This is the first in a regular series of guest blogs by members of the Dialogue Editorial Board. Neylan McBaine is the Personal Voices editor, and the author of Seeds of Faith in City Soil: Growing Up Mormon in New York City in the Winter 2007 issue of Dialogue. She lives with her husband and three wonderfully literarily-named daughters in Brooklyn, NY.
“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
I love that question. It’s one I’m asked routinely as I walk the streets of my neighborhood, Park Slope, Brooklyn. Usually, I can see it coming from half a block away: two Hasidic men, perhaps one old and one young like a father/son Home Teaching duo, waiting on the corner as I approach the intersection of Union Street and Seventh Avenue. Their black coats and hats and the abundant facial hair on the older companion set them apart of course, but it’s usually what they’re holding that draws the most attention.
In September, soon after I moved to the neighborhood, the object in their hands was the ram’s horn of the shofar. A few weeks later, it was clusters of long branches in one hand and a lemon in the other. Recently I was taken off guard by two girls holding a Torah. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” one asked, holding up the book. I had never been asked the question by a woman and I hadn’t noticed their long skirts and long, pulled back hair till we were passing on the narrow sidewalk. Away from the sides of their Hasidic men, they easily could have been sister missionaries.
Although tempted, I’ve never answered “Yes” to their question. I always try to say, “No, I’m not” in the kindest, most patient tone I can muster while hustling three kids down a New York street. I did, however, once ask what the branches and lemons represented since my knowledge of Jewish festivals fell short of that symbolism. Part of the celebration of Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths, Jews wave the branches — one palm, one willow and two myrtle — and the lemons in six directions to symbolize that God is everywhere and that the person waving the objects is a member of the House of Israel. “And what would you do if I had said I was Jewish?” I probed. As a Jew, I could have waved the objects there on the street so I could celebrate my heritage as part of the holy day.
The Jewish missionaries are not on the street everyday, only during holidays when they’re trying to engage the vast population of secular Jews in Park Slope. But there are so many festivals on the Jewish calendar that their absence is noticed more often than their presence. After six months of living in the neighborhood, my children hardly comment on them anymore. As New Yorkers, they’re accustomed to seeing religion played out in public lives – through dress, through preachers on the subway, through the statue of Moroni hovering over Lincoln Center. When three women passed us in black burqas in the 100 degree weather of late summer, my oldest merely looked up at me quizzically. “For modesty,” I muttered quickly as they passed. My daughter didn’t give it a second thought. “Got it,” she nodded.
And that’s why I love being asked if I’m Jewish: because the Hasidic men with their branches and lemons, the women with their Torah, and the Muslim women in their burqas give me — and my children — the comfort of knowing that there are others out there who really do practice their religions. Many others may practice quietly at home, as do most Mormons who are not on proselytizing missions, but those who wear their religions on their sleeves give me the courage to be a bit bolder about what I reveal about my own faith, in conversation and example if not in my dress. I feel a kinship with my street corner neighbors, a desire to grab their palm and willow branches and cheer, “Religious nut cases, unite!” There’s no need to feel shy around here. After all, in New York, you can rest assured that someone somewhere is doing something stranger than you.