Culture, Global, Israel, Justice, Religion

Religious Conversations

This sort of thing seems to happen to me fairly regularly. I’ll be walking down the street, taking a taxi, on the bus, or crossing the border, and will be questioned about my religious practices. The comments usually stem from the observation that I have my ears pierced. But not always: in the past, I’ve had a border guard quiz my friend and I, en route to LimmudNY, about our understanding and interpretation of the book of Daniel. Driving to Seattle, I was called “father” by a Catholic border guard who asked me how my parents felt about my earrings. I’ve been asked about living on the “wrong” (French, Catholic) side of town by a taxi driver in Montreal, questioned by a city of Montreal employee on homosexuality and Judaism while walking to school, and stopped while crossing a street in Vancouver because I was the “only Jew” this long-term resident of Vancouver had ever seen in the city.
I usually enjoy these conversations, bizarre though they may be.
And Thursday morning’s was no exception. I was quite early to the airport, forgetting that you don’t need to give yourself quite as much time to go customs and security at YVR as you do at NY-area airports. I was sent to one of the dozen border guards who were free; I was one of two people in the “line.” Noticing the work visa in my passport, coded for “religious worker,” he asked what religious work I was doing, and what religion I practised. He looked at me, then asked how I could be a member of the Jewish clergy if I had my ears pierced. After clarifying that I wasn’t a clergy member, I tried to give a nonchalant answer, shrug off his question. It really wasn’t any of his business, right? At that point, he looked at my boarding card, saw that my flight was another two hours away, and said “we have time, let’s talk.” He still had my passport, which he hadn’t yet stamped, so what position was I in to say no?
He cited Leviticus 19:28, that one cannot mar their body, and again asked about my pierced ears. I tried to explain that Tanakh is open to interpretation, but he was adamant that it was literal. I asked if he understood everything he read in the Bible to be literal, and he said he did, noting that’s why he believes that the Jews are the chosen people, and why he holds Jews to a higher standard. Interesting… Did that mean he practiced stoning as punishment, avoided shrimp, and brought sacrifices to his priest? We eventually agreed that there was room for interpretation. (phew!)
But that somehow led him to Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac. He wanted to know how, if Jews are the chosen people, if Jacob was renamed Israel, I reconciled Hagar being told her seeds would be greatly multiplied, that her descendants would be numerous, that Ishmael became the descendant of Abraham that the Muslims follow. I tried to explain that there can be differences in interpretation, that despite the shift in lineage, the Qu’ran contains many of the same stories as the Torah, and that there are some academics who argue that originally Islam followed Abraham/Isaac, and only later, after a dispute, did some shift the stories to Ishmael.
I think I lost him. It might have been too much for an early morning conversation with an evangelical Christian border guard. But he did say that we’re all brothers, Jews and Muslims, if not cousins, and we should really all get along. I agreed. He asked if I’d been to Israel, what my opinion was about Palestine. I gave him a short answer. And then, smiling, he stamped my passport and told me he’d have to research earrings for Jewish men (we’d already established he had no problem with earrings for Jewish women).
And, after about 10 minutes of talking, I went through to security.
I’m curious: do other people find themselves in these situations? I’m fairly convinced they’re the product of my being a “visible” Jew, living in a country with a small Jewish population, and in cities (or neighbourhoods) that aren’t heavily Jewish. Do conversations like these happen in NY with airport employees? I’m guessing not, since they see Jews on a daily basis. But… maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to hear other people’s stories.

6 thoughts on “Religious Conversations

  1. That security guy sounds like he’s, at the very least nosy, and at worst, quite creepy.
    I had a bad time traveling to Mexico last year. We were planning to scuba so I brought my weight belt. Who knew that on the X- ray scan, the weight belt would look just like what a suicide bomber wears? They also singled out my brother for the big search on that trip. But, thanks to your post, I now suspect that it had less to do w/the scuba gear and more to do with the fact that his ears are pierced!
    Fielding Judaism questions…sigh. I don’t mind them too much coming from those of another faith. But as a Reform child of intermarriage, I have had enough quizzing on my parents, upbringing, understanding of halaka etc. from self righteous orthodox. I got the cross examination last Wednesday on a 1st date with a self proclaimed conservative Jew. I try to be a good sport. I honestly answer all his questions. And, he responds with, “well, in MY religion..” What’s worse than being singled out as a visible Jew? Being snubbed as an invisible one.

