Thursday, March 09, 2006

Jew For Jesus

Jew For Jesus

Recently I met a man who is a Jew for Jesus. I don’t know if he would label himself that exact way with that exact phrase but what else do you call someone who as his wife put it is a Jew by birth, by race but believes Jesus is not only the son of God but died for human kind’s sins.

I almost bought in to “Jesus as my savior” as I sat in Jane (the wife) and john’s (the Jew For Jesus) dim living room save for the light from a muted basketball game on their flat screen HD TV. I loved John immediately when I met him a few days earlier while doing some work with his wife Jane in their little cape by-the-sea. He had a quick wit and wry sense of humor. I loved him even more now, sitting there in the living room when he muted the TV and sat up on the couch to chat .

Jane and I had been at a conference all day together and only at the tail-end of the drive home did we get so personal that even the topic of religion was tossed on the table. So far, we had way too much in common in terms of thought, perspective, etc. We both return phone calls and emails immediately, love Will And Grace (but only in rerun), and prefer being home on the couch with our hubbies over drinks with friends. We managed to meander our way into everything from dysfunctional families to divorce and third/second marriages (she’s on her second and her husband is on his third), having children or not having children (she has step children and no biological or adoptive ones and I have a 2 year old) and despite some differences in our lives– we had similar senses of humor and more importantly agreed upon the basics of good business practice which was the whole reason why were together on Saturday afternoon and not with our families. Simply put, I liked Jane and felt really comfortable with her. You know how you feel you can trust someone–immediately. That they aren’t bullshit with you? Well that’s what I felt with her. Not only was I looking forward to our business relationship flourishing but I felt we could be friends…


Prior to the couch moment with John and the muted HD TV, I sat in Jane’s Camry while the sun set outside, casting a pink ethereal glow all around us, and she told me her husband was Jewish and she was not. I nodded and said I married a “recovering” Catholic and we both laughed. She told me how John’s parents didn’t accept their marriage and that their wedding was small and limited to only those family members who supported them. I told her how my mother-in-law’s reaction to me and my husband getting married was, “Why?” We commiserated over these difficulties and as I was about to give her a good one to laugh over–when my husband and I told my mother-in law that we were raising the children Jewish, she protested that it wasn’t fair if our children didn’t get baptized and her feelings were summoned up best with: “How will they get in heaven?” My husband’s response was classic: “Where did all this Jesus crap come from Mom? I don’t even believe in God.” I thought my mother-in-law was going to break out the rosary beads and start praying over that one.

But before I could chuckle over that little anecdote with Jane, Jane told me she watches these two people on TV every morning– a preacher and a rabbi. I have to admit I was a little suspicious of that one….but I was not prepared for what she eventually “announced.” I told her that my Jewish religion doesn’t always provide me with the answers and that I have searched other places–“Maybe I should check out that preacher and rabbi?” I cracked. She didn’t laugh though. I babbled on about how I practice yoga and meditation, I pray, I read books like Celestine Prophecy and anything by Wayne Dyer. I also read Harold Kushner and have dabbled with the Kabala. I continued on as she sat silently, driving along the now dark highway: I continued on telling her: I feel like I have a Neshema, a Jewish soul but that I do not buy into the whole concept of a God that is vengeful or calls for us to sacrifice animals or foreskin or ourselves. I don’t believe the bible word for word and think of it more as partial historical truth and part story/metaphor

Anyway, at that point, after I finished my diatribe about my spiritual beliefs, she said, “Well, I am a Christian.” I almost jumped so far back against the door of the car that it probably would have opened had it not been locked. Then she added that John, her husband was a Christian. “Like a Jew for Jesus?” I asked. She laughed. I didn’t. We were almost home at this point–actually we had to go to her house first to pick up some materials and then she was to drop me off. “You should talk to John,” she said. “Really.” I nodded and smiled but inside…I was really uncomfortable.

