When I see the word “Palestine,” a number of images come to mind: questions regarding borders, refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and more Middle Eastern musings. But from now on, when I read or hear the word “Palestine,” I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll think of a small town – Palestine, Texas – and a man named Sam who owns a diner there.
This Friday, I was on my way to Waco, Texas to visit Congregation Agudath Jacob. Around 1:00 or so, my fellow Education Fellow Allison Poirier and I saw the official “Welcome to Palestine” sign on the side of the road! Needless to say, we were quite pleased with the name of this town. We made a few other nerdy Jewish Educator jokes related to the town’s name, but we soon realized that we were quite hungry. We decided to stop at the Dogwood Diner for lunch.
After ordering, a man walked over to our table. As occasionally happens for me, since I wear a kippah every day, he exclaimed: “That’s a Yarmulke, right?”
I replied that indeed it was! I always enjoy interactions like this, where I get to briefly explain why it is meaningful for me to wear this funny-looking Jewish hat, but I was in for a surprise this time around…
This man was Sam, owner of the diner. He explained that his ex-wife was Jewish. Years ago, Sam sent his children to a Jewish school in Dallas. Sam knew all about the Jewish community of Palestine, TX. He told us about a Jewish cemetery located right down the road, explained that there had been a congregation nearby until about a decade ago, and had a number of other interesting stories to share with us.
But Sam left us with more than just stories. He provided us an important insight as well. After a few minutes of conversation, Sam said to us, “Ya know, I grew up Muslim, reading the Qur’an. Then I married a Jew and learned about the Torah. And recently I’ve learned more about Christianity, and I’ve read the Bible. They’re really not so different.”
I did not realize that, upon walking into the Dogwood Diner, I would hear such important words of wisdom. We get bogged down in the differences between some of our religious traditions sometimes. And let’s be clear – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other world religion really are unique, and to say simply “they’re all basically the same” would be misguided. But we do share quite a bit in common. Monotheism is a common tenet, and Moshe (or Moses, or Musa) is viewed as a prophet by all three.
It is easy to lose track of our similarities sometimes, as we focus on what separates Jews from other religions – and even what separates one particular group of Jews from another. But we really do possess a number of common characteristics with other world religions. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us of that. Thankfully, I had Sam.
We find wisdom in unexpected places. Of course, somebody had inspired me with their thoughts about religion while I was in Palestine, Texas. With a town-name like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
This week, my Facebook news-feed is filled with outrage about the fact that Hobby Lobby won’t carry Hanukkah decorations. Many Jews are upset by this; some are even calling it “anti-Semitic.”
But is it anti-Semitic of a Christian company to not sell Hanukkah decorations?
Merriam-Webster defines anti-Semitism as “hatred of the Jewish people” or “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews”. Is an openly religious Christian store not selling Jewish holiday objects really hatred of the Jewish people?
Perhaps all of this would be less of an issue if the representative in New Jersey who answered the phone had been trained of a more neutral way to explain this. I think her using the term “you people” is indeed offensive, but that’s not the company. Incidentally, Hobby Lobby does say it is now investigating the actual comments made by the employee.
To me, this is merely an act of ignorance and poor training. Hobby Lobby has the right to order and sell whatever merchandise they want. Would we blame a Judaica store for not carrying Christmas ornaments? What if the staff of the Judaica store said “oh, we don’t carry objects for non Jews”?
This is not a far-fetched; sure, Hobby Lobby isn’t a “Christianica” (new word) store, but it is a Christian store. Just read the Hobby Lobby Statement of Purpose:
In order to effectively serve our owners, employees, and customers the Board of Directors is committed to:
Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.
Offering our customers an exceptional selection and value.
Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies that build character, strengthen individuals, and nurture families.
Providing a return on the owners’ investment, sharing the Lord’s blessings with our employees, and investing in our community.
We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.
This is a crystal clear worldview, spelled out institutionally for the company. Perhaps we are the naive ones to expect to find Hanukkah decorations at a place that defines its mission so clearly. We may not like that we will have to go elsewhere for our holiday decorations, and maybe because of that we will decide to not go there for anything at all – which is completely within our rights. But this is not an act of anti-Semitism. If they wouldn’t sell their products to Jews, or were discriminatory in their hiring processes, and that sort of thing – that would be another issue. But that’s not what we’re discussing here: The issue is simply that they are not selling products for a religious holiday outside of their corporate religious adherence.
