Paul Belz Writings
ESSAYS, NOVELS, AND COMPILATIONS
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The Polio Miracle
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Monster Lincoln Website
Many Happy Returns
Winans-B&O Railroad Feud
Baltimore's NBA Title
Gettysburg Tower Saga
The Cities Destroyed
The First Jew
An Essay on Organized Religion
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz
The Orthodox Jewish girl and the Roman Catholic boy grew up geographically separated by fewer than five miles. The buffer between their Baltimore worlds was their city’s urban park, the largest urban wilderness area in the nation aside from Central Park in New York City.
Their respective religions and the political realities of the 1950s in America made Leakin Park a symbol of a cultural barrier so impermeable and a spiritual nexus so unlikely that the local wilderness area might as well have been the Amazon Rainforest.
Each grew to adulthood experiencing only a vague, piecemeal, sporadic awareness of the other’s mysterious world through literature, journalism, and the folklore of their inbred environments. For an indeterminate but significant time, she thought the entire universe was Jewish and white; he that it was white, but Catholic.
A friendship linking any children of their disparate worlds was so unlikely, the possibility belonged in that genre of speculation people delight in such as the odds of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning twice.
Both grew up middle-class, healthy, happy, and without an inkling that the overseers of their respective worlds could be the purveyors of anything less wholesome than the “American Dream,” and, ultimately, salvation itself.
By the age when they realized there was extraordinary diversity beyond their insular societies, the twin agendas of institutional solidarity and preservation of community and religious values had made their indoctrination to a view of those outsiders in demonstrably negative terms a fait accompli.
Both belonged to the one religion that was deemed legitimate by their elders. Both had been skillfully crafted into believers by a process as relentless and precise as turning wood on a lathe, with no input from the object being milled. As the process advanced, what masqueraded as input during young adult years was in truth a collection of robotic, practiced bromides and rituals extracted by scalpels of fear and guilt. Fear that “blasphemous” protestations or symptoms of wavering faith would leave them shunned by the only families and social networks they had; guilt born of the certitude that they were already bad people because they perceived so many contradictions in the respective faiths they were expected to embrace.
Nature insidiously destroys animal species which are so physically isolated that inbreeding becomes rampant and that same destructive dynamic seems to impact groups that attempt to spiritually isolate themselves.
Assimilation is an inexorable process growing out of mankind’s insatiable curiosity and spirit of rebellion. Children are born with a sense of wonder about everything in the universe. That sense of wonder becomes volatile in combination with the rebelliousness which dominates the teenage psyche. The consequent struggle between “salvation” and rebellion is always a stressful one for all participants in a developing life, and the outcome is generally unpredictable.
But of the eight children his parents educated in Catholic schools for sixteen years each (128 tuition years), only two persevered as devoted church-goers (both nuns) and five stopped attending church at all. Her disillusionment with Judaism wasn’t as pronounced but her participation endured only because her deceased father was annually feted by their synagogue and she got fulfillment from the many mitzvahs she performed.
H. L. Mencken sagely posited: “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.” In their urge to “save” a child, parents and religions take that innate sense of wonder and begin to distort every object of its focus with judgments tailored to insure salvation, which, of course, is concomitant with loyalty to the family and the “one true” religion.
Those distortions engender emotions ranging from apathy to hatred of “different” people, but at some point in adulthood, the realization that many of those “pariahs” eclipse and dwarf our own contributions to humanity unleashes a backlash of resentment toward those who willfully scarred our character.
Jonathan Swift said: “We have just enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another.” As long as universal love remains an unfulfilled ideal, religion will never be extraneous. But any thriving business adds and retains customers by constantly differentiating and apotheosizing its product, while painting the competition in unflattering hues.
That necessity, unfortunately, causes religions to leave their followers mired in a catch-22 from which the bishops, rabbis, and imams have no prescription for escape.
Universal love is infeasible while nation-states and organized religions persist in differentiating themselves, building walls compartmentalizing humanity. They cannot desist because parsing the human race is essential to their existence, with love merely a means to an end. Love is the product while semantics obfuscate that organizational sustenance is the goal. In adulthood many people come to understand that religions are first and foremost businesses. The genius is that they avoid the expense of growing a crop or creating a product; they peddle spirituality, which requires no investment capital to produce.
