I was born in Wisconsin in a town called Sheboygan – not a Yiddish but a Chippewa name. My parents were vigorously, zealously Catholic… and have, if anything, become more religious since. I was their first child, and as the house filled with three, then five, then eight children, I simmered in a sauce of rosary nights, Christmas choir, parochial school, and visits by the Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima. My religious imagination is run through with the parts of the Mass in Greek and Latin, with masterworks of art and books of ancient wisdom, but also with phosphorescent plastic crucifixes, plaster saints and pastel holy cards that are more than a little bit kitsch. I am Catholic to the core.
As a teenager in my bedroom lair, I put klezmer CDs from a back bin at the public library on repeat and tried to memorize Aaron Lebedeff lyrics I had transcribed into a notebook by ear. (Now, there’s a website for that.) In my first job, planted by fate in Manhattan on lower Second Avenue, I hopped the L train and sneaked into a swimming pool-cum-social hall to celebrate Purim with a club called “Brooklyn Jews.” I’m a Dominican friar now, living in Eastern Europe (about which more later), but I’m a monk with an iPod. On a trip from Krakow to Katowice, as I ride a Hungarian-made bus across Polish fields, I might listen to a brilliant podcast with the dowdy label, “Office of Rabbi Sacks.” I never understood why I did these things. I still don’t. Not completely.
Like the high-frequency sound waves that set molecules rumbling and make matter change states, there’s a certain Jewish vibe that transmutes my soul. When I am in Israel, which has become a habit over the last six years, I oscillate with energy until I start to buzz and spark.
I am not a syncretist. Not a Judaizer, chas v’shalom. I could never pass for Jewish, being gifted with what the French call une bonne tête de goy. But you will sometimes find me under a kippah I bought on Ben Yehuda Street sitting in a side seat of a synagogue sans monastic robe, with a bilingual siddur in hand.
The Jewish folks I know may have mixed feelings about all of this. I absorb that ambivalence as best I can. I respect sacred boundaries. But from my side, the Catholic and Christian side, I wonder how I could possibly stay away from Jewish podcasts and novels and kumsitzes, shiurim, and shuls.
I wonder how I could stay away from Israel.
Look at it from my point of view: the Jewish people is alive in my generation, improbable as that is, and I have the opportunity to witness a Jewish society in the Land of Israel: a sovereign, Hebrew-speaking society. Not even Jesus had that. How could I miss this chance?
This Jewish thing isn’t merely a personal eccentricity – at least, I don’t think it is. A genetic susceptibility to all things Jewish is in the DNA of my beloved religion. After all, to a Catholic, the Tanakh is indispensible and the Psalms are the heart of prayer, but the Gospel, four books about the life of Jesus, is the roof and the floor and the pillars of the Church. And our Gospel gives us a very Jewish Jesus.
Here is Jesus reading the parsha in synagogue. He argues about Sabbath observances. He makes pilgrimages to the Beit Hamikdash for Pesach and Sukkot. In the Gospel, there’s no Nordic Christ with a superhero physique, eugenically-correct profile and glowing white robes. The Jesus of the ancient books has the grit of the roads of Samaria between his toes and mud from the Jordan under his fingernails. That’s what the Gospel gives us, because – we firmly believe – that’s how it was, for real.
And what’s real and true is beautiful. It’s beautiful because it is of God. Jesus was born on the fringes of the Roman Empire to a poor couple with an unfashionable monotheistic religion. We Christians might prefer a neutered Lord denatured from his lineage. But there it is in our Bible: God came to us in a particular time in a narrow place on the ledge of the Levant. God joined himself to Israel, was born of a Jewish maiden, and on the eighth day was circumcised. This is our Jesus.
So, these days, I hang around with Jews as often as they’ll have me. I do it for Christian reasons: the Jewish people emit a light that draws me. They make music I need to hear. The story of the Jews is “a map to the inner life of every Christian,” as the essayist David P. Goldman has written. Or – as a pope said in a Roman synagogue in 1986 – “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion.” I feel that intrinsicness, that cousin-closeness, in every candlewax-and-incense-smelling corner of my Catholic being.
If the Church is what it claims to be – the People of God muddling towards heaven – we wayfarers need curious, searching hearts. Our numbers (more than a billion) and long roots (founded: Jerusalem, 33 CE) should help us stretch out of smallness; make us not proud, but courageous and compassionate. The Jewish people – the Chosen People – have come through hell and now, for the first time since Jeremiah, are masters of their own house. That, too, might inspire confidence and generosity. For Jews, this could be a good time to be kind to friars.