Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned About Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jewsby Maria Poggi Johnson
The compelling, insightful, and challenging memoir of a Christian woman's exploration of her faith while living in community with strictly Orthodox Jews. As Maria Johnson explains: "I knew that Christianity is rooted deep in Judaism, but living in daily contact with a vital and vibrant Jewish life has been fascinating and transforming. I am and will remain a
The compelling, insightful, and challenging memoir of a Christian woman's exploration of her faith while living in community with strictly Orthodox Jews. As Maria Johnson explains: "I knew that Christianity is rooted deep in Judaism, but living in daily contact with a vital and vibrant Jewish life has been fascinating and transforming. I am and will remain a Christian, but I am a rather different Christian than I was before."
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Strangers and NeighborsWhat I Have Learned About Christianity from Living Among Orthodox Jews
By Maria Poggi Johnson
W Publishing GroupCopyright © 2007 Maria Poggi Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnd Was Jerusalem Builded Here?
One evening at sundown, several years ago now, I stood transfixed and watched as the Sabbath came and was greeted by her own as a queen.
I was on a study tour with a group of colleagues: professors from the theology department of the Jesuit university where I teach. Our wonderfully well-funded Judaic Studies program had offered to send us to Israel for ten days, and my husband, blessed be he, had more or less pushed me onto the plane, insisting that, of course, he could manage the baby (our first, weaned just in time) perfectly well by himself and that I couldn't miss this chance and that he'd get to go some other time, not to worry, and would you just leave, already? So there I was. We had spent the previous five days in the north, looking out from Mount Carmel where Elijah faced down the prophets of Baal, visiting Jesus's synagogue at Capernaeum, hearing Mass on the beach where he fed five thousand hungry souls with a few loaves and fishes-and it had all been thrilling.
That day-Friday-we got up before the sun to leave Galilee and head south. We had to be on the road indecently early to be sure we would make it to Jerusalem by sundown; my colleague Marc is an observant Orthodox Jew and can't be in a car after sundown on Friday, when the Sabbath begins. So we yawned our way through a bleary pre-dawn breakfast and hit the road. We drove through the lovely and intimidating Judaean desert, where the rocks, uncomplicated by vegetation, are bleached and polished by the sun in a thousand delicate shades. We stopped for lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet overlooking the Mount of the Temptation (I promise, there really is one), trekked down a blazing gully to a fifteen-hundred-year-old monastery set into the side of a cliff, and arrived, dusty and tired, at a Sheraton in a Jerusalem suburb.
The more sensible ones among us showered, ate dinner, and went to their rooms to write in their journals and rest; but four of us, each drawn by the same impulse, threw our bags down and met back in the lobby five minutes later. We were in Jerusalem-Jerusalem!-and as tired as we were, the thought of hanging around in hotel rooms that might well have been in New Jersey was intolerable.
The sun was nearing the horizon. We jumped in a taxi, which took us to one of the gates of the ancient walled city. Marc couldn't touch money for the next twenty-four hours, so he hung back while we paid the driver, and then he led us to the Wall. The Wall is the western face of the Temple Mount. It is all that is left of the Temple and the only physical remainder of the days when Jews were safe in their own land, masters of the entire region. It is often called the Wailing Wall-faithful Jews, battered by the horrors of the past and the bitterness of the present, go there to mourn the destruction of the Temple and the passing of the days when the Ark of the Covenant was in the Holy of Holies and the name of the God of Israel was revered everywhere. The Wall is ancient; it has absorbed history, soaking it in through its pores, and it exudes the ancient, sacred, lost past into the air of the modern square with its metal detectors and lounging teenage soldiers.
I am usually one to be impressed by old things, but this evening the present was intensely more interesting than the past. The mood among the Jews who crowded the plaza to welcome the Sabbath was one not of lamentation, nostalgia, loss, or bitterness, but of joy: deep and serious and exultant joy. Mature men with full beards and long black coats, men exuding gravitas as the Wall exuded antiquity, were dancing and singing with abandon. It was alien and intense and thrilling.
