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When a Jewish Author Reaches Out to the Christians

When I was finishing my book What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse and beginning to consider market segments that would be interested in the story I’ve told of race, class and family, I was excited in a "eureka!" moment to believe that the progressive Christian sanctity communities I’d been coming across of would be a perfect audience for my book, and for me for their work. I figured that our story- a White couple with two White sons in New York City meeting five disadvantaged Black and Latino teenage boys on a blacktop baseball field, welcoming the boys into our home and also becoming our sons, then the story of navigating the whole ship of boys to safe harbor – would naturally to be of interest to religion-based groups dedicated to the Biblical call to social justice. I hoped for a dialogue on repairing the world-what to me was tikkun olam. Jesus had dedicated his life to the sanctity of love and compassion. Caring for others unable to care for themselves was paramount. He’d become, therefore, one of my heroes: the G-d I most listened to spoke through Matthew 25, and thus spoke to and through our odd, extended family-Jews, Catholics and one Protestant; Dominican, Puerto Rican, African-American and White; English and Spanish speaking; born poor and born rich; adopted and not. Matthew 25 reads:


35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ 37 "Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’


I’m not naturally inclined to prayers printed in books. I sit in the back of my synagogue most Shabbats an Orthodox shul on New York’s Lower East Side. I wrap myself in my tallit and read Thich Nhat Han and Jeanette Winterson. I stand when others stand, I sit when they sit. I listen when the rabbi gives his sermon. I’m built for praying with my hands and feet. Which is why, already in affection for his poetry and compassion, I fell in love with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for his practice. Asked why he marched from Selma to Montgomery arm in arm with Reverend Martin Luther King and others, Rabbi Heschel answered, "When I march in Selma, my feet are praying." Rabbi Heschel also said. "We are commanded to love our neighbor: this must mean that we can." That was a lesson I learned accidentally when our older son Ripton invited a baseball field of new teammates back to our home.


I began following some Christian writers and websites speaking of social justice. I wanted to walk across that narrow bridge with them. I bought a subscription to the Sojourners magazine (the paper one, hopelessly old school of me) and to their daily email blasts. I applied to the Sojourners conference on "Ending Poverty" for a place to participate. I thought I could contribute. Our five bigger boys were born into impoverished, disadvantaged homes. All eventually became single mother families. They were from public or other subsidized housing. Two of their dads had been murdered; one mom had died of drugs and AIDS; another dad had died of drugs and jail; a number of their brothers were drug dealers because that was the way they knew to put food on the table, buy clothes and pay the utility bills; some my son’s brothers had spent years in jail; before we met, some of my sons went hungry at the end of each month when their mother’s assistance checks had been spent; the family of one of my sons had plummeted into the homeless shelter system; on and more. But with the support, rigor and expectations of our home, each of the five boys we’d brought in had gone on to college, unheard of in their own families.


Sojourners had no room for me. I had applied late. I’m not a celebrity. Restaurants and hotels seem to keep space for the famous; I do understand that every seat might have been full.

I am one of those Bop Bags, a plastic blow up you punch over easily but it springs back, sand in its round bottom. The Sojourners‘ mission is to be "a progressive Christian commentary on faith, politics and culture. It seeks to build a movement of spirituality and social change." I fit. I am aware that I’m not Christian, but love (certainly, I was determined) means recognizing the inner sanctity in us all. What we were doing with the bigger boys in our family seemed a natural part of the discourse in the biblical call to social justice. Abraham, our common ancestor, rushed from beneath the shade of his tent at the oaks of Mamre to welcome three strangers into his home. I asked to meet with the head of Sojourners when I was to be in D.C. for a reading at Politics & Prose, a jewel of a bookstore. Sojourners‘ head was scheduled to be out of town. No one else there would meet with me. They were busy. I do know they have busy jobs. I reached out to a Christian speakers’ bureau in Nashville, Tennessee. I’d been following their premier writer, and the place seemed appropriate to the story I was telling. Their online "About Us" description reads: "[Agency] is a speaker’s bureau representing honest and relevant communicators from today’s culture. Among our presenters are men and women of today. Communicators dedicated to connecting message with the masses."


