Six months out of grad school and into our first jobs, my husband and I fell in love with a house, a beautiful, eccentric Victorian. It was, of course, a fixer-upper, with a few caved-in ceilings, and it stood on a block that might be called borderline—there were some neglected houses nearby with bad landlords and worse tenants, a certain amount of drug activity, and there had been a shooting across the road the month before. This was why we could afford the house. On the plus side, there were a number of long-established stable families, and on the next block was a synagogue that was the center of a growing community of strictly observant Orthodox Jews. We persuaded ourselves that things couldn’t get too bad, took a gamble, and bought the house.
Not only did things not get bad; they got very good indeed. Seven years later, the fixing-up is far from complete, but we have welcomed four babies into our home among the paint-pots and half-built bookcases, and the block, now free of trouble spots, has welcomed four new Orthodox Jewish families with twenty-three children among them. There is a thriving and cohesive community on our street, and to our surprise we have been cheerfully welcomed into many aspects of its life. We’ve been invited to numerous festive meals (of course, we could not return the favor, although my husband’s single-malt scotch has been enthusiastically pronounced kosher), we have joined in neighborhood patrols when there was a spate of vandalism against the succahs, we have performed the office of what I believe is called a Shabbos goy, which involves setting the timer on an Orthodox family’s heat and lights for the Sabbath when they forget to do so. We have taken our turn with the scissors when Binyomin had his first haircut at his third birthday party, and we have spent many hours sitting on doorsteps chatting idly and watching children practice riding tricycles. Having become good friends with a couple of families has made us automatically acquaintances of all the Orthodox in the neighborhood: children wave to me and mothers greet me when I walk past the Hebrew day school on my way to the office. We only wish that the sense of community among the Christians we know could rival what we have experienced among Orthodox Jews.
Living on the fringes of such a strong community is intriguing and deeply appealing in itself, and, of course, for us as Christians the fact that it is a Jewish community, intensely and vividly Jewish, is particularly meaningful. My theological views are much what they were—I’m a theologian by profession and had a pretty good handle on the whole Law/Gospel/Covenant thing at a theoretical level—but my grasp of and relation to my own faith has been altered profoundly by living on familiar terms with a religious reality that precedes and underpins my own, even as it differs dramatically. The imaginative and emotional resonances of the Holy Week liturgies and the Eucharist, to give just two examples, are deepened by the fact that I have friends for whom the phrase “paschal lamb” refers to what one eats on Passover.
Another effect has been the way I teach the introductory Bible course that all students at my university are required to take. When teaching about Mount Sinai, the Law, and the Covenant, for instance, I can fulfill my responsibilities as a Catholic and a scholar, be faithful to the teaching of Dei Verbum, and meet the departmental objectives for the course, if I (attempt to) help my students to understand the Law both as an ancient Near-Eastern legal, social, and ritual code, and as a revelation of the character and will of God and a key stage in the salvation history that culminates in the coming of Christ. And before living in this neighborhood I might have felt that was plenty. But now I feel I have not told my students the whole story unless I can get them to see a little of what I have learned from living in a place where the Law is not a historical relic or a preliminary stage in the plot of a larger story, but something vividly and vigorously alive in every aspect of life.
When possible I invite a good friend to talk to my students about the Law in her daily life. Initially she talked mainly about kosher laws and the Sabbath, but after coming to class a few times she got the measure of the students’ reaction and now mischievously enjoys watching their jaws drop in disbelief as she describes dating and marriage, sex and modesty in Orthodox communities. They are fascinated and bewildered by the notion of according such deep and demanding seriousness to such things as time, food, and sex—things that they are used to handling with an eye to speedy self-fulfillment. Some of them would doubtless like to dismiss the whole thing as weirdness or fanaticism, but it is impossible to do that with my friend, who is a thoroughly appealing person—warm, clever, funny, and very obviously sane and happy. “Who’s got it right?” she says, “Well, when Moshiach comes we’ll just have to ask him ‘well then, have you been here before, or is this your first time?’”
