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Gideon Paull
At some point in life, in order to find happiness, to find love, it is OK to throw out convention and adopt the unconventional, what others think about that is irrelevant.

‘The Shiksa’ – Experiences in American Jewish life

Interfaith couple. Photo courtesy of murielredoute@hotmail.com
Living as an interfaith, interracial family in the Jewish community - Photo courtesy of murielredoute@hotmail.com

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19: 33-34).

You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9).

I think I first realized that my wife would have problems being accepted into my Jewish life when a family member asked me not to take her to my own daughter’s wedding in Israel  – out of respect for the rabbi performing the marriage service.  The rabbi in question happens to be my son-in-law, a very good man, a learned rabbi who I know to be accepting and respectful of everyone. It was a wake up call that shocked me to my very core, it hurt me as if I had been stabbed in the heart and provided a lesson that I have since had relearn several times.

My wife was so excited to learn everything about Judaism when we were dating. It wasn’t that she wanted to convert to Judaism, she didn’t have to and I wasn’t making it a requirement for our relationship or marriage. As it is, we’re at a stage in our lives where we just wanted to spend the rest of our lives with someone we love, in friendship, great conversation and much happiness – something we both felt that we deserved. In fact, conversion was never on the table, my wife is a Korean/American ordained minister – a pastor who leads a United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. It does lend itself to the making of a very interesting partnership – me a practicing Jew and she, a practicing Christian. You can read more about that relationship here: Love Happens – a most unconventional match.

Our interracial, interfaith blended family. Photo courtesy of murielredoute@hotmail.com

As I mentioned, she was so excited to learn everything about Judaism and how we practice our religion. For her, The Jewish people are – as she puts it, “the first born, God’s chosen people. Christianity was born out of Judaism; Jesus was a Jew who lived a complete Jewish life”. Judaism was a clean white sheet for her, as she so rightfully put it. She was ready to explore and set out on a journey of discovery into what Judaism is.

How many generations does it take to wash out the ghetto and shtetl mentality that perpetuates hate and intolerance against other who are not like us within our own communities?

Koreans are one people who have no pre-judgement regarding Jews. They have not been exposed to antisemitism and hold absolutely no resentment towards the Jewish people, the inverse is generally true – they respect the Jewish people. Their deep respect for the Jewish people is often based upon their knowledge that Jews are an intelligent people; so many Nobel prizes for such a small group of people! A people who study hard and succeed – very much a Korean ideal.

I was excited to introduce to her the richness of our religion, the festivals, Shabbat, the prayers, the services – all rooted in the Torah. She was amazed at how we bring our religion home with us, how our religion is celebrated with family around the dinner table, how the religion is part and parcel of our lives. She mentioned that so many Christians leave their religion at the church doors after a one-hour Sunday service. She noted that bringing your religion home with you creates more meaning for that religion. “Everything you do throughout your day becomes infused in so many ways with religion, with love of God”, she exclaimed; “Religion becomes a part of the family experience, I wish Christians would practice this!”

Interfaith couple. Photo courtesy of murielredoute@hotmail.com

I introduced her to rabbinic sources, both ancient and contemporary, that provided her with amazing insights. Insights that provided her with a deep understanding of Jewish religious practices and the source of her own religion. I introduced her to the Jewish traditions, Jewish culture, Passover Seders, shabbat dinners, lighting Shabbat candles, holidays, Kiddush after Shabbat services and so much more.

She took courses in biblical studies through the Hebrew University which enriched her already encyclopedic knowledge of both old and new testaments.

How could she not love this religion so full of richness, celebration and spirituality? I thought to myself.

If we, God’s chosen people, are intolerant, arrogant and unaccepting of the stranger amongst us, what right do we have to place ourselves on a higher level above others and expect to be loved and respected?

Then there was the other side of our religion, the side that we should hide in embarrassment, but a side we all know and unfortunately so often spills over into the public domain. The internal strife in a community, arguments between congregants and the rabbi, arguments between members and the board, divisive personalities in the community. Then there’s the hate and intolerance between different streams of Judaism, an intolerance for anyone who’s not “like us”, anyone who doesn’t practice their religion “like us”. It broke my heart that my wife, who had been so excited about our religion was exposed to all this in an extreme way and it would end up tainting her perception of our religion.