In the South, we are very familiar with dilemmas like this. We live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. This incident was in New Jersey, but feels familiar. But I’m hesitant to call something “anti-Semitic” when it’s really just “a different demographic.” We can always shop at Michael’s, or Target — or, of course, our synagogue’s Judaica shop, where there will be plenty of Hanukkah decorations, but probably no candy canes.
Last week, I was privileged to be the invited guest at First United Methodist Church in the very small town of Amite, Louisiana, to participate in a question and answer session on Judaism.
Amite is an hour away from New Orleans, where I live, so I was given the choice of just being available for a phone interview instead of driving, but chose to go to the church instead. Being keenly aware that we are all responsible for each other was my motive for the drive. There’s no substitute for being there in person. Body language, tone, eye contact and just the opportunity for Christians to meet a Jewish person, possibly for the first time, and be able to feel a human kinship is more important than answering any single question.
If a group simply wants information, all of it can be found online. The interaction is the most important part of interfaith learning. When one of us connects in a positive way with 15 Christians, we can help positively shape their perception of Jews for the rest of their lives! And the next time one of them hears a Jewish slur, they are much more likely to react with disapproval, thereby changing the opinions of others, as well.
So how did it go in Amite? Well, the questions about basic Judaism were ones I have answered hundreds of times. However, once we got comfortable with each other, the church members bravely asked the more personal and sometimes difficult cultural questions that too often don’t get asked.
Some of the more difficult questions:
- “Is a Jew ‘Jewish’ because of religion, or because of their culture or lineage?”
- “Why do some Jews keep kosher and others don’t? If one deviates from Biblical teachings, how are they still Jewish?”
- “Why are Jews associated with bargaining, unfair money lending and the slur Jewing someone down?”
The truth is that I think the biggest question modern Jews wrestle with among ourselves is what makes someone Jewish? There is no one single answer… and if we, the Jews, are conflicted – then is it any wonder that non-Jews are a bit confused as well?
So we discussed the differences between the denominations: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Ultra Orthodox Judaism, and how no one anymore lives exactly according to Biblical law. We disagree on many things as being central to being Jewish, but we all use the Torah – whether we believe it was written by God or inspired by God or a historical document – as a base. Another thing most Jews have in common is that we believe in the central concept that God is one. We also talked about how the technical definition of “who is a Jew” also varies along with each movement – those who believe only in matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion, or at the other end of the spectrum someone with just one Jewish parent who identifies as Jewish, or anyone who converts to Judaism.There are Jews who go to synagogue every week, or from time to time, or who only celebrate Passover or the high holy days – and in modern Judaism, any set “line” is left purposely not drawn. Exclusion and judgments are unproductive; rather outreach and inclusion are central to our faith.
To address the hard question about the Jewish stereotypes related to greed and money, we had to talk about a long history. I explained that in medieval Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land, therefore, they were not farmers and ranchers and their income options were limited. Most were merchants and peddlers, buying and selling things. When a person is successful as a peddler, their main goal, like any modern retailer, is to buy low and sell high. Whether it was clothing, jewelry, food or household goods, these peddlers were as vital to the economy as the current retailers are today – but that meant they too could be blamed for high prices. Another way Jews earned money without owning land was to become money-lenders. A Christian was not allowed to earn interest on a loan to another Christian, and Jewish money wasn’t tied up in land, and so they loaned money to Christians to build their churches and homes and keep their farms going. It was a great business deal for everyone. However, trouble would come when, for instance, a church defaulted on a loan. Then the Jew was put in the impossible position of foreclosure. No one looks upon the banker fondly when they are foreclosing on a home or church, even if it is justified! And if someone was looking for a reason to act with hate towards Jews, this was a ready-made excuse.
These conversations can be hard, but are so rewarding. And as usual, we learn as we teach! The session opened with a prayer, which I expected, but what I have never heard was the content of this prayer. This opening prayer was asking God for forgiveness as Christians for the history of maltreatment of Jews during the last 2,000 years. Pope John II made great strides in reconnecting Jews and Christians, and the facilitator made reference to the prayers of this Pope as the start of the healing process between us.
I hope I continue to be invited throughout my life and I encourage all Jewish people to do the same. I hope the next time you are asked to answer questions, your answer will be YES!
Have you ever been a participant in a program like this? What did you think?
(Image in this post from jerusalemprayerteam.org)