Albert Einstein said: “the nation-state is an infantile disease; the measles of mankind.” He should have included organized religion in his observation. The nation-state and organized religion are imperfect models for achieving nirvana on earth, but they will endure barring cataclysm because they’re the best of a woefully inadequate menu of paradigms.
At the twentieth century’s close, evidence abounds that despite vast technological progress, its flood tide of violence may have eroded the spiritual and social sands of civilization.
The bloodiest century in human history ended with American-led NATO forces “smart bombing” Serbians (Christians) to deter the alleged genocide (U.S. President Bill Clinton’s word) of hundreds of thousands of Albanians (Muslims) in Kosova.
Victim and aggressor excoriated each other, and, in concert, vilified their self-appointed savior. In mankind’s Biblical infancy, Cain and Abel didn’t have an arsenal of “smart bombs” but aside from the accouterments, not much has changed since then. Just enough religion to hate, not enough to love.
Simply by walking together and chatting several days a week in a suburban American mall, the Jewish girl and the Catholic boy, now adults, put lifetimes of intolerance-programming on pause, and slowly built a relationship devoid of religious and political chauvinism.
The architects of the insular worlds and religions of these two baby-boomers had conspired across the centuries to suppress those human common denominators which transcend and tend—in the absence of coercion and force—to erode cultural and religious shackles.
True goodness and humanism, with the help of free will and courage, will transcend the strictures of any one family or religion as assuredly as water will permeate a building’s unsound foundation.
Like the cells in a body, society’s political and religious cells have tiny interstices between them. Radical things can happen in those interstitial areas which can make a healthy body sick, or, conversely, make an ailing spirit or society healthy. For one Jewish woman and one Catholic man, the suburban mall became such an interstice.
I first noticed Emily in the fall of 1996. Her red hair, radiant smile and exuberance made her as distinguishable in a crowd as a beacon on a dark night. For me, exuberance is beauty.
She began appearing with that motley group of walkers I call the posse. The posse usually assembles on the third floor of the four-level mall, and only the fast-paced need apply.
In the mallwalking culture, similarly-paced walkers gravitate toward one another—even at the price of personality compatibility—and, for me, the fastest group is evocative of a posse racing across the landscape in an old “B” movie of the American West, adding deputies as they gallop through town while losing others when they split up at crossroads. This mall posse doesn’t have a destination however; it just keeps riding around the corral in an endless circle.
The catalyst for our initial walk together, six months after I first saw her, remains a mystery, but there was no third-party introduction. We had each observed the other in jolly consort with a myriad of walking partners and apprized each other to be congenial company. Since we’re both near-sighted, it’s uncertain if successful long-range eye contact, signaling interest, ever stowed away on casual glances. One April morning in 1997, we just materialized side by side on the fourth floor and have entertained each other several times a week ever since.
Emily’s never-repeated mall attire includes sneakers, snug-fitting slacks and a dazzling array of jewelry, shirts and sweaters. I’ve imagined a walk-in closet plunging five stories underground embracing a circular staircase, with the convenient option of delivering the huge inventory via an automated clothes carousel like the ones utilized by professional dry cleaners in the 1990s. In deference to her childhood of Orthodox Jewry, her mall wardrobe has never included shorts.
Her apathy toward athletic participation was immediately apparent. Her walk—though brisk—is stiff-jointed. Athletes characteristically exhibit well-defined muscle tone with loose-jointed movements of the arms, neck and legs.
One athletic quality she does possess, however, is an unswerving dedication to her training regimen. Since most malls close on Christmas day, the regional airport becomes her surrogate mall, an annual ritual requiring eighty minutes of round trip driving for a forty minute workout.
Like most speedwalkers, Emily believes that a cardio-vascular workout is nullified if one breaks stride, interrupting a sustained and ideal exercise pulse-rate. Consequently, if a companion pauses to re-lace an untied shoe, politeness defers to workout discipline and she presses on alone. By the time the laggard catches up, Emily is likely to be in the company of others, since her pulse-rate compulsion is only exceeded in reliability by her gregariousness.