She said, “God said that you were a stiff necked and argumentative people, but I thought that you all had gotten over that and learnt from your history?” She continued, “was the Temple not destroyed because of baseless hate? The Jewish people, who have experienced so much discrimination and hate, how can you propagate so much prejudice towards others, others who are a different religion, others who are the same religion yet think a little differently from you?” Her mind couldn’t comprehend this paradox and it troubled her.

Her perception of Judaism was tainted by her experiences with the local Jewish community and regretted the day I had introduced her to that community.

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At the time I belonged to a conservative synagogue in the San Fernando valley just north of Los Angeles. Conservative Judaism is much closer to an orthodox experience than many may think. Obviously, with the exception that women are considered equal to men and may lead the service, read from the Torah in some congregations. There are other theological differences that I won’t get into here.

The community and services are centered around traditional Jewish practice. Many members keep kosher, and some may even observe the sabbath, however it is up to each person how they want to observe their religion. Needless to say, people come to a conservative synagogue because they love traditional Judaism.

There are restrictions on non-Jews who wish to participate in services, and these differ from both orthodox and reform practices. Depending on direction from the rabbi, non-Jews may be able to open the ark, but may not hold the Torah or read from the Torah. They may not lead a service, wear a Tallit and are further restricted in what prayers they may say in front of the congregation. For instance some congregations might allow a non-Jew to recite the prayer for Peace but not the prayer for Israel.

I felt very hurt and sad that my wife’s first experiences of Judaism had been tainted by so many people.

With intermarriage at an all-time high and conservative synagogues purporting to be open and accepting regardless of faith, some synagogues have made concessions to the spouses of members, but these are generally few and far between and very dependent upon approval from the rabbi of the synagogue or the board of trustees.

Many non-Jewish spouses, while they have not converted to Judaism for one reason or another, see the synagogue and the community as a place that they feel welcome and at home. As such, they are keen to volunteer at the synagogue in different capacities, yet are limited in what board positions – if any – they may hold.

It was in this background that I dropped my wife into her first Jewish experience.

I mentioned that my wife is a minster, she is a woman of God. God is present in everything she does. She connects to God through prayer, she credits God with providing what she has, and God has rewarded her richly and in so many ways. The services she leads are very spiritual – she brings her community to a connection with God that many have not achieved before.

She is a very learned woman who has made a name for herself through her sermons and ability to reach and engage with her community, to grow the community.

Her sermons are an exciting journey through Old Testament, New Testament, secular sources, traditional Jewish rabbinic sources, Christian sources and contemporary sources all drawn from in order to provide a message that is not only relevant, rich in its content, but also thoroughly studied and perfectly delivered with a strong message that congregants can take home with them.

When I introduced her to synagogue services, she was excited to learn about the different customs and aspects of the services – it was all new to her and I was happy to teach her. She struggled to find spirituality in the traditional Hebrew service. Jewish services are focused on reciting the set prayers from the prayer book (siddur) – it is through these prayers that one establishes a connection with God. However, when the prayers are in a language that you can’t understand and the prayers that are sung have no meaning to you, how can you create that connection? Even for many Jewish people who understand Hebrew this is a struggle.

She had heard people singing in many religious venues and could tell when someone was singing to praise God or for their own glory. In this specific synagogue she found that the Cantor (Hazzan) would lead the service but was singing to hear his voice, there was no spirituality in his prayers and no connection to God.

Even though she read the prayers in english and found them beautiful, her experience of the Jewish prayer service was not one that lent her to connect with God.