I intended honesty. I had fine ratings from my teaching days, good enough to think I’m a relevant communicator. I’m not yet too old (in my objective judgment) not to be from today’s culture. I am dedicated to connecting message with the masses, though "masses" seems a bit harsh. Their "About Us" doesn’t specifically say "Christian." I phoned the bureau’s president, he answered and I introduced myself. I told him the story of our extended family story, including the New York Jewish bits, and explained why I thought I fit his speakers’ bureau. He asked me to send him a copy of What Else But Home and to call back in two weeks if I hadn’t heard from him sooner. He didn’t call, so I did in two weeks. I couldn’t get him, so left a voice mail. He didn’t call my back. I waited a week and called again, left another voice mail and he didn’t call back. I waited another week and called, left another voice mail and he didn’t call back.


I received an email, unsolicited, from a woman coordinating "Jewish Week ‘Literary Summer’ events," in Manhattan. She and her coworkers set up a reading at Rodeph Sholom, a synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, pairing me with Matthew Aaron Goodman, author of Hold Love Strong, for me a stirring novel. More than two hundred people came to our reading. Soon after, The Jewish Week ran an article about my book and our family. A while later, I had a phone conversation with a radio show producer, responding to outreach from one of the publicity people I’m working with. That show, hosted by a Catholic nun, addresses issues across faiths. The producer and I spoke for fifteen minutes. She told me, near the end, that the story of our family didn’t have enough of a "religious angle" for show’s listeners. I repeated my Matthew 25 Gospel. I spoke about repairing broken vessels of sacred light, though not quite in those words-tikkun olam. I spoke about Rabbi Heschel praying with his feet. She wished me luck. Soon after, Tablet Magazine wrote an article about my book and our family. A famous Christian writer, whom I deeply respect, said he’d interview me for his blog. His books are inspirational. He’s dedicated to mentoring. Our interview hasn’t happened. I understand he’s very busy. (this very website) reached out and asked me to contribute a week of entries on social justice. This is my last of five pieces.


A well known Christian blogger said he’d do a Q&A with me. Then he said he was too busy. The Jewish Channel, a New York cable TV station, called my publisher. We’ve set a date for a taping later this week. The Jewish Book Council has supported What Else But Home, helping book me in JCCs and across the country. A Sojourners blogger has said she’ll do a Q&A with me. I hope this will happen.


In trying to make sense of the media and conference acceptances and rejections, the anthropologist in me sees a chasm between Jewish and Christian communities-one welcoming of, the other so far largely uninterested in my message. My inner-anthropologist also sees no right and wrong in either community’s acceptance or rejection. But since my writer-self wants to be wrapped with Christian communities in rapt dialogue about social-change-as-sacred, I do search for the schism. Part of the Christian-Jewish / rejection-acceptance experience I am trying to make sense of is certainly no more complex than understanding I "belong" to one group and not the other, to one culture and not the other.


The best answer I’ve found lies in Karen Armstrong’s understanding of the place of belief and practice in the Christian and Jewish traditions. These two strains of Western monotheism, Jews sojourning in a dominant Christian midst for the past two millennia, give dramatic varying place to each. In large part, we share the same words-the same

Biblical /Old Testament books and prophets. Yet Micah’s admonition of the importance and sufficiency of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly will mean different things depending upon whether one sees the need to overlay that admonition with the acceptance of the divinity of Jesus. Or is unconcerned with such.


Armstrong explains the priority of belief in Christianity and practice is Judaism, and understanding the place of each in making sense of our history. Of her own theology, "I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s about what you do. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness." My theology is Armstrong’s. And I wonder, in my desire to embrace my Christian brothers and sisters in a dialogue of social justice inspired by our common religious background, what I can do to bridge a gap I sense and so much want not to exist?


In other words: I’m looking to embrace, and to be embraced. I’m open to the ways.

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