The speedwalkers have developed their own “community” at the mall, dropping in and out of conversations until they have caught up on general news in ten or eleven lives, then gravitating to preferred partners whose interests or ages more closely mirror their own.
Very few mall-initiated relationships blossom vigorously enough to take root beyond the mall environs but often someone will make a concern-driven phone call if a “regular” disappears for a time without warning.
It’s a congenial, interesting “community” with one unfeeling quirk. If a long-time speed-walker undergoes heart surgery, for example, and must necessarily adopt a slower pace, friendships of many years are discarded without fanfare or sentimentality. Husbands and wives separate at the mall if their walking paces vary. Pace rules.
Emily’s walking trademark is her borderline-rude departure at the expiration of a forty-minute workout. People have turned to her to ask a question, only to find themselves staring at a blank wall with Emily twenty yards to the rear in a dead walk.
Reed-thin at 5'4" and 105 pounds, she does not wish to lose weight and toward that end has ascertained that forty minutes must be the outer limit of her daily workout. The weightiness of a discussion’s topic is irrelevant.
I can visualize this schedule-driven special-needs teacher-trainer in a prior life, leaving the table during the “Last Supper,” or stranding God on Mount Sinai in mid-tablet delivery with a matter-of-fact: “Gotta go Lord, I’m meeting Teresa at the temple at ten.”
Consistent with one raised and married in a patriarchal environment, she’s self-effacing when walking with men, but not uncomfortably so, and she’s assertive when walking with women, but not abrasively so.
Unfailingly congenial, talkative and gregarious, pregnant pauses are an endangered species in any conversation she joins. The doctorate-holding, well read, middle-aged mother of two college girls has opinions on most issues, but I have yet to find one she is close-minded or zealous enough about to trigger combativeness. She can pleasantly disagree on subjects such as abortion and Israel, flash her huge, brown eyes at you reassuringly and change the subject.
No religious questions are verboten between us. I have inquired how she, as a board member of a Jewish group in the forefront of the women’s rights movement, tolerates being segregated in the synagogue by a practice begun to keep women from distracting men at prayer.
I asked about low attendance at synagogues in general, the role Israel plays in her choice of political candidates, and the origin of various Jewish holidays.
She in turn has inquired about the high incidence of priests molesting altar boys and students, the insistence on celibacy for priests, the seeming worship of saints, and the vacillating policy of abstaining from meat on Friday.
Particularly bemusing were: “What do Catholics think happens when candles are placed on the throat during the ritual marking the feast of St. Blaze?” and “Why do Catholics walk around with dirty foreheads on Ash Wednesday?” Trivial questions are our gateway into deeper discussions.
In a “flight-of-fancy” I once pondered what a delicious irony it would be if sixteen years of Catholic schooling, thirty college credits in theology and philosophy, ten years teaching at a Catholic high school, three siblings becoming nuns, and a lifetime of exposure to the Catholic Review conspired to lead a Jew through the front door of Catholicism while I the proselytizer slipped out the back with all those credentials. Unbeknownst to her family, she secretly listens to Christian radio.
Emily may have entertained the inverse whimsy as I began reading books on Judaism.
During my time with Emily, one stereotype after another tumbled like lines of falling dominoes. Once we became comfortable with each other’s empathetic natures, facile exchange of self-deprecating stories, and respectful irreverence toward all religions, occasional teasing became de rigueur.
When she unexpectedly solicited advice about her pension fund, I feigned shock declaring that, as a Catholic, I believed the Jews had absconded with Midas’ touch, kept it at “Kosher Central” in a bunker deep below the Tennessee mountains, and infused it into children at Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, while denying it to First Communicants like myself.
Emily once told me that during social gatherings, Jews sometimes share their unique, humorous “First Jew” stories—usually consisting of bizarre conversations associated with their first experience in a predominately Christian work force.
The tales typically feature recitals of innocent but outrageously rude or naive questions stemming from the reality that most of us are totally insulated from knowledge of rival religions by our birth religions, and guilt combined with implications of weak faith are effective deterrents against individual initiative to gain such knowledge. One Catholic mallwalker asked Emily if Hadassah was a support group for lesbians.