Soon after my wife started attending services with me, the whole congregation was thrown into turmoil. The synagogue leadership decided to ban a family of long-time members. Whatever the decision criteria were for this drastic action, it tore the community apart. It pitted two strong willed families against each other with members taking sides. My wife and I were witnesses to this decision and the ensuing acrimonious communications that took place very publicly. She saw how there were missteps and egos at play throughout the process, how personalities on the leadership team forced through their opinions, how what should have been a simple private matter turned into a witch hunt against a specific family and their children. When the rabbi took sides with all the implications that that holds, it threw oil on to an already burning fire. It was clear that he was no longer the spiritual leader and voice of reason that we had all hoped he would be.

Even though this case is extreme – maybe not unprecedented, but certainly rare, these are the types of unfortunate events that not only destroy thriving communities but also paint the Jewish community in a bad light.

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Then there was the discrimination, the gossip and the name calling.

Not against Jews, as one might have expected, but against my wife and by extension against myself. My wife was already struggling to come to terms with the feeling of being an outsider, when she was met with another unfortunate side of the Jewish community – open discrimination.

Sometimes it was subtle, such as a greeter at the synagogue door turning away from her, other times it was silent discrimination and then there were the times that it was overt. My wife being of Korean descent was already familiar with prejudice and hate in American society – she never expected to find it in the Jewish community. You can read some of her experiences here: Hate in the Heartland – Welcome to America

My wife so correctly commented, “You are a stiff necked and stubborn people – that’s my observation but it was God who said it!

While waiting in line for the Kiddush after Saturday morning services one shabbat, we overheard several members gossiping in front of us. One said, “isn’t that —–‘s Shiksa?”. The other relied, “yes, it is”.  Another member interjected, “I heard that she’s a pastor! I heard she leads a church – she shouldn’t be here”. The first member responded, “He was married to a nice Jewish woman, what was he thinking?”. They all nodded in consent, oblivious to who my wife is and the details surrounding the end of my past relationship.

 

While I was very upset by what I heard I was not surprised. Having been around people like this all my life, I expected nothing less from them. However, when you put the shoe on the other foot, we Jews cry anti semitism at every opportunity – we have good reason to do so! But imagine if that same conversation had happened against a Jewish person in any other setting! The outcry that would ensue, the local news channels would be all over it. Yet, we, as Jews often display more hatred and prejudice towards outsiders, towards people who are different from us, or believe or practice their religion differently than us, than most non-Jews do.  We often do not show the same respect to other religions that they show to our Jewish religion.

To these upstanding pillars of the Jewish community the only thing that mattered was I married a non-Jew.

What do these people know about my wife? She has shown only respect and friendship to them. Do they really know and care who she is as a person? Does it even matter to them? The fact that she is a good person, a woman of God, a learned woman, a leader of the community means nothing to these people, it does not play into their calculations of who she is. To these upstanding Jewish pillars of the community the only thing that matters is that she’s a Christian, a goy, a shiksa and as such is worth less than they are.

This synagogue was and remains a very toxic place – sometimes the toxic culture becomes the accepted modus operandi. Needless to say, we left that synagogue in search of a place where we could be accepted without prejudice.

I felt very hurt and sad that my wife’s first experiences of Judaism had been tainted by so many people. I tried to reason with her that this is just one place, one negative experience. Yet I admitted to myself that in so many ways she was right  – she would have had a similar experience at many other synagogues.

Even though many Jews still have a ghetto or shtetl mentality; in America Jews have always been free to practice their religion, participate in society, live and work among non-Jews. One would think that Jewish prejudice against non-Jews or against Jews who practice their religion slightly different would diminish and even disappear, however in many cases it seems that the inverse is true. As a people we are less tolerant. Hate and prejudice thrives – have we learnt nothing from the lessons of Tisha B’av and the past 2,000 years?

How many generations does it take to wash out the ghetto and shtetl mentality that perpetuates hate and intolerance against other who are not like us within our own communities?

As my wife so correctly commented, “You are a stiff necked and stubborn people – that’s my observation, but it was God who said it!”

About the Author
Gideon Paull is an engineer and developer of websites related to Judaism and Jewish practice. Gideon, who resides in Santa Clarita, California, identifies as a practicing Jew and is married to a Korean United Methodist Church Pastor. Being in an interfaith, intercultural marriage has presented its own set of unique and diverse experiences.
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