In my head Christian means a lot of things but none of them involve swearing (Jane and John definitely swear), drinking (I know Jane enjoys a glass of wine once in awhile), listening to Howard Stern (okay this is something I do and don’t think Jane and John do but they do have a kind of sense of humor that might secretly appreciate Howard.) When I think Christian I don’t think of gay people (Jane loves Will and Grace) and I certainly don’t think of Jews. But yet what Jane was telling me was that she was a swearing, Will and Grace loving, Jewish husband having Christian.

Yeah. I couldn’t get my head around it.

To me, Jane and John didn’t appear to be Christian. I didn’t remember seeing a cross around her neck or a bumper sticker on the Camry saying “Honk if you love Jesus” or any Jesus statues in her house. A few of what I thought were tell-tale signs. Plus, when I thought of being a “Christian” (not a protestant, Catholic, or Methodist, but a bona-fide born-again Christian) images popped up of Pat Roberts or George Bush. I thought of the majority of our federal government who are white men and women interested in pushing a right wing agenda so far into government that abortion rights and freedom of speech may be infringed upon. I thought of conservative democrats like Tipper Gore who blame videos for the bad behavior of teenagers and I think of televangelist Jim Baker. I think of people who seem hell-bent on changing the entire society to conform to their views and when you argue with them, all they do is shut their mouths and point to the bible, saying I didn’t say it, Jesus did. I see a group of people who want to proselytize and change the world to what they think is right.

The irony, on a bit of a side bar here is that understand that Jesus, to me, does not have anything to do with much of what I listed above. I personally, think Jesus was an incredible historical figure who in fact did change people’s lives and continues to change people’s lives and thank God for Jesus (ha!). If I believed that God came down to earth and entered the human body, I might buy into the Christian’s Jesus ideology, but I don’t. But so what? I would never tell anyone that my way of thinking is right and theirs is all wrong.

Yeah…that’s the real problem. The “so what?” to me isn’t so “so what” to a bona-fide Christian. What had me slammed to the corner of the Camry and even a little scared about being in the car and then actually going inside her house– a flash of her driving us off to some remote wood where a cabin and some Hare Krishna looking folks would douse me in holy water and speak in tongues– what had me scared was more that I know what her core belief is as a Christian, as a born-again Christian. It’s the one concept of Christianity that can be interpreted in such a way that can divide nations, countries, cities, towns, and communities.

But before I go in to that, I have to acknowledge that my internal response to her telling me she was a Christian was actually laced with prejudgment. Not even laced, drenched. Drenched in the kind of prejudgment I am terrified of being the victim of myself–being a Jew I know conjures up a bunch of images that have to do with not eating pork, not marrying anyone outside the faith, being a lawyer or doctor, and being rich. The truth about me involves NONE of those things. (well I don’t eat pork cause I don’t like it.) Yet, I know when I tell someone I am Jewish, those are the thoughts that float up in the collective conscious. I was sitting in that car having a involuntary prejudgment response and now reflecting on this moment I realize no, I was not so much heavily drenched in prejudice (lets call prejudgment what it really is) but more in fear, well fear is the root of prejudice, right? I know what was going on in my brain filled with images of Pat Roberts and Jim Baker was fear.

What I was afraid of is connected to what I was just about to tell you all….the one concept of Christianity that has caused wars either directly or indirectly. That concept is:


That gets me. From my point-of-view, we have the right in this country to believe what we want, religiously. But I am scared of any group that tells me I am wrong, I am evil, I am bad because I don’t believe what the group believes.

So I guess I was scared of Jane and John at that moment. Before John began to speak, as I sat in their living room, having overcome the fear of holy water or Hare Krishna types emerging. Before he or Jane explained their religious tennants to me, I had already decided what they believed in, based on my own previous experiences with born-agains. Based on what I have read and seen. What was so hard for me in that moment was I liked them. Jane was one of the few women, whom I liked and trusted–so much so to entered into business with her. A business in which she would mentor me.