And it was important.
I'm a scholar, trained to keep a rein on my personal responses and to regard everything from a safe, analytical distance, but there was no question of my coolly observing the scene as an interesting cultural-religious phenomenon. I found myself quite certain that something really was happening as the sun slipped behind the rooftops of Jerusalem; that the whirling, singing crowds were responding to a reality greater than any culture. It mattered, deeply, that they were there, spinning and rejoicing and praying and welcoming Shabbos Malka, the Queen of Sabbath.
From that moment, although we saw all kinds of things-the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher-that put flesh and rock and color on the stories of the Bible, I was more interested in the present. I kept coming back to the Wall. Whenever we had a minute free, I'd go there and watch the people who came to pray: not the hordes of tourists who would shuffle to the front for a minute and turn back again, but the strange people in strange clothes who stood for hours in the sun rocking back and forth over open books. (I was particularly intrigued by the Satmar, a Hasidic group who wear black satin dressing gowns with huge cylindrical fur hats.) I pored over the religious posters and polemical flyers that were all across Jerusalem, and I interrogated Marc relentlessly about the varieties of Orthodoxy. My colleagues, knowing my story-my thoroughly secular childhood, my adolescent conversion, my wanderings through various corners of Christianity, my recent coming to rest in the Roman Catholic Church-pretended to worry that I might convert yet again. Once, we came out of a café and ran into a bizarre group of Americans, who had taken over the square and were dancing, waving flags, handing out leaflets, whooping, "Yeshua is Lord! Alleluia!" and talking with near-hysterical enthusiasm to anyone would listen. As far as I could make out, I think they were Judaizers: twentieth-century descendants of the people whom Paul scolded the Galatians for following. (They were Gentile Christians who considered themselves to have converted to Judaism while remaining Christian, or some such.) But I never did quite figure out exactly what their thing was, because the others hauled me off: "Get Maria out of here, and quick! What are we going to tell Glen if she runs off with them?" I wasn't, of course, about to run off and start handing out pamphlets about Yeshua haMoshiach. And perhaps I should say right now that the thought of converting to Judaism has never crossed my mind for a second, ever. In fact, one of the things that fascinated me about the Orthodox was that, while they were passionately, even outlandishly, religious, they had no desire to convince me to be like them. I'd spent plenty of time around people whose Christianity, as far as I could tell, consisted almost exclusively of trying to persuade (and sometimes manipulate or bully) other people to be Christians. In fact, I'd been one of them myself, and my motives had been complex and mixed and had made me very uncomfortable. The Orthodox who prayed at the Wall were certain-so much so that their certainty infected me-that it was crucial, not just to them but to all of creation, that they be there. But it was their job, given to them by God, and they did not ask me to share it.
My fascination with the compelling strangeness of the Orthodox Judaism I saw at the Wall was all the greater because it was not entirely new to me. A year before the Israel trip, my husband and I had moved into a beautiful but dilapidated Victorian house five blocks from campus. Buying it had been a piece of romantic folly. It had gorgeous pocket doors, a lovely tiled fireplace, stained glass windows, and even a turret; but it also had a crumbling staircase, splintered siding, caved-in ceilings, and lethally archaic wiring, which was why we could afford it. The neighborhood was a bit iffy, but the house was two blocks from one Orthodox synagogue, four blocks from another, and three from the Hebrew Day School that served a healthy and growing Orthodox community. We told ourselves that it surely had to be a safe place to live, signed the contract, and got to work.