  2. Ew. Gives me pause to take the bus instead the next time I go to the airport.
    Try this. I sit next to a rather fervent xtian, in some odd quirk of managerial fatwa. She reads books like ” Prayers to Route Demons” and other weirdly titled tomes. Me? I enjoy the “Jewish Hero Corps” comic books, but I don’t bring ’em to work.
    I was off Monday/Tuesday, I mention to her that previous Friday. Reasons: partially to extend a nice Shabbat weekend, the other because it is Purim.
    “Never heard of Purim” my cubemate sez.
    So, I give her the ” Minute Megillah”. Everthing you ever wanted to know about Esther, Haman (noise!!!) and the King whose name is hard for me to pronounce, in 60 seconds.
    I also mention it is the only text that omits the word “G-d”.
    “Oh. Well you know about Revelations and Isiah (something or other)?” she says.
    Oh yeah, the one that goes “We all have a friend in jeebus..” something like that.
    She continues that unless we accept the ol’ jeeber, we are “sinners”
    Now, I try to converse this, saying everyone has their own way, and that yours may not be my way and vice versa. She wants none of that and says I wil never get to Heaven, because I won’t accept her ways.
    Oh ick. That is where my conversation STOPS. Now, I cannot have a discussion with the xtian like my other coworkers, the Buddhist or the convert to Islam (much to her parent’s dismay)which is inspriring and fun.
    I even discuss Judaism with all sorts of movements, even the occasional Jfor jeebus, but those who are like my coworker, or the more Haredi of us, I cannot (never Jewish for them…their loss). I don’t force my views on anyone, because I can’t stand it forced on me. But I will listen, comapre, share a good laugh.
    As Kinky Friedman says, “May the G-d of your choice Bless you”

  3. Yeah, I got this stuff all the time – in fact, it was one of the things that pushed me to finally go get the official paper to pontificate (“But I don’t think you should really be asking me about this stuff, I don’t really know anything!” “But I want to know what YOU think about…”)lots of it in grad school, sometimes from professors (I had one prof whom I really idolized, who was a dyed in the wool Marxist and completely atheist, to the extent that he fled his original academic home over some fine point of Marxist interpretation. Thankfully, that wasn’t his area of interest, as I would probably never have gotten to know him then. I’m pretty sure I was the first Jew he had ever officially met), but most of all I get this stuff from taxi drivers or the like -“so, whatcha in town for?” I start thinking, do I need to really go into the conference that I’m attending, and then have to explain the whole Jewish thing? But I often do, and it’s usually a lot of fun and often worthwhile.

  4. This has been happening to me also quite frequently recently, normally because of something I’m drawing or reading. Here is one story.
    I was coming back from some Talmud study on the train, and was rereading what I had learned. I was on the car where the TTC (Toronto subway) guy who opens and shuts the doors has his own little office with all the control buttons; I was just settling in to the reading when he jumped out and let loose this suave opening line: “Are you a Jew?”
    If there’s one thing that does my heart good, it’s dudes in uniform coming out of nowhere and demanding to know if I’m Jewish.
    Anyway, he was a Nigerian Christian, as he told me many times, and he gave me six packaged moist towelettes, which I was too confused to refuse. “Do you believe that this flesh must be crucified?” he asked, clutching his chest at the phrase “this flesh.” I wasn’t sure if he meant humanity in general or if I personally desired to crucify him, but either way the answer was no, at least at the beginning of the conversation. “But what about all the witchcraft in the world? Is that not Satan?”
    “I don’t really believe in Satan…”
    “Now that, THAT is Satan,” he said, and glared (or maybe that was just how his face was).
    In between these little exchanges he was going back to his booth and opening/closing the doors.
    I quickly decided it was my stop and got off the train. He leaned out of his window and waved goodbye, shouting “God bless you!” into the wind. He leaned so far I was worried that he would get clocked by the oncoming subway wall, but he ducked back in just in time.

  5. I find myself in these situations quite often as well.
    Recently I was giving a tour at my college to a group from a Methodist university in Korea. The reverends who were with the group were ecstatic to meet someone Jewish and they had a million questions. About resurrection, about the Olam Haba, about the Baal Shem Tov. They actually knew a lot of information, but none the less had a somewhat off the mark understanding of Judaism, in my opinion.
    That being said, I kind of cherish these interactions, I think it is a learning experience for everyone. Sure sometimes it is uncomfortable but what I like to remember is that most of these people are truly people of deep faith, and the basic tenants of what they are observing are grounded in the same things Judaism is about. I think that the very conversation between two people, regardless of their position, is a communion with god. In the act of these dialogues we are given the opportunity to wrestle with our faith, sometimes it hurts a bit or is absurd, but I believe that it is a holy moment of sorts.
    God challenges us in mysterious ways, the opportunity to share with another my experience with faith and to hear of theirs is a beautiful thing.

  6. As a servant of the most high god Jah, I get this all the time, and I love it as it gives me a chance to make his name known thru out the world, which he encourages us to do in the book of psalms at almost every chapter “prais Jah you people” what better way is there to praise him to talk about his goodness, his wisdom, and his love, to people who are really interested to know more about him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.