I stepped out of the bitter cold and into the warmth of a New York Jewish bookstore. Looking for a good commentary, I knew there’d be a variety to touch, feel, and choose from.
No matter how inconspicuous I try to be in such places, I’m always asked, with knitted brow: “Uh, are you, okay? Do you need help?” as my husband and daughter go on their merry way, never getting the look of “does this lady know what she’s doing?” I always wonder if they think I’m going to ask where the crosses, rosary beads, or Easter baskets are located. JK :-).
On these occasions I always find my daughter snickering somewhere with her nose in a book, but I was alone this time. I noticed Avi (not his real name) kept checking on me. Each time he asked me more questions and I knew he was trying to draw out my story, but I was being a minimalist; I knew the land mines that lie ahead.
Look hon, you wouldn’t like “my story”. I’m a Christian, which means I’m part of a people group that you don’t trust. You probably only know about the bad stuff and don’t think much about the profound good we’ve brought to the world. I believe Jesus is the Messiah–of everyone–so you’ll jump to the assumption that I want you to convert to Christianity and quit being a Jew. And just wait until I tell you the kicker: my husband is Jewish, so in your eyes, I’m a ‘shiksa’, aka an “abomination.”
That’s what played in my mind. So, I was avoiding interaction because no matter how personable Avi was, I know the drill, and I didn’t want to get into it. But… he wasn’t giving up. With his peyos (side curls) tucked behind his ears and his kippah slightly skewed, his enquiring mind wanted more.
When he pointed to a book that was written in Hebrew, I finally gave up some ground and said: “Ah, I’d need my daughter to translate that for me, and she doesn’t live at home anymore.”
Clearly surprised, “Your daughter, she speaks Hebrew? As I pointed out above, they can tell when you’re not Jewish.
After an explanation of my daughter, her language skills and schooling, her work, translations, fluency in Hebrew, Italian and French, it came out that my husband is Jewish.
Oh boy, here it comes, I thought.
“Ah, well. He never should have married you.”
“Well Avi, I’m neither pagan, nor a Canaanite, so I think we’re okay–from God’s perspective.”
“Ahh, but the Torah says Jews cannot marry non-Jews.”
(It’s important to note that Avi is Orthodox and he’s referring to halachah which is “Jewish law”, and I responded to him with Biblical evidence that challenges it. This is not to say Jews don’t have a right to create and maintain their own beliefs and perimeters, and that isn’t what this post is about anyway. I say this to help those who don’t understand the context of our conversation, but please do not draw an anti-Judaic conclusion from my writing).
“But Avi, so many did marry non-Jews. Look at Moses who did, at least twice, and even Joseph!”
Shaking his head: “No, no, that’s before the Torah was given…”
We went back and forth, but it was friendly. Finally, he said:
“Well, there is conversion…”
Before I could filter my words, which isn’t a strong suit of mine anyway, I said:
“But, Avi, I could never give up Jesus.”
Suddenly, I remembered where I was, and then I reminded myself that I am an idiot. I looked around to see if everyone in the store had frozen in place and started staring at me.
It was fine, Avi wasn’t even fazed.
I’m unabashed about who I am and what I believe, but I’m not an in-your-face Bible-thumping-convert-the-world type either. (Okay, since my mom is reading this, I must confess, I Bible-thumped her and my Dad in the 70’s–after she wouldn’t let us become Catholic–but it didn’t work :-) ).
Mostly, I didn’t want to disrespect Avi’s space, or cause him stress based on wrong assumptions (they’re so many to choose from) I don’t fit into any “box” you can think of. Then he said, in his Brooklyn accent:
“Oh yeah, we’re not allowed to believe in Jesus… Well, I mean, I believe as in, he was a guy, he lived and everything, but not in him like you do. Yeah, he was real and everything, but he was a pagan, and brought paganism into Judaism and so we can’t believe in him like that. That’s why Judaism didn’t follow him…
“No, Avi. He wasn’t a pagan, not at all…”
“Oh yeah, that’s what we’ve always known about him, since I’m small I’m taught this. We always knew this…he was a pagan.”
If you’re a Christian, and have never heard a Jewish person say something like this before, I wonder how it sits with you? If not for my “sojourn”, I would have understood Avi differently, and I would have been shocked, offended even.
What Avi said about Jesus can cause one to lose their mental and emotional footing because it bears no connection to reality, and it’s as if he was talking about a completely different person. Additionally, we’re not just talking about anyone, but the person who has had the most profound impact upon all of human history.
And that person was a poor, scrupulously observant, Jewish rabbi.
And, considering the fact that Jews have been the most hated of all people, with an Amalek arising in every generation to attempt to annihilate them, shouldn’t we all be kind of amazed by this little tidbit? Yes, it gets confusing in a big hurry.
I wasn’t shocked, or offended. Instead I was heartbroken and incredibly frustrated, but not with Avi, or the Jewish people.
I had to be honest:
“Avi, he wasn’t a pagan, but I can understand why you would think he was.”
To be continued… (click here for pt 2)