When Catholics and Jews are finally thrown together as adults in the work force, nothing exists save stereotypes for new acquaintances to build conversation on, and that undertaking invariably enriches families with legends that are riotously funny or searingly annoying.
Jews choose, to a unique degree, to cluster in segregated neighborhoods, making interaction with Christians unlikely until adulthood. There are five reasons I perceive for this isolation, and snobbery and contempt for other religions are not among them.
First; unlike the more theologically based religions, Judaism focuses on social and community interactions, requiring followers to live in close proximity to one another to facilitate that philosophy, and additionally, in the case of Orthodox Jews, to facilitate the requirement that they walk to their synagogues.
The other Jewish focuses of prayer, study of the Torah, and synagogue services (only 20% attend regularly according to Jewish author Harold Kushner) are secondary to performing mitzvahs (good deeds) and living righteously. Life on earth receives more focus than the concept of an afterlife.
Second; rampant discrimination throughout the 1950s (when America’s suburbs were born) made it impossible for Jews to buy houses in areas of their choosing. In our city, as in most urban areas, the Jews gravitated to one section of town, with well-known boundary roads marking north, south, east, and west.
Third; with diminished numbers worldwide after the Holocaust, solidarity was important to avoid total assimilation into other cultures, which would have given a partial victory to Hitler. Judaism would have disappeared but Hitler wanted the race annihilated and would have still railed against the dilution of his pure, Aryan, blue-eyed, blond ideal.
Fourth; Jews do no organized missionary work to gain converts, which minimizes the dispersal of core populations. The poor in the Bolivian Andes will never suffer a group of Jewish intruders building a house of worship in their midst and attempting mass conversions. Jews depend on marriage within their religion and procreation to sustain their numbers and look askance at anyone remaining unmarried and childless—hence the importance of the stereotypical Jewish matchmaker.
Fifth; Jews place more emphasis in their lives on educational excellence than any other culture on earth. There isn’t a close second.
Most cultures, of course, will dispute such a claim vociferously and eloquently while never transforming their oratory into action.
Jews ensure themselves control over local schools by clustering their populations. Such clustering gives them the critical population masses to wield effective control over teacher quality, curriculum development, and school cultures.
Public schools in Jewish communities repress the pandemic sports culture pervading America’s schools and replace it with an environment where the role models are high academic achievers. Eschewing the sports-driven wider culture tends to isolate Jews.
In every non-Jewish dominated American public secondary school in the 1990s, outstanding students would be commonly derided as “nerds.” In black teen culture, scholars are derided by many peers as “Uncle Toms” and learning dismissed as “a white thing.” In Jewish schools scholars are the heroes.
Given these five isolating factors in combination with the numbers—265 million people in the United States, only slightly more than five million of whom are Jews—it’s not unexpected that “First Jew” experiences are fairly commonplace among young adults.
For a woman from such an insulated community, whose childhood and marriage environments were strongly paternalistic, it took a little intrepidness for Emily to venture alone into the ninety-five percent Christian neighborhood of our mall and interact gregariously with strangers on a daily basis. One Presbyterian woman once asked her, “Why are you walking at this mall?”
She and her family are respected members of a prominent synagogue, one daughter having attained the presidency of a national Jewish youth organization. Emily’s community service springs from her active role in Hadassah and her board membership for the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.
This was not the most proximate mall to her home. It was a mall where she initially knew no one. Her motivation, therefore, went beyond mere time-efficient exercise.
Perhaps the stimulation of a change of scenery. Perhaps the stimulation of strangers harboring no judgments or expectations of her. Perhaps the stimulation of belatedly experiencing a culture from which she was quarantined as a girl and a mother. Or perhaps something deeper.
As a snake matures it must frequently shed its old skin, typically, in one piece. Sometimes, however, the dried epidermis tears during the delicate procedure, and the snake subsequently struggles to rub off the residual tatters.
Neither Emily nor I shed the skin of religious indoctrination in one piece. The too-tight, spiritually constraining skins of our respective religions took half a century for Emily and me to fully slough off.
