What is the significance of bar and bat mitzvahs? Is Hanukkah really the "Jewish Christmas"? What can you expect if you are invited to a Passover seder? Is a rabbi simply a Jewish priest? Author Robert Schoen addresses these questions and many more in this inviting introduction to Judaism and Jewish life. This concise and entertaining overview explains the differences and highlights the similarities between Judaism and Christianity. What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew about Judaism covers everything from Jewish ceremonies, holidays, and festivals to religious texts, symbols, and kosher food. It is perfect for the millions of Christians who are curious about the faith of their friends, coworkers, and family members, or for those Jews who want a better understanding of their heritage.
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About the Author
Dr. Robert Schoen is a writer and composer with degrees from Boston University, the University of California, Berkeley and California State University Hayward. Semi-retired from the practice of optometry, he is active in efforts to promote Jewish-Christian understanding. He lives with his wife, Sharon Chabon, in Northern California. Learn more about his work at www.RobertSchoen.com.
Read an Excerpt
Kermit the Frog has said that it’s not easy being green. Well,
it’s not easy being anything. Being Jewish presents its own
problems, and through the years I have often wished I could
explain to my non-Jewish friends, in a simple, nonthreatening
manner, what my religion is all about.
From the Sabbath to circumcision, from Hanukkah to the
Holocaust, from bar mitzvah to bagel, how do Jewish religion,
history, holidays, lifestyles, and culture make Jews different, and why is that difference so distinctive that we carry it from birth to the grave?
So, I present here a compendium of facts, lore, and opinion.
I’ve checked the facts and the lore in a number of sources. The opinions (and humor) are mine. If you disagree with anything written on these pages, it’s OK. As a matter of fact, it’s part of the Jewish tradition to disagree.
As a father has compassion for his children,
So the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him.
For He knows how we were made;
He remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
They flourish like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children,
To those who keep His covenant and remember to do His commandments.
The Lord has established His throne in the heavens,
And His kingdom rules over all.
From Psalm 103
A Psalm of David
The Purpose of This Book
I have never met a Christian who was not in some way curious about Judaism, the Jewish people, or some aspect of the Jewish way of life. Even though Christianity evolved from Judaism and Jesus himself was a Jew, during their religious education and upbringing most Christians learn little about Judaism and the Jews. Often what they do learn is based on myth or hearsay and serves only to increase their curiosity (or multiply their misconceptions) about why Jews do what they do and believe what they believe.
I have also discovered that the more a Christian knows about
his or her religion, the more curious that person tends to be
Christians have good reason to be curious. After all, Judaism
and Christianity come from the same roots. Our religions share many of the same biblical stories, taken from the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly referred to as the Old Testament). Thus, both Christians and Jews feel comfortable telling the age-old stories of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Sodom and Gomorrah, Daniel, Noah, Moses, and Joseph. Both Christians and Jews are steeped in this shared heritage. We can rejoice together in the marvelous stories, lessons to be learned, and wit and wisdom. We also can learn important lessons from those early accounts of tragedies, wars, and other situations that revealed the ultimate power of God.
Many Christians wonder why Jews do not believe in Jesus,
and why Jewish children and adults do not study the teachings and stories of the New Testament. When a person is growing up Jewish in America, these questions can be very puzzling and difficult to answer.
Through the years, I have wondered about how best to answer questions that my Christian friends asked. Sometimes, I have given simple explanations about how Christian teachings are not part of the Jewish belief system. I’ve said that Jews have nothing against Jesus, the New Testament, Catholics, Protestants, or any other Christian denomination or sect—or any non-Jewish religion, for that matter. Questions beget more questions, though, and answers are rarely simple.
Many Christians don’t realize that Jews, as a group, are unfamiliar with the New Testament and the teachings of Christianity. Why is this? The New Testament is not part of our heritage, not included in our worship services, and not included in our many religious books. Certainly there are Jewish scholars who study Christian texts and writings. In addition, rabbis and Jewish educators learn about Christianity and other religions as part of their formal training.