My attempt to put my students in touch with the Jewishness of the Scriptures is not limited to those Scriptures that Christians share with Jews. It is hard enough when we read the Old Testament to keep some students from throwing into their essays wildly anachronistic (rather than properly typological, which is way beyond most of them) references to Jesus and the Church. When we turn to the New Testament and meet the baby Jesus in the manger, they imagine themselves on home ground and they can become lazy. I have to remind them energetically that this is still a book largely by and about Jews; that although we are reading about the roots of the Church to which they belong, the world of the New Testament is very different from the novenas, CCD classes, and parish raffles of our area’s deep-rooted Catholic culture. I find that the more I succeed in getting them to “think Jewish” the better readers of the text they become and the more attuned they are to the intense drama of the New Testament. If I can help them to grasp that the apostles and the Pharisees are as passionate about the Law and about their Jewishness as that lady in the hat who came to class to talk to us, then Jesus starts to look a lot more exciting and troubling. They can better appreciate what is at stake in the story of Cornelius’ conversion if they can identify with Peter, who, tossed a few cryptic clues and forced to think on his feet, must rethink hundreds of years of religious tradition in the course of an afternoon. They must learn to side with the conservatives at the Jerusalem conference in the Acts of the Apostles in order to understand the depth of the debate about whether gentiles must be circumcised in order to become Christians.
If I have to remind my students to think Jewish, I have also to remind myself to think Christian. In my eagerness to help my students see that the decision at Jerusalem against circumcision was a difficult one to make, and in my fascination with the lives of my neighbors (a fascination in part foolish and romantic, I admit) I become half a Judaizer myself, and occasionally find myself musing about how it might be nice to do something with candles on Friday evenings or even keep just a very little bit kosher. When Paul bellows, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” I have to shake myself and remember that this question has already been dealt with, and an answer has been given, with a clarity that it would be more than foolish to second-guess.
What precisely my students make of the heavily Jewish emphasis of my Bible courses or whether they will remember anything at all in the long term I cannot say. But at home the main day-to-day contact with Orthodox Jewish life is still through the children, and I can confidently say that these friendships will have a long-lasting impact. The neighborhood children live, like ours, in homes without video games or cable TV. Our tree house with a slide and our big box of dress-up clothes are enough to render our house a highly desirable venue and some collection of neighborhood children is at our home most days. They are all a mother could desire in her children’s friends—they are friendly, polite, good at sharing, and they are unlikely ever to set undesirable examples with regard to skimpy t-shirts and obnoxious music, or to share unhelpful stories about mom’s new boyfriend.
The religious and cultural difference is always present and often hilarious. Our Adam, blessed with three sisters and quick to latch onto anything male that comes through the door and identify with it for all he is worth, has decided that Real Men wear yarmulkes. We have had to get him his own to stop him from constantly stealing Binyomin’s. The occasional rainy day movie on the VCR is considerably enlivened by Chaya Sara’s emphatic editorial comments to the effect that Sleeping Beauty’s dress is not tznius or that the best part of Prince of Egypt is “the bit where Ha-Shem saves the yids and drowns all the goys.” This necessitated a stern lecture to my children as soon as their friends had gone home: “Listen, ‘yid’ is a very special word that only Jews are allowed to use and you must never, ever say it, do you understand?”
The children are allowed in our house because their parents trust that I “get it.” I think I do, but still, some amount of vigilance on my part is necessary to ensure that their trust is not betrayed. Batsheva has a liking for rosary beads and has to be routinely frisked before she goes home. I have had to deflect endless arguments along the lines of “Catherine had a banana at my house yesterday so our food is kosher for you, so your food must be kosher for us, so can I have a sandwich please?” The idea that our food isn’t kosher, period, not even for us, is rejected as obviously absurd. The only effective explanation on these occasions, I have reluctantly learned from the children themselves, is to say, “That’s not for Jews.” This is not a phrase that trips easily off the tongue, as may well be imagined, but it is promptly and cheerfully accepted as permitting no appeal.
