parents who were "very good people, very kind people, very gracious people who didn't believe in anything."

Schwartz, on the other hand, had a thirst as a teenager for information about Judaism, but had no place to go for answers.

"I studied about 12 other religions, everything from Hare Krishna to Catholicism, to you name it." She finally found a church when she was 17.

"After 10 years, I was teaching. After 20 years, I was lecturing. After 30 years, I was writing and moved to headquarters. After 40 years, I was in the pulpit."

But throughout, Schwartz now realizes she was holding back. "There were certain things I couldn't do," she said. "I'd feel something tapping at my heart every December 25th. I never observed Xmas in any way. It used to drive my friends crazy."

Her Jewish soul "no longer taps. It pounds," she said.

"I've never seen better than I see now. My world has never been so filled with light. Every day, I wonder what new thing I'm going to learn."