However, the average Jewish person has not read the New
Testament. I am pleased to say that I have. Not long ago, as
part of a university course called “The Bible for Students of Literature,” I read the New Testament for the first time. How surprised and pleased I was to find the source of so many common sayings, words of wisdom, and stories. I had no idea! Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament surely provide the “greatest stories ever told.”
Being one of the only Jews taking that course, however, also
invited a new series of questions from my classmates. These
were questions I had heard through the years about why Jewish people believe certain things, why they perform the rituals they do, what is the significance of the Jewish calendar, and what are the origins of many customs and practices.
I can say this: I believe that in the heart of the Jewish people
there exists a deep-seated desire to be permitted to pray in our own way, to observe God the way we wish, and to live a life of peace. I would guess that this desire is similar to that of non-Jews as well. You could call this a basic desire for religious tolerance, and Christians certainly understand this, since virtually every religious group in history has sought religious tolerance and the freedom to worship in its own way. In its time, each group has experienced terrible ordeals, but I am most familiar with the history of the Jewish people, a nation that has been enslaved, expelled from numerous countries, and suffered at the hands of those who wished to exterminate it completely, and a nation that continues to endure persecution in its many subtle and overt forms. The story of Judaism and the Jewish way of life is a complicated one.
Besides normal curiosity, many Christians and other non-
Jews desire a basic understanding about the Jewish people and their holidays, customs, and history. This desire often arises as a result of marriage and family relationships, friendships at work, social situations, or church activities.
For example, Christians who have married members of my
family have questions about the holidays that they now help celebrate even while maintaining their own religious beliefs. To cite another example, my wife and I have participated in interfaith meetings in an attempt to coordinate efforts and rally political support to help improve social and educational services in our city. In addition, while it is common to have Christmas parties in the workplace or in schools, often Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Hanukkah are also celebrated, raising the curiosity of non-Jews present at the occasions.
I am a layman, and I write from the perspective of someone
who considers himself an “average Jewish American.” Whether you have a Jewish friend, spouse, employer, employee, or coworker, I hope that as a result of reading this book you become more knowledgeable about the issues of what it means to be a Jew, what the basic tenets and philosophy of Judaism are, and what problems contemporary American Jews face in today’s society.
So, I have written this book to satisfy curiosity, answer questions, and offer a resource for inquisitive people.
A Range of Jewish Lifestyles, Beliefs, and Behaviors
Even if I have never been a “practicing” or observant Jew,
I’m still Jewish.
Whether I attend religious services or speak or read Hebrew,
I’m still Jewish. Regardless of whether I have become a bar mitzvah or been married in a Jewish ceremony (or, for that matter, married another Jewish person), I am still considered Jewish. Even if I’ve never stepped into a synagogue in my life, if I was born a Jew, I’m still a Jew. And if I’ve converted to Judaism, then I am considered as much a Jew as someone who is born a Jew.
I can renounce my Jewish heritage and religion and convert to another faith, in which case I might consider myself something else. I may even seek my own form of observance, define and embrace a personal concept of God, or combine tenets of several different religions. However, according to traditional Jewish law, I am still considered Jewish.
And when my time is up, even if I don’t know the first thing
about the history of Judaism, the literature of the Old Testament, or the difference between Hanukkah and harmonica, I can be buried as a Jew.
The problem with all this is that it causes a lot of confusion
to non-Jewish observers. For example, if I have a Jewish
friend who is very observant, attends synagogue services every day, always covers his or her head with some kind of hat, recites prayers periodically throughout the day for myriad activities, keeps a strictly kosher home, and never works on the Sabbath, my friend will be considered a more observant Jew than I am. However, I am just as much a Jew as my friend is.
Many of the customs, procedures, beliefs, and behavioral aspects of the Jewish religion date back hundreds and even thousands of years. Most Jews throughout history lived in small, closed communities or ghettos and did not mix with general society, except perhaps for work or mercantile purposes. Today, of course, this is not true, especially in the United States (although there are always exceptions).