Besides having the sort of peer group that many modern parents can only dream of, our children are learning all sorts of things from their familiarity with Jewish life. Some of the lessons are essentially the same as those I try to communicate to my students—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are rendered much more interesting than they would be otherwise by virtue of being Moshe Yehuda’s great-great-great-great-grandfathers. Our children are bright and curious and very interested in the differences between their lives and their friends’ lives, the relationship between church and shul, between Jesus and Ha-Shem, between Sunday and Shabbos. They discuss it amongst themselves from time to time and come to us for clarification when necessary. Having learned Christianity as a story rather than as a series of propositions, they have no trouble understanding that “they have different rules from us because it reminds us that they were God’s friends first. The law is how they are friends with God, and Jesus is how we and everybody else can be His friends.” Sometimes they push the point a little: If we are friends of the same God after all, and if Jesus really is God’s Son, then why can’t we make them Christmas cards? They are contented for the present with a simple, and truthful, “because they would think it was rude,” but it’s only a matter of time before that is subjected to the inevitable “Why?” When that happens, we will have to decide whether to tackle the question historically or philosophically. Even when one has a Ph.D. in theology, it requires a certain amount of delicacy to maintain the finality of God’s self-revelation in Christ while at the same time eschewing supersessionism; it is naturally much harder when one is only eight. On the other hand, I’m in no hurry to explain to my open-hearted innocents the historical reasons why anything remotely like proselytism would be offensive to their friends.
However complex the questions and answers may become, they will arise, if they do arise, among friends who have already dealt with heated debates over whose turn it is to go down the slide and who gets to wear the sparkly shoes. There is a great deal of nonsense written on the subject of diversity and multiculturalism, but the fact remains that the great challenge facing our world is that of maintaining clear convictions and strong commitments while living in peaceful proximity with people with different convictions and commitments, avoiding brittle bigotry on the one hand and soggy relativism on the other. If we are to make it into the next century, we need to figure out how to do this, and I cannot imagine a stronger foundation for doing so than the negotiations that are second nature to our children and their friends: “We’ve got to have lunch now so you have to go home, but can we come to yours after?” “My mom says I have to have a shower now”I’ll come back later, but I’ll have my Shabbos clothes on so we’ll have to play inside.” “We call it a creche—I don’t think you’re supposed to play with the baby because it’s Jesus, but the camels and the sheep are probably OK. Are Jews allowed angels?”
For our part, my husband and I feel at home in the Jewish life around us in large part precisely because there is no attempt to deny the extent of the gulf between us and our neighbors, to pretend that we and they are really all the same. Our neighbors are infinitely tolerant of my no-doubt tedious fascination with the details of Torah observance, but they have never attempted to feign interest in what Catholics believe and do. They are both warmly generous in their hospitality and unapologetically clear that all they will accept from us is tap water in a paper cup. My friend cheerfully welcomes my children who are constantly banging on her door and openly discusses with me her acute distress about her sister who is dating a Gentile and whom she will no longer allow in her home. There is none of the painful embarrassment which attends deliberate attempts at cultural sensitivity; nor, ironically, is there any of the suspicion or tension that can mar relationships among our Catholic colleagues, some of whom are inclined to keep a sharp eye on those whom they suspect of being not quite Catholic enough, or altogether too Catholic. Because the boundaries between us and our Orthodox neighbors are so unequivocally clear, they do not spill over into the rest of our dealings; I would no more waste my time with “Are you sure I can’t get you a cup of tea?” than they would in trying to gauge my level of loyalty to the Church’s magisterium.
The image of Christians as an alien branch engrafted, by the grace of God, into the vine of the Covenant and thus truly of the Chosen People would probably sound thoroughly absurd, at best, to our Jewish friends. For us the image expresses not only a theological proposition subject to analysis and interpretation but also a simple fact of daily life and, as such, it makes perfect sense.
Maria Poggi Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and editor of a volume of sermons by John Keble, Sermons of the Christian Year (Eerdmans).