Whether or not you have any belief in a divine intelligence or providence, I think that most of us have had moments in our lives in which we feel as if we’ve been through some sort of test, where we’ve been called upon in our lives to make a judgment or perform an action in the face of a circumstance. Sometimes it’s major, sometimes it just a moment in time that we can go this way or that way, and either affirm or fail to affirm who we are.
Sunday morning I feel as if I was given a test in two parts, and I passed one half while failing the second. I was rushing around running our errands before the party at the Exploratorium, but I was flying high. My boy was six, and we were getting ready for a fun day. I parked in the Safeway parking lot, and the sun was shining on a day that should have been rainy. I strode to the door with a spring in my step, and a smile on my face, saying yes to the world. On the way in, I made eye contact with a man sitting at a card table by the exit, collecting money for charity. He smiled at me, and I smiled back, and he didn’t even try to stop me and give me the schpiel; he just said ‘maybe on the way out’, and I said ‘sure, on the way out.’ I think in that moment I knew I was going to give something to whatever the charity was. There’s a Jewish ethic about righteous giving, not to massage our own sense of guilt for abundance, but in order to heal the injustices of the world. Some practice giving a percentage of the cost of any party or gathering they give, as a way of balancing the joy of celebration with the joy of giving. It seemed like an appropriate day to practice Tzedakah and so on my way out, I read the sign that indicated the charity being collected for was a Christian organization that helped the homeless, and the man told me about an event they were holding, where $10 would sponsor a family’s meal. I opted to sponsor two families for $20 — not a great sum of money to me, but enough to make the act meaningful. The man was very appreciative, and I was feeling pretty good at this point.
Then he asks me…
“Are you a Christian?”
At first the question doesn’t register with me, and I have to ask him again what he asked me. I heard it, but my mind didn’t know what to make of it.
“Are you a Christian?”
Well, ain’t that the doosy of a question for me these days. I’m trying to gauge in the split second I have to answer this question why he’s asking, and how I want to answer. Of course, I’m not a Christian, but there’s a motivation for his question that goes beyond the simple reporting of the facts. He wants to connect with me. I’ve done something that he feels is praiseworthy, and wants to bond with me. Perhaps he needs to correlate my actions with my beliefs. It’s not enough for me to just answer ‘no’. And yet, what do I say?
“Well, no actually, I’m not a Christian. I used to be when I was growing up, but lost my faith as a young teen and have spent the last twenty years trying to figure out whether or not I believe anything at all, much less any particular story. I’ve tried on all sorts of religious and philosophical belief systems from paganism to atheism. It seems that now I’m converting to Judaism, but I’m still trying to figure out what all of this means, and if I have any story to tell about belief in a reality grounded in what I’m experiencing.”
No, you can’t hit a stranger with that sort of diatribe, and besides, I don’t have the time for a lengthy theological debate, nor do I wish to be evangelized to. That ‘No’ is starting to sound pretty good. So I reply diplomatically:
“I believe in God”
That’s really all he needed, to have permission to say “God Bless You”.
And yet, is that entirely accurate? I feel like I’ve not only misrepresented myself, but I’ve also missed an opportunity to try on my new (becoming) identity. I could have said.
“No, I’m Jewish.”
Which is actually much closer to the truth than saying I believe in God, mostly because I have no idea what I mean by ‘I believe in God’, but I’ve got a pretty clear idea what ‘I’m Jewish’ means to me. I’ve passed the test of Tzedakah, but I’ve failed the test of self-identifying. The truth is two-fold. The first part is, I don’t have any practice saying ‘I’m Jewish’, especially outside of the Jewish community. The second part is, we live in a culture in which there are only two socially sanctioned answers to that question: “Yes”, or “No’, which translates roughy into “Yes, I’m a Christian” or “I don’t believe in God”. Other choices, other belief systems, are not standard answers to the question. In the language game, there are proscribed verbal exchanges, and being Jewish appears to be just outside the standard parameters of the game.
I felt odd about the whole exchange, as I said, like I failed a test. I talked with Julie about it, and she reminded me of something that made it all a bit more clear for me. She said that all Jews find it a little hard to claim their Jewishness in this Christian-dominated culture, and hesitance is normal.
Yeah, I guess that’s true. I’m not used to being part of a stigmatized culture yet — being anglo and male, I’m pretty much on the top of the heap, and since cutting my hair short several years ago, I’ve been accepted into the fold of the dominant paradigm. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be outside the norm, even if I don’t feel normal. So, even in my apparent ‘failure’, I’m still learning what it’s like to be Jewish. Perhaps next time I’ll try on that identity.
I think I might need to practice it some more.