As I sat there smiling nervously at Jane and John in their living room, a far-away thought floated through my mind: I don’t want to argue about whose beliefs, whether they are right or wrong. To me, there is no right or wrong as we both have the right to reject whatever religion and religious principles that we want. The right or wrong didn’t matter to me. What mattered was an uncomfortable feeling I had in the pit of my stomach as another thought came up: How do I do business and be friends with someone who believes I deserve and will go to hell?

A few days after I sat with Jane and John in their living room, I had coffee with my husband and a co-worker of his. I posed my question to them. My atheist husband sipped his coffee, touched my arm and looked me in the eyes like he felt sorry for me. His co-worker just smiled and shook her head. “Honey,” my husband said gently. “But you don’t even believe there’s a hell.”

He and hius co-worker laughed. “Who cares?” Chimmed in his also atheist co-worker. “Who really cares? You like her and she likes you and people differ in their beliefs all the time and can even get married!”

I snatched my hand away from my husband and glared at my him, ignoring his co-worker. I practically screamed the next part:

“How do you have a business relationship or friendship with someone who you feel has a belief about your soul that involves it going to hell if you don’t ascribe to her belief? How do you do intimate meetings and invest your money with a person who feels you children, your family will burn in the oven of hell?”

But I didn’t stop there: I started flailing my arms and talking to the empty chair next to me. “Why do you you born-again Christian, get to decide what my soul’s fate is? Why do you get to judge so freely everyone? Why? I know the answer, it’s not me, it’s God, the bible, and Jesus. Look I understand we all need to belive in something otherwise what’s the point. But it’s the type of bel–“

Before I tell you how my husband and his very nice co-worker who just wanted to finish her coffee responded, let me jump back to Jane and John and what happened inside her living room.

Johan sat up immediately when we walked in and Jane said hello and I was trembling with anxiety and wanted to get it all out in the open quickly. They kissed and he cracked a joke. I laughed. Then I launched in with, “So, you believe in Jesus but are a Jew?”

As John began to explain how he came to Jesus, I went somewhere else in m mind. Lately, I have run into a few born-agains….I know that’s weird and ironic. The most recent run-in before Jane and John was just the week before at the gym. I had just finished a my work out and was doing my usual yoga routine in the stretching area, when a girl plunked down just a few steps from me. She was blond and chunky and when I peered up from my down dog and saw her face, I realized that several weeks earlier she had thrown me an ugly look from across the treadmills when I flipped one of the TV channels from the 700 Club to The Tyra Banks show. At the time I didn’t think much of it other than who the hell watches the 700 Club?

As moved from down-dog to a forward-bend, I looked up from between my hands and noticed that the thick blond girl had a worn bible with a bookmark sticking out of it in her hand. My stomach iced over like it does right before I walk into an author event where I have to speak or sign books. I felt exposed, which may seem odd. But when I see a bible-toting Christian, I feel like a neon bright, capital J is on my forehead. The thought that accompanied my stomach ach was born-agains used to show up in weird places in my life. The last one had been a long time ago in college. As I watched her try to feebly reach her toes for a stretch I thought shouldn’t born-agains be out in the Midwest or hanging around with President Bush or something, proselytizing. Not, right there, at my gym.

While I continued to stretch I thought of how I had gone to a predominantly Jewish college only to find myself constantly bumping into the six or seven Christians on the campus. One was my RA sophomore year who lived across the hall from me and was a virgin with a hot Pakistani boyfriend. I knew all this because she would come over to my room and tell me how she was the only virgin of her friends and only person in her family who went to church. She also detailed her non-sex yet very sexual relations with her boyfriend–creepy. My RA was very sweet and blond and had no one to talk to and why she picked her Jewish dorm-neighbor, I have no idea. But I did sit and listen to her quite a bit when I first moved in. she was cool– she let me have a microwave in my room and blast my music. But then she started to invite me to church every Sunday even though I told her I was Jewish. That was creepy. I switched dorms at the end of that year. I also worked at the school paper with a fellow reporter who was a tall fat kid who wore shirts that proclaimed Jew For Jesus, rumor had it that he applied to be in both Hillel and the Christian Fellowship…and was denied by Hillel. Not a surprise as they almost rejected me for dating (who I later married) a Catholic. The Jew for Jesus guy at the newspaper hassled me regularly about coming with him to a Fellowship meeting, “Jesus was a Jew. It all adds up. It all makes sense.” He would quote the bible and tell me how my soul needed saving and maybe we could help other Jews come to Christ. I eventually quit the paper. It’s funny but right now as I write this I realize that my last run in with a born again before the gym and before Jane was actually with my mother-in-law, only she is not a born again but a reluctant catholic who used Jesus as a reason for me to not marry her son…. espousing the “must baptize my grandchild so he or she can go to heaven” b-s. Yes, I can say this as she has since dropped all notions of making us Christian. In fact, she sat through and enjoyed our baby naming ceremony for my daughter.