Thus, describing what it is like to be Jewish is like describing
snow. While you can describe snow in terms of intensity, duration, wetness or dryness, inches of snowfall, historical perspectives, granularity, color, effect on visibility, and even the possibilities of school closings and ski conditions, you can also just say, “It’s snowing.”
It is really the range or spectrum of Jewishness that makes
it difficult to describe or explain. An Israeli friend of mine describes it as a continuum. You can go from the ultra-Orthodox Jew all the way to the most liberal Reform Jew, from the extremist to the virtually nonobservant Jew, and still find some similarities of belief. Even though there are more differences than commonalities, all of these people are Jews. While there may be very little that ties them together (even tradition is not a leveling factor), what they do have is a common lineage and a common ancestry—a common history.
When describing things Jewish, I often find myself saying things like, “Some Jews believe . . . ” or “Reform Jews do not believe . . .” or “It is not uncommon for some Jews to . . .” The reason for all this hedging is that Jews typically do not agree on many aspects of what is means to be Jewish or of Judaism itself. That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t give you an overview, a snapshot, or perhaps a sketch of the Jewish way of life—the customs and beliefs, the holidays and festivals, the history and people.
In many instances throughout the book, I introduce a term in
one section and more fully explain it in a later chapter. Hebrew and Yiddish words are defined in the glossary along with their correct pronunciations.
Table of ContentsPreface
The Purpose of This Book
A Range of Jewish Lifestyles, Beliefs, and Behavior
Christians and Jews
Going to Church: The Jewish Roots of Christian Worship
Jews, Jesus, and Christianity
The Jewish Religion
From Orthodox . . .
To Reform . . .
To Conservative . . .
Contemporary Synagogues and Congregations
A Personal Observation
Inside the Synagogue
The Torah and the Law
Prayers and Blessings
SymbolsóThe Mezuzah and the Star of David
The Role of the Rabbi
The Role of the Cantor
Congregation Membership and Paying the Bills
Time for Confession
Whoís in Charge?
Holidays and Festivals
Holidays and the Jewish Calendar
The High HolidaysóRosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
HanukkahóIs It Really the ìJewish Christmasî?
ShavuotóThe Harvest Festival
Other Religious Events
Jewish Life Cycle Events
A Jewish Wedding
Letís Go to a Circumcision!
Baby Namings and Rituals for Daughters
An Invitation to a Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
A Jewish FuneralóSaying Good-bye to Uncle Harry
You Can Only Get a Divorce If Youíre Married
Home Life, Jewish Beliefs, and Other Interesting Matters
Is a Kosher Hot Dog Really Kosher?
Degrees of Orthodoxy
Conversion to Judaism
Religious Apparel and Dress
Hasidim and Hasidism
Creation, Heaven, Hell, and Life after Death
Where, When, and How Many
Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews
Women and Judaism
Judaism in the World
Jewish Art and Music
Mysticism and the Repair of the World
MoneyóStereotypes, Charity, and the Scriptures
Perform a Mitzvah
Controversial Social Issues
Old Wars and New Wars
The Chosen People
A Call for Understanding and Community
Glossary and Pronunciation Guide
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am Jewish and the majority of my friends (well, all of them) are either Catholic or Christian. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it incredibly helpful and informative. I, in fact, learned things about my religion that I didn't know! This book is great because it well written and speaks simply about the Jewish practices and the reasons behind them. I have already passed it onto my mother, my friends and her friends!
Those not familiar with Judaism will find the book very helpful in understanding Jewish holidays and other aspects of Jewish life. In fact, many Jews may also find this book a good reference tool. The book answered all the questions I have always had in an easy-to-read style. Since the chapters are short and cover separate subjects, you can read portions of the book and put it down for a day or so. The glossary is also handy for quick look-ups of those Yiddish or Hebrew expressions you hear which may seem familiar but whose meaning might escape you at the moment. I plan to get some copies to use as Christmas stocking stuffers for Christian friends.