Diablogging: Neylan McBaine

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.

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  1. Natalie B. says:

    Excellent post! I had many similar encounters when I lived in NYC.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    I miss those Lubavitchers.

  3. Molly Bennion says:

    Lovely thoughts. Thanks.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    It’s good to get to know some of the people on Dialogue’s board. Whoever thought of this is a genius, maybe even a supergenius.

    I have the same reaction when I encounter people who observe their religion strictly. The burqa and the mark on the forehead on Ash Wednesday all help me feel right at home.

  5. “Religious nut cases, unite!”

    This is going on my list of stuff to cross-stitch on a pillow when I finally take up cross-stitching. Trust me, that’s high praise.

  6. Neylan,
    Great to see you around these parts. I never knew you were on the Dialogue editorial board. Nice.

    I’ve had almost this exact same conversation with Sara before, that I love that there are others around me who have deep religious convictions and aren’t afraid to express them.

  7. I always felt strangely complemented when asked if I were Jewish by the Lubavitchers–like maybe my ancient religiosity somehow shone through my Swedish-ancestry features (you know, kind of like ancient apostles in Mormon-produced films). Though deep down I knew they were just asking everyone relatively friendly looking.

    On a somewhat related note, when my wife and I lived in Queens, the missionaries in our branch really wanted to baptize a convert in the ocean. To fulfill their wish, we accompanied them to Far Rockaway Beach on one of the most crowded summer days of the year. I confess I thought the public baptism ceremony was going to be somewhat embarrassing, or at least that we would feel conspicuous, but I can honestly report none of the masses seemed to even give our little overly-dressed party–some in white–a second glance. You really are free to do your own thing in NYC.

  8. The twin ideals of real religious devotion and tolerant religious pluralism. It truly is a beautiful thing when they can work together.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent thoughts, Neylan.

  10. Cynthia L. says:

    What a great post. I get so tired of the caricature of urban areas being uniformly godless amoral wastelands. There’s something for everyone–the godless and amoral and the burqas, and the LDS.

  11. I thought this had already gone up somewhere after we talked about it. Good to see it here.

    I think it varies a good bit depending on what kind of person you run in to. Christy gets definite geographical (New York= center of universe) and religious (religion=bad) comments in her courses at NYU. But in the streets, between the Watchtower, the Hasidic Jews, and the subway preachers, there’s plenty of evidence of belief and action.

  12. This was delightful. Thanks.

  13. I feel exactly the same way! I’m very reticent to voice my religion loudly, either through shyness or awkwardness or both, in most company, but for these very reasons, when I meet a devout Muslim or Catholic, I have little hesitation to talk about religion. It’s much more difficult when I’m in the presence of conservative protestants, non-religionists, or atheists, for some reason.

  14. Neylan-
    As always, it is a pleasure to read your work. I wonder, keying off Ben’s point, how this conspicuous show of religion on the street effects policy decisions and tolerance of religious beliefs. Does it help non-religious people to realize that there are religious people out there, or does it lead to marginalization of religion as a street sideshow?

  15. Great post, Neylan. I felt the same way when I took world religion at BYU: a kinship with all believers.

  16. I’ve really enjoyed reading all the thoughtful comments. Thanks! You might be interested to know that I was raised in New York City, left for 15 years and am now back. I’ve been fascinated by how differently I perceive my religious identity in this city returning now after all these years. Growing up, I considered myself in league with the mainstream Protestant WASPs I went to school with. Now, to meems point above, I feel myself identifying more with the “extreme” groups. I’ve clearly matured and recognized how non-mainstream we really are, but this city has changed in my absence too.

  17. Thanks for the thoughts Neyan. I’ve had these same thoughts living in one of the many African-American neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

    I love walking out of our building with some of the older ladies in their beautiful hats, gigantic Bibles and big smiles.We walk past the Brooklyn Tabernacle and exchange greetings with the line of people out front.

    Its sad – the closer we get to the church (in an old Italian ‘hood, slowly turning into a new hipster ‘hood) the smiles seem to fade and strange looks ensue. You can guess which neighborhood I prefer living in.

    So, in spite of the land grab, I like to think that Brooklyn remains the “borough of churches”.

  18. doh, i mean Neylan (sorry)

  19. Mike McBride says:

    But you don’t look Druish? (Maybe Elliot will catch that Space Balls reference.) Nice post, Neylan. And I enjoyed your Dialogue piece, too. I find it interesting that you identify more with the extreme groups. I hope you and the family are enjoying NYC.

  20. Ariel and Jim says:

    Almost makes me homesick for the Upper Westside–but not quite. We’re enjoying what must be one of the most diverse stakes in the Church, right here in Salt Lake Central Stake.

    Well done, Neylan!

  21. Steve Evans says:

    Neylan, do you remember Sumer and me from the 1st ward, ca. 1997-2006? We didn’t have kids then (neither did you, I don’t think!). But we remember you and your mom fondly.

  22. StillConfused says:

    I love being mistaken for Jewish. I consider it a great compliment.

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