So, back in the gym, I stretched forward and back and side to side all the while pushing away my previous experiences with born-agains, maybe she will be different, although given the dirty look I remember her throwing me just the previous week made me doubt my optimism. In between our individual stretching, we somehow made eye contact and I don’t know how we started talking but eventually we smiled at each other and began to chat. She must have forgotten about the dirty look. Turns out her mother died recently and her own life was “off track” with drinking and partying. Now she was getting into shape and feeling “great”. So knowing what I knew about her and also wanting to see if she was a born-again (This sounds terrible but my wanting to know, at that moment, had something to do with “Know thy enemy” and “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer), I said something like well after all that you‘ve been through, you either started drinking or found God.

She bloomed into a huge grin, “Well yeah I found God. I found Jesus actually. I became a born-again.” So we chatted a bit more and I casually dropped that I was Jewish–it was a dancing on the edge of a cliff thing it was facing the thing I fear the most in life, really. I do that often, hurl myself towards what scares me. That way I can desensitize myself to it and maybe even conquer it. Years of being bullied by classmates and my older sister have left a stain on my self-esteem. Years of being told you are wrong and dumb by teachers and then mentors in my job. Years of essentially buying into what a few assholes said about and to me. Years of feeling small has forced me to stand up for myself and that includes knowing who is out to bully or judge or tear me down. Knowing the enemy is crucial to me. But it is also unfortunately a by-product of being a Jew in this world, knowing that there are those who do want you dead simply for what religion you belong to. Knowing that not that long ago, their was a holocaust that this country ignored ultimately until 6 million of us already died. These are all parts of what floods through me as I sat there with this born-again.

She didn’t flinch when I said I was Jewish. So I thought huh maybe she is the exception. Maybe she doesn’t think Jews will burn in hell…images of the holocaust entered my head and I tried to push it away….I asked her the question that was almost as bad as what I would later ask John. I asked her, “Do you believe that your way is the only way and those who don’t believe will burn in hell?” She smirked and then averted her eyes. Shea nodded but said nothing. Then a pause went by and I said well it’s nice to talk with people about their beliefs even when they aren’t your own. She snapped, “Well Satan works in mysterious ways.” Evil look flashed followed by a Christian grin. “Now off to spinning.” And she skipped–well she was too chunky to do that, she galumphed off to the spinning room. I sat with my mouth hung open and swore that I would not let this bother me.

Flash back to John and Jane in their dimly lit living room. Jane on the chair next to me, a coffee colored set of cushiony furniture that reminded me of my sister’s living room. I listened to John tell me his journey to Christianity which was laced with family dysfunction and broken marriages and drinking. Then I told them that story of the girl at the gym, more to see their reaction. If they were to say, “Well, you know…she has a point…” Then I would have bolted out the door and run the five miles to my house. But both of them were horrified and responded with something to the effect of that’s ridiculous. What kind of Christian is that?

Still not convinced that I was safe, I asked him THE question (burn in hell thing) and he said well the bible says if you do not accept that Jesus is my son and died for your sins then you will not go to heaven. He was careful not to say what I was thinking and what anyone thinks in terms of this–People¬ especially the Jews will go to hell unless they accept Jesus as their messiah. Jane interrupted him and repeated what she had said when I asked her the same question in the car– everyone has their own beliefs and their own way of doing things or something like that. But I pressed John and he said, “I believe the bible as truth.”