But ultimately, she became my “first Jew” experience and I her “first Christian” one. An improbable mall adventure removed the final vestiges of youthful “blind faith,” unleashing our spiritual universes to grow exponentially beyond the strictures of formal religion.
A snake’s new skin maintains much of the look of its former one, but the colors are more vibrant and it’s a bigger vessel. Our separate experiences ultimately transfigured our souls into infinitely larger spiritual vessels with a more vibrant approach to humanity, transcending the windowless compartments that were our childhood religions and which had been framed by the drywall of fear.
Our friendship didn’t cause that to happen, but more sharply focused the lens through which we were viewing our lives. It corrected our spiritual vision as dramatically as the Hubble telescope corrected mans’ view of the universe.
I grew up being taught explicitly by the Catholic nuns that it was a mortal sin to play with a Jew although that directive won’t be found in the old Baltimore Catechism. I was acutely aware that my Aunt Mary had become the family’s pariah for marrying one. Her ultimate divorce sent some family members into a feeding frenzy of self-righteous “I told you so’s,” and drove my aunt into a permanent social cocoon.
In fairness to Catholicism, anti-Semitism was never remotely part of an official position although it was a widespread one among followers. Nevertheless the church environment of arrogant superiority and exclusivity where possession of the truth was concerned led to the classroom placement of elderly nuns who did hold such beliefs and passed them on to students.
My Catholic community and my family were saturated with anti-Semitism. Paralleling the Vatican’s muted voice in the face of Nazi atrocities (rationalized by stating that a more vocal position would have exacerbated Hitler’s wrath upon the Jews), Church officialdom’s silence in the face of widespread bigotry within its communities during the 1950s was extraordinary. In sixteen years of Catholic education, not a minute was spent by my teachers proactively attempting to reverse the bigotry they surely knew was rampant.
Most of my teachers’ brainwashing efforts were expended toward shielding us from Protestants since they actually lived as a minority within our community and were therefore a tangible and propinquit threat to “corrupt” our faith.
Admonishments rained from the nuns in torrents. “Turn your heads away when passing the Protestant church next door.” “It is sinful to play with Protestants.” “No Protestants could go to heaven.” “You are not allowed to attend the wedding or funeral of a Protestant friend.” “Mixed marriages are sinful and we will not make our churches available should you marry one of these poor unenlightened Protestant souls.” My oldest brother was denied a service in his Catholic church when he married a Lutheran. It didn’t seem fair in my nine or ten-year-old mind that good Protestants should be condemned to the excruciating fires of hell (which we were taught existed in a very literal sense) simply because they were not born Catholic.
But the nuns taught us that there was some nebulous “other” place which accommodated Protestants who lived exemplary lives. It just wasn’t our heaven.
Throughout my youth, I expended a great deal of energy fending off guilt incurred from playing with a rare Protestant friend. I still wonder just where the hell our heaven is. Mark Twain said he wasn’t sure where he wanted to go but he preferred the “climate in heaven and the company in hell.”
Jews? They weren’t even on the nuns’ radar screen as threats to Catholic youth. My teachers didn’t discern a need to trifle with training us to avoid Jews. An occasional allusion to them as the murderers of Christ along with periodic reminders of the fires of hell sufficed.
Anti-Semitism didn’t require reinforcement from the nuns because secular society’s anti-Semitism was sufficiently pervasive to inoculate good Catholic children against that religious and cultural virus. Since Jews weren’t allowed by society to purchase a house within walking distance of our neighborhood, the nuns didn’t perceive them as real threats to their students’ faith. No formal institutional conspiracy is implied; bigotry is inherent in enforced separation.
When my Catholic aunt and her Jewish husband were refused a house they wanted to buy in our predominately Catholic neighborhood in the late 1950s, the rejection wasn’t euphemistically camouflaged. “Jews aren’t welcome!” said the home-builder and the real estate broker. Her church didn’t organize a protest or a march on Washington. No priest spoke out from a pulpit against anti-Semitism. No television news anchor carried the scandal to the world.
