More interfaith soup: A tale of two audiences

The author and Eden between theolgy sessions (photo credit: courtesy)
The author and Eden between theolgy sessions (photo credit: courtesy)

It was a fairly typical day off from school for me: a lunch meeting with Father Ed to discuss the upcoming senior retreat, a quick meeting with Becky about her “Being Christian” talk for the retreat, and then off to the Jewish Federation. Rabbi Hal and I got a chance to catch up on politics, child rearing, baseball, and other important interfaith topics, and then it was off to work editing the new text on Israel for Catholic high schools.

Hal brought a Christian friend of his by for some advice from me on getting a job in Catholic schools. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to put in a word for him at the Catholic Archdiocesan office; Rabbi Hal goes there more than I do, so he said he’d do it.

I realize this all seems a little bizarre to some folks. To be sure, it hasn’t always been so comfortable, but when I go to the fifth floor of the Federation, I see Aliyah, Dan, Hal and others that I’ve worked with for so many years that it’s frankly a lot more comfortable than Religion Department meetings at my high school — although security isn’t quite so tight here. I was a guest for Shabbat dinner Friday night, and my biggest faux pas was not realizing my fork and knife had been changed out when I asked for the fish instead of the chicken (I was flummoxed by what looked like a salad fork and a bread knife). Other than that, I felt perfectly at home. Well, and my Hebrew still sucks.

The most difficult adjustment for me has been more cultural than religious; I was told right away that “two Jews equals three opinions” and from the very first time I spoke to a Jewish group (teenagers; see my last post) I have had to learn to deal with interruptions, questions, alternate points of view, clarifications, etc. I now strategize to account for this, and am generally able to not lose control of things. Generally.

We Catholics aren’t like that. Hal once came to me in between training sessions concerned and more than a little frustrated that the Catholic teachers he was teaching weren’t asking questions, or participating at all. They were nodding their heads politely and taking notes. We operate in a very hierarchical church, sometimes very authoritarian, and we long ago learned the best way to handle that: nod your head and take notes.

But while he and I were chatting about this problem, the teachers were on break, and now were discussing everything; now opinions were flying, and now the universal disagreements with some of what they had just heard were acknowledged. That’s how we cope. Once, we were interviewing candidates to go to Israel with the Federation, and I know my Jewish colleagues on the committee were a little concerned with the lack of feedback from the candidates. We Catholics knew how to handle the situation, so I said, “Why don’t I show Bob how to get out of here?” The moment we were on the elevator, “Bob” starts talking. I had to explain this to the Jewish members of the group when I got back; that’s just how we roll.

I took some students to Israel a few years ago, a remarkable two weeks, and they of course fell in love with the country. Ask them what Israel was like, and you will always hear about the times a random Israeli would insert themself in whatever conversation we were having, once or twice just pulling up a chair as we were eating. Eden, an Israeli teen, spent a few days with us, and her favorite past time was following me around at the holy sites, trying to convince me (a religion teacher) that there is no God.

The author and Eden between theology sessions (photo credit: courtesy)

My students loved this about Israel and Jews, and I love this, too. I once got into a pretty heated discussion with Elaine, then the head of the Holy Land project, when suddenly she got a horrified look on her face.

“Are we okay, John?” she asked.

“Of course; I’m just trying to fit in.”

And man, do I love how all this plays out in Israeli politics. I have too much fun explaining the Knesset and all the political parties to my students or to adult groups. I have a great PowerPoint slide where all the parties that got votes in the last election roll by, and several slides where I try (as best as an American Catholic can) to explain the current coalition. Kadima is completely beyond a non-Jewish American’s understanding, by the way.

But this, one of my favorite parts of the Jewish experience, this wonderful Talmudic ability to argue all sides, to articulate the “on the other hand,” seems to have hit a road bump in one particular area. Do you know the most common question I get asked as the “Jewish” expert?

“Why do all Jews vote Democrat?”

I realize it’s not “all,” but it’s still pretty prolific. What I don’t understand is the total lack of discussion and disagreement amongst so many on this. I’m not telling anyone not to vote for Obama, but, I mean, I’m working with people who are Israel advocates for a living, and whatever you might think of our president, he is certainly not a big friend of Israel. Here I can’t get through any of my lectures to Catholic teachers without the most minute point being clarified by a Jewish Federation member in the room, but then they won’t even discuss the possibility of not voting for Obama? We unthinking, authoritarian, hierarchical Catholics, by the way, are pretty much split 50-50 politically. Heck, both vice presidential candidates are Catholic.    

While we were editing the Israel textbook, someone noticed that “Ronald Reagan” was spelled “Reegan.” Dan wondered aloud, “How did that happen?”

That’s easy. “It’s because no one in this building voted for him.”

About the Author
John is a Catholic high school Religion teacher from the Los Angeles area. He is also the master teacher for the Holy Land Democracy Project, a joint venture between The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, Orange, and Bakersfield counties. He has visited Israel four times, so far.