In 1947 Darryl Zanuck produced a controversial movie called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” about anti-Semitism in the United States. I remember watching it on television on something like Million Dollar Movie or The Late Show. I don’t think I fully understood it. I grew up in New York City where everyone was the same. We might have gone to different houses of worship and some of us even spoke other languages at home. My mother was an Irish Catholic, my father was a Southern Baptist boy, my best friend’s parents were Polish Catholic, and many of my school friends were Jewish, African-American, Lutheran, German, Methodist, and Puerto Rican. Most of my teacher’s were Jewish. I was raised Roman Catholic. Unlike most of my Catholic friends I did not go to Catholic school. I was offered the chance but didn’t want to leave my public school friends.
Growing up in the great melting pot of New York we never noticed or cared where another person came from or worshipped. We may be fascinated by different customs or foods, but we did not judge or hate people because of where they came from or where they prayed.
My first marriage was to a boy who was Roman Catholic like me, although neither of us went to church anymore. His mother was Italian and his father was from the South. We were married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. You can’t get much more Catholic than that. My first three children were baptized Roman Catholic. After my divorce I had a brief relationship with a fellow college student whose father was Jewish and mother was some type of Christian.
After my son’s birth we moved to Tennessee where my father had grown up. My son was baptized in the Episcopal Church when he was about two. It wasn’t a far leap from Catholicism to Episcopal. I had been studying different religions since shortly before my divorce and the Episcopal Church was comfortable and fairly familiar. Yet it still wasn’t what I was looking for.
While all this was happening I had brief flirtations with Judaism. I read books. We had a Seder so my kids could learn about it. We celebrated Hanukkah and lit the menorah even saying the prayers in Hebrew though mispronouncing many of the words.
In 2002 I married my current husband after about two years of dating, much of it online. He was Jewish but he did not practice his religion. In fact I knew more about Judaism than he did. Little by little I brought him up to speed and finally we went to the local Reform Temple. It was either that or the conservative synagogue. For the first time I felt at home. After studying with the Rabbi for a little over a year I converted. My children, three of them adults by this time, practiced no religion.
During this time I worked at the University of Tennessee. My conversion was no secret. The reactions I got were mixed. One woman, who was a friend and even attended my non-sectarian wedding, asked, “But what about Jesus?” in a horrified voice. Another said she hoped I was a Messianic Jew. Overall no one made a big deal out of my change.
A few years later I went to work at East Tennessee State University. It was a local office in Knoxville. Things went smoothly through two directors. Then we got a new director who was Southern Baptist and extremely devout. She alternated between being overly conscientious to quietly expressing concern for my soul. When we would pray at business lunches I would catch her watching me as though she expected me to burst into flames.
I grew up not knowing what anti-Semitism was, lived in a generation when I believed it was a dead issue (rather like racism which is also alive and kicking). Let me assure you, anti-Semitism and racism do exist. Perhaps as a Jew I am more aware of the stares that came when I would go out to lunch with my black co-workers, especially if one of my male co-workers was there. I would often be the only white person at the table with my fair skin and bleached blonde hair. Sometimes we would make jokes about the looks if they were particularly obvious.
Neither of my jobs allowed time off for Jewish holidays. In New York it was a given that businesses might be closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I had to use my earned time off for those holidays although we were closed for Christmas, Good Friday, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There were moments I felt it was unfair. Most of the time, I shrugged my shoulders, bit my tongue, and accepted it for what it was.
In retrospect I wonder if I should have made a fuss. I wonder if I should have pointed out that my religious beliefs were as important as the Christian beliefs. However I didn’t. Now that I have retired I regret that.
That being said, no one has the right to dictate what we believe. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other religion should be allowed to practice as they choose. Just as we should not be limited by where our parents come from, what language we speak in our homes, the color of our skin, or our political beliefs. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten something that President John F. Kennedy said, “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Until we learn not to accept but to celebrate our differences we will never have peace. Until we can embrace one another as human beings we will struggle to inhabit this small planet joyfully. Until we are not judged by our gender, sexual preferences, religious or political beliefs, race, or country of origin we will fail to survive.
The next time you are at work, at school, at church, traveling to another city or country take a look at the person beside you. The blood that runs through their veins is the same as the blood that runs through yours. The heart that pumps that blood is the same as yours. They were born as you were born and as surely as the sun sets they will die someday as you will.