Eventually, the Church rode the coattails of the black civil rights movement into the politically correct era of equal rights during the 1960s and beyond. Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. made ecumenism palatable to the masses. He was the risk-bearing visionary riding into the wind of bigotry, while the mainstream churches rode comfortably in his slipstream. They reacted to good public ratings like television sitcom “knock-offs.”
Every relative and acquaintance during the 1950s seemed to have a story to recount of someone they knew being cheated by a Jew in business. I was frequently struck by the transparent disingenuousness of those individuals, who in the same conversation would boast of a legal triumph engineered by their very own Jewish lawyer.
If you needed an intermediary to take advantage of another on your behalf, find a Jew. When mired in business or legal trouble, all Christians wanted a Jewish litigator.
Ubiquitous, wherever Catholics gathered socially, were stereotype-reinforcing stories of acquaintances suffering an “in your face” Jewish boss (meaning totally unreasonable, loud, insulting, low-paying, and demanding of a slavish workload), or of being hoodwinked by a Jewish businessman.
The ultimate paranoia portrayed the sinister Zionist movement as conspiring to rule America by usurping control of all financial institutions and media outlets. That paranoia, sadly, is still widespread among Catholics (not officially) and other Americans in the 1990s.
Sociologists will forever compile statistics on ethnic and racial groups, which can either fuel stereotypes of hate or help identify the root causes of problems afflicting those groups. The process of sociologically-defining and statistically-delineating epidemics of alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, criminal behavior, chronic poverty, and joblessness should provide the tools to solve the problems of various population cohorts, not the fodder to condemn individuals to life sentences of bigotry.
Sadly, the latter use seems to predominate in American society. Few families of any race or religion, including my own, avoid the siren song of bigotry when searching for the cause of disappointments in life. Succumbing to that siren-song has precipitated my only true family-directed anger in life, particularly when I’ve been swept into the surge.
Overcoming family, religion and community-imposed roadblocks to a universal humanism is daunting. While Emily and I have both undergone our respective religions’ rites-of-passage to adulthood—her Bat Mitzvah and my Confirmation—our friendship signaled but wasn’t causal toward a more auspicious rite-of-passage into the community of all mankind.
Mallwalking in a group allows one to remain fairly anonymous since the conversation tends toward current events and cocktail party-type talk.
Walking in pairs endows conversations with a more personal dimension. As Emily and I gradually began walking several times a week as a pair for at least a portion of her forty-minute workout, our mutual trust grew and self-revelations followed.
Some of my lifelong stereotypes of Judaism were summarily debunked and I’m certain she was similarly enlightened about Catholicism. We both asked questions ad nauseam about the other’s religion; questions that had been bottled up for decades. Each of us could have researched those questions at any time, of course, but such things tend to lie dormant until a catalyst, such as our friendship, brings their relevance to the surface and makes the answers interesting. It’s analogous to a bomber pilot who occasionally wonders dispassionately about his civilian victims on the ground, until one day he meets a maimed survivor face-to-face. Emotions and empathy awaken quickly when a real face is attached to hatred, bigotry, and war.
Emily’s odyssey toward our friendship faced roadblocks as daunting as my own, traveling from the opposite direction. She grew up in a culture where it was unthinkable to even date a non-Jew, a goy, a gentile. The “proud flesh” of World War II’s scars still glowed bright red on the Jewish community and marrying gentiles would accelerate the assimilation of Judaism into oblivion, thereby giving Hitler a posthumous triumph.
The perpetrators of the Holocaust had been raised as Christians and the Vatican itself was considered complicit not only by its muted sense of outrage during the War but also by unwittingly (or worse) helping Nazi war criminals escape to safe havens afterward.
As a baby-boomer, Emily did not have first-person experience with the Holocaust, but as a Jew of Polish ancestry it was not far removed.
She did grow up in an America which defined and limited her life’s boundaries in an unconscionable fashion. There was a double whammy of physical and emotional isolation constraining her, one imposed by the larger society which detested Jews and the other imposed by her own religion, which viewed solidarity as an imperative for survival.
As America awakened in the aftermath of Rosa Parks’ Montgomery, Alabama bus incident and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign of nonviolent demonstrations and began a systematic attack on bigotry in the