So when I came home to Glen and the baby, it was to a neighborhood with a very visible Jewish life. I wanted to walk up to people in the street and say, "Hello! I just got back from Jerusalem!" in the hope that they would talk to me about it and make me feel connected to a place I missed after being there only five days, but I was restrained by my reluctance to make a complete idiot of myself in front of strangers. My pregnancy had put me on nodding terms with many of the women on my route to work, and I had even ventured a tentative "Good Shabbos" on Saturdays, but I still regarded our Jewish neighbors with a combination of bewilderment, awe, and intense curiosity. If I was on my way home when the Day School was letting out or when the men were leaving the shul (synagogue) after prayers, I would walk slowly-it's embarrassing to admit it-in hopes of overhearing bits of their conversations. I assumed that such serious people would talk only about weighty matters: I thought I would hear sentences beginning, "When our forefather Abraham sat under the terebinth at Mamre ..." Of course, when I was successful in my eavesdropping, I invariably heard about the weather forecast or the rudeness of the pediatrician's receptionist or the clearance at Sears-precisely what Catholics and Baptists, and presumably everybody else talk about when they are hanging around the school doors waiting for their kids.
That was eight years ago, and the house is very different now. Glen has wired and plumbed and insulated and plastered, knocked down walls and put up walls, rebuilt the stairs, refinished floors, built bookcases, and painted. This is how it works for academic couples: unless one of you is such a star that you can write your own ticket and your spouse's to boot (we aren't), or unless you get outrageously lucky and get jobs in the same place (we didn't), or unless you are prepared to have a commuter marriage (we weren't), you go to wherever the first person gets a job and the other one picks up part-time teaching or translates ancient Greek treatises or changes diapers or restores Victorian houses or somehow manages to do them all at once.
The house is a good deal fuller too. We have had four children in six years, bringing the total of children on the block to about forty-most of them Orthodox Jews. We are on weather-forecast and pediatrician's-receptionist terms with all of the Orthodox families on our block, and two of them have become our good friends. The women and I lend each other maternity clothes and go to the gym together; our husbands borrow each other's snow shovels and power tools and grumble about local politics; our children are in and out of each other's houses most days. Ours have picked up a smattering of Hebrew: "You have to share, it's a mitzvah," my little Catholic daughters tell each other. And they occasionally make vain attempts to reject undesirable foodstuffs on the grounds, "I don't think celery is kosher." Our initiation into home ownership and neighborhood life has been rather odd but could not have been better.
Now, of course, one doesn't have to be an Orthodox Jew to be a good neighbor or desirable playmate. Most likely we just happened to land among particularly nice, friendly people who would have been every bit as nice and friendly had they been Episcopalians or Hindus or Elvis-worshipers or atheists. But living in daily contact with a vital and vibrant Jewish life has been fascinating and transforming for my family as Christians.
Before we came here, we knew, as all Christians know, that Christianity is rooted deeply in Judaism. And as my husband and I are trained theologians, we probably had a rather clearer sense than most Christians of exactly what that involves. But while we were able to chart the web of typological connections between the Testaments or explain the relevance of the Jewish sacrificial system to an understanding of the Crucifixion, we had no real sense of Judaism as a living reality.
It has been six years since I watched in puzzled awe as the Sabbath Queen was welcomed into the plaza by the Western Wall, and since then I have stood with a baby on my hip while she was welcomed into the living room of our neighbors four doors down. I have been to a bris, to a bar mitzvah, and to parties for Hanukkah and Sukkot. Of course, I'm well over my initial silly awe and shyness, but the sense of mystery and significance that held me spellbound at the Wall has not been eroded by ease and familiarity. When I watch the Shabbos candles being lit or stand on the women's side of the shul while men in striped prayer shawls cluster around a wailing infant, I feel sure that what is going on is of profound importance-and not just subjectively, to the people around me, but objectively, to me and to the world.
I am, and will remain, a Christian; but I am a rather different Christian now than I was before.
Excerpted from Strangers and Neighbors by Maria Poggi Johnson Copyright © 2007 by Maria Poggi Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Maria Poggi Johnson grew up in Scotland and has studied at Oxford University and the University of Virginia. She currently lives with her husband and four children in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and teaches theology at the University of Scranton.
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