On loving Jews

“I also want you to try to love us. It has always felt true to me that we are not liked. Many people like me as an individual person, but I have always felt that my truest Jewish self is not a loved and welcomed thing, and that as a collective whole, we are not wanted.”

–Danica Bornstein

I want to tell you a story. I won’t tell it as well as I want to, because as much as people tell me that I write well, I find that I’m never able to express what I really want to express in my writing. There’s always something ineffable that I’m not able to capture, and I’ve felt like that’s what differentiates my utilitarian writing from what truly gifted practitioners are able to create.

I am Irish Catholic. These days I identify as a “self-excommunicated” Catholic, because the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy in 2005 shook me to my very core due to the central Catholic belief that the Pope is divinely chosen: I was convinced that there was no way a loving God could choose such an evil man as his representative on Earth. Faced with the choice between “God is not a loving God” and “the Pope is not chosen by God”, I actually believed for a few months in a third option: “There is no God.” Those dark months ended shortly after I started dating my wife, not because her love opened my eyes or anything trite like that, but because she had a Catholic relative who died, and, out of respect, I went with my girlfriend to the funeral. The funeral was presided over by a rather pedestrian Catholic priest who, nevertheless, proceeded to give a sermon that spoke directly to me yet seemed… inappropriate for a funeral. Speaking to others afterwards, I determined that they heard the same sermon I did, so I wasn’t imagining it. But for some reason, nobody else thought the sermon was out of place. It was then that I realized that if God was willing to hijack a priest’s sermon just to send me a message, he and she (because if God is everything, God must be all genders, not just one) not only existed, but it was impossible for God not to be a loving God. So I settled on the “Pope is not chosen by God” option, which, since the divinely chosen nature of the Pope is a core tenant of Catholicism, still disqualified me from being a Catholic in good standing.

And yet, this is not the story I’m here to tell: this is all background that will hopefully allow you to understand the deeper meaning of the story I’m telling. The story I’m here to tell starts much earlier, and comes to fruition a full decade before the sermon was hijacked. It is the story of my experiences with Judaism.

When I was a child, “the Jews” were these people I encountered only in stories told by others. I read about Jews in biblical stories: it was obvious that all the protagonists in the Old Testament were Jews, and soon it dawned on me that so were all the protagonists in the New Testament as well. Jesus was a Jew. I knew they were the Chosen people of God. But I also read modern stories of Jews, and they all seemed to come out of the Holocaust. They were imprisoned and killed for who they were: convenient “others” to be scapegoated in the name of unifying the populace under the thumb of a dictator.

They were also this vaguely evil presence in my Nana’s stories. When my Nana was angry, it always seemed to be the fault of “the blacks” and “the Jews”. Even as a young child, I knew there was something wrong with that viewpoint: wasn’t Jesus a Jew?

I don’t recall when I first met a Jewish person in real life. I think that’s significant in that, to me, Jews were just people. They weren’t the evil masterminds of my Nana’s nightmares; they were people just like me, but they came from a religious tradition older than mine.

But the crux of this story occurs in the mid-90s, when I met a very intelligent and beautiful Jewish woman named Jessica. Jess and I started dating, and even though Jess wasn’t particularly observant, I decided that if I was considering spending the rest of my life with this woman, I needed to know more about who she was. One of my good friends was a reformed Jew, and he started taking me to temple on high holy days. Because it was a reformed temple, large swaths of the ceremony were in English, and what struck me was how much of it I already knew. “This sounds just like the Catholic Mass”, I said out of the corner of my mouth to my friend. “Of course”, he replied, “Where do you think you stole it from?”

This was a deeply profound observation for me. A large part of my identity is my Catholicism, and I realized that a large part of Catholicism was lifted wholesale from Judaism. This was entirely appropriate: Jesus hadn’t come to replace the Jews, he had come to complete them as the Messiah that had been promised in the Torah. The split arose not so much over Jesus’ teachings as over the traditions and rules of Judaism that were seen as a barrier to gentiles becoming followers of Jesus: the dietary restrictions, the ceremonies, and, most of all, the male genital mutilation. Early followers of Jesus realized that requiring non-Jews to trim their dicks as a condition of becoming a follower of Jesus would be a non-starter. Over the centuries, though, Catholicism developed its own dietary restrictions, its own ceremonies, and, oddly enough, had no objection to circumcision after people got it into their heads that it was “more hygienic”.

All of this is a clumsy attempt to say that I realized that Judaism wasn’t just someone else’s religious tradition: it was part of my religious tradition. Here were the roots of who I am, an essential part of my identity.

I cannot call myself Jewish much in the way I cannot call myself Catholic anymore: there are core beliefs that I hold which are antithetical to beliefs required to be a good Jew. But if Catholics are my brothers and sisters in religious belief, Jews are my very close cousins: we all love the same God who loves us, and we all try to be the best people we can be within the framework our traditions and beliefs hand us.

So this is an answer to Danica’s plea: I do love you. You are my cousin in The Lord, and your traditions, while not the traditions I was raised with, certainly echo the traditions I hold dear. To me, someone being Jewish makes me want to like and trust them, just like someone being Catholic does. When I enter a home with a mezuzah, I reach up and touch it, and I feel at peace knowing I am in the home of someone else who loves the LORD our God with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their might.

I know that I am only one person. But that’s how everything good starts.

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