At this point, the conversation was one-sided and mainly John making salient arguments for believing in Jesus. Arguments backed by the bible. I found myself shrinking smaller and smaller. Feeling dumber and dumber. Standing there watching John so confident in his beliefs I started to wonder about my own. What did I believe? I couldn’t retrieve one thought that would counter what he was saying. I figured that since I couldn’t prove he was wrong then I must be wrong.

After Jane dropped me off, in a car ride that didn’t involve any religious talk but just banter about our conference. I went inside and felt compelled to tell Mike I might believe in Jesus. His jaw dropped and he said, “I think you’re really tired and need to get some sleep.” The next morning I felt so freaked out that I almost forced myself to believe in something I so much did not believe.

I no longer doubt who I am or what I DON’T believe. So I woke up that next morning and felt like I had cheated on my husband or something. I felt completely WRONG and GUILTY. Like I had been given a drug and forced to do things I never would do.

I realized as I stumbled to the kitchen that what I felt yesterday was that if I didn’t believe what John said that he may not like me. The part about winding up in hell really wasn’t he issue. The issue was that I felt smaller and less powerful than he and I felt akin to moments in childhood when older people had control and dictated and even if I disagreed, I hated the idea of them being angry with me, so I acquiesced. The more I did that the more I lost trust in myself to know myself, to know what was good for me, to know what I truly believed, what I truly liked or disliked.

Years of therapy and internal reflection have made me a stronger and more self-confident person. The whole say-what-they-want-you-to-say, victim thing doesn’t work any more.

So as I made my morning decafe, before my daughter and husband woke up, I realized that I do not believe in Jesus. But that what happened the day before was that I was scared of John’s beliefs. Scared and angry and I was afraid of those feelings sitting there in their living room. So instead of being vulnerable and just simply saying that, I thought to myself, well you have to choose a side. Fight or give in. I was tired, I like John and Jane, so I gave in.

Here’s what I really felt: It angers and scares me that John thinks I am going to hell because I translate that to he thinks I deserve to go to hell if I never accept his beliefs. I came away asking myself how can I be friends with and/or do business with someone who believes my soul will burn in hell and further more how can Jane or John want to be in business or be around or have friends that don’t believe what they do. I know you may read this and say but we all have differing beliefs about many many things whether those differences are religious or as simple as taste in movies or entertainment. I listen to Howard Stern and I know a lot of my friends find him anti-woman etc but that difference doesn’t stop me from hanging out with my friend Shakay, who by the way is a religious Catholic. The thing is that my beliefs are never about the safety or well being of someone else’s soul. You know it’s like how do you be friends with someone who says you are wrong and the very essence of you is wrong–that’s what a soul is to me, my essence who I am. But no, the bible says this and I am just following the bible might be what John responds with but I want to say you are following something or rather an interpretation of something that really separates people. I can’t control what I truly believe deep down. You know I could pretend to people to believe what they do but that pretending creates such anxiety inside and also then you are just not being honest.

It scared and angers me. John’s belief that if you do not accept Jesus as the savior in your heart, “He wants your heart not your intellect” he said over and over……John’s beliefs and expression of the belief and conversion from Judaism to Christianity scares the shit out of me and that’s what I wanted to say back to him. I think of the Nazis and I think of Anne Frank and I think of my grandmother and I think of my daughter and even my Hanukkah socks, which I realize are my way of getting comfortable with being different or perceived as different due to the fact that I am Jewish.

It scares me this man’s beliefs scares me. He’s down the street. He is someone who has a Jewish family, loved ones. Some of his relatives were survivors of the holocaust. How can you make statements about people’s souls? About their beliefs? I don’t say that just because you believe in Jesus you are going to be damned to whatever. I just find his way of viewing the world to be so scary and limiting and really the seed which the holocaust and other hate crimes come from. That’s what truly scares me.

