Growing up Jewish in New York City, I had no idea that I was a member of a ridiculously small religious minority. That blithe unawareness had something to do with the relatively large number of Jews living there, obviously, but it was also connected to the secular tenor of public life in America’s most international city: religion was considered a private matter; it never came up among strangers or casual acquaintances, and certainly never in a business situation. There was a strong awareness that the other guy might well turn out to be Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain, and that it was safer not to risk giving (or receiving) offense.
In 2002 I moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, and everything changed. Wilmington is a lovely little city of about 100,000 nestled between the Atlantic ocean and the Cape Fear River. It has grand antebellum mansions and streets lined with live oaks dripping Spanish moss, and also what looks to be about a million churches, each with a large message board advertising an important thought:
DEMOCRACY WAS OK, BUT NOW THE KING IS COMING!
ETERNITY COMES IN TWO CHOICES: SMOKING AND NON-
IF GOD IS YOUR CO-PILOT, MOVE OVER!
Whatever you think of these statements (personally, I find them thought-provoking—especially the first, in which democracy is casually cast in the past tense), the point is that public space in Wilmington is anything but secular. Religious expression is everywhere, and by sheer force of numbers it is overwhelmingly evangelical protestant.
Before moving, I more-or-less expected the bumper stickers, (1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given), the tee shirts (What Would Jesus Do?), and the radio evangelists who pronounce Jesus as “Jeeee-zus,” but I was frankly surprised by the Christian Karate studio down the street (where Christian prayer substitutes for meditation) and the Christian Ballet School (I’m still guessing how that works) and the Christian Plumbers who put in a new sink for my neighbors (they looked much like any other plumbers, though maybe a little seedier). I’m still getting used to the cashiers who wish me a blessed day, and the emails from colleagues at work (I teach at a public university) that have religious sentiments appended at the bottom.
a la mode
All this public religiosity has a number of different effects on me. When I’m in my social-critic mode I worry in a very detached and intellectual way about the trivialization of the religious impulse as it intersects with commercial culture (Christian Plumbers!), and the American obsession with building ones identity from the outside in (bumper stickers and tee shirts). I wonder if a religion that is all-pervasive and seemingly reflexive (“Have a blessed day”) might ultimately become unreflective and shallow, too, a form of group identification (Honk If You’re Saved!) rather than a struggle with the divine.
But in my more honest moments, I recognize that this critique, valid or not, is nothing but a distraction from my own personal unease. What’s really happening when I sit down for breakfast in the Omega Pancake House in nearby Myrtle Beach and read the menu (“Dedicated to Our Lord Jesus Christ”) is that I’m finally beginning to understand that being Jewish makes me part of a minority. There are 6.4 billion people in the world but only 14 million Jews, and while 5.2 million of that number live in the US, (a country of nearly 300 million) most of them are grouped in New York and a few major cities; my temple in Wilmington has just two hundred families. So halfway through the chocolate chip pancakes with two fried eggs and a side of cheese grits, I start to get nervous, to feel like an outsider, and then I become nostalgic for the secularized public space that I knew back in New York, where nobody would ever think of dedicating breakfast to Jesus—or to any other divinity, for that matter. Hidden beneath this nostalgia is the vague idea that it would be easier for me to be Jewish in a gentile world if everyone simply got together and agreed not to talk about religion.
It would be easier, of course. I’d never have to explain to the guy seated next to me on the bus that I like being Jewish and have no plans to convert any time soon. But at the same time, I’ve also come to feel that something valuable would be lost. I enjoy learning about Christianity—because it’s interesting in its own right, and because it helps me better understand (by contrast) what it means to be a Jew. I’ll often hear something interesting on Christian radio, or fall into conversation with someone in the park, and go straight to my bookshelf as soon as I get home, hoping to find out what the Jewish sages have written about those same issues over the centuries. Living in an evangelical environment has thus helped me to become more cosmopolitan in the real sense of that word: to understand and respect people different from myself, and in doing so, to understand myself better, too.
Every time someone tries to pull me into a prayer circle, or invite me to their church, or hand me a pamphlet “that will change your life,” I am forced to think about two essential things: the first is what it means to me to be Jewish. The second is what a Jew and a Christian can nevertheless share as human beings: the powerful longings for love and connection expressed in religion.
As I write this, we have just a week to go till Passover, with its grand story of the redemption of an entire people from slavery. Easter comes just four days after, celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Both Jews and Christians will have a chance to meditate on the holiness of the world in which we live, even as (perhaps not so coincidentally) the weather softens and the flowers bloom.
Y’all have a blessed day!