It freaked me out to sit in their house and hear John say that if you don’t accept Jesus you will go to hell and then earlier in the car to hear Jane say that she doesn’t believe in evolution. I mean the religious right…that’s what they are proclaiming and that fuckin scares me. Are they equally scared about those of us left of center or at least left of right?

What truly scares me and shakes me up is this fear surrounding people like Jane and John. What will they do with these beliefs and how far will they go? Are they recruiting people? Do they feel it’s their mission to get people to buy in to the bible? Or are they private about it. Religion is private Mike said to me when we discussed all this and what happened over the weekend. Why? Why is religion more private than discussions about sex? I think of the rap song by Kayne West: “You can rap about anything except Jesus.” Exactly. I am so afraid to say all this to Jane and John in the fear that they will reject me. Why can’t we discuss religion in school and why do we avoid discussions with those who don’t share our beliefs?

I don’t have the answer:

But I know this: I like Jane and John and I am not going to allow any of this to stop my relationship with them. Will I share this with them? Yes. Will I sit down and talk with them. If they want to, yes. I will. I am ready.

Forget my telling the story of this as I am trying to do here. That’s not the reason why I wanted to write about my connection to born-agains. Not sure if that’s the right way to phrase it. Well, yeah you know what it is. Today I taught a class with ironically not only a born-again Christian who was a blond but a woman with my mother-in law’s name and a woman with my mother’s name. During our class working period, I worked on revising this very piece, and found myself rereading it up to this point and realized that this is exactly when I should share with you all what I have come away with from all this:

Today, my born-again student with the same name as my mother, helped me understand something. First, she was a truly open, honest, kind person. When I shared with my students parts of this piece, she listened in a way that made me feel like what I was saying got inside her heart and that she understood me. Yes. I felt most connected to the born-again of the group: Each time I looked up, she looked me square in the eye. The look said to me, “I am listening. I want to hear you. I am not afraid.” What I saw in her eyes is what I wanted to become or see in myself. Another student said to me “Jesus, Ghandi, Budda would sit down next to someone who had drastically different beliefs and wouldn’t become angered or changed by it. You need to look at the differences between your beliefs and your friends and even that nasty girl from the gym and sit like Jesus, Budda or Ghandi would.” I laughed at that when she said it but then, looking at my student with my mother’s name, I realized that she was in that place and it was where I wanted to be.

She shared with me an anecdote about friends of hers who are Jewish. Her friend made a comment that her son’s hair was so long he looked like Jesus. My born-again student opened her mouth to say what she felt but found herself at a loss for words. She didn’t want to offend her friend and didn’t want to rock the boat of their relationship by opening up the dialogue about their religious differences. “I was worried she would react like you did and just see me as the enemy.” In that moment that she shared this, I realized that she and I are more similar than different. We both want to the right to believe what we believe but also to say to friends or family those beliefs without the fear of rejection.

My student pointed out that she liked my piece because it showed a person trying to understand and saying things out loud people don’t want to say and that, that very thing is frightening to do. She’s right. It is. I am afraid of Jane and John’s reaction to this and I am afraid of what I might say just to “make things okay” with them. I think I have reached appoint in my life where I realize that I can’t shut my mouth or apologize for what I feel. Even if articulating it makes people uncomfortable. You know what I find more uncomfortable then dealing with the tension that can arise between two friends who have different religious beliefs: not dealing. It’s the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about.

But I want to tell you one last bizarre experience with a religious weirdo (Jane and John are not the other weirdo I am referring to. The mean, chubby girl from the gym is that other religious weirdo.) I am sitting at Starbuck’s writing this ending and a mute hairy smelly, trembley guy walks in and grins. He flashes a few thumbs up to me and makes like he wants to write something down and then mouths, “Catholic” and flashes a cross and nods…Is he asking me if I am catholic? What the fuck? How fucking random….Why am I being followed by crazy Christians lately? Celestine Prophecy would say these are all signs. Signs of what? To write a piece about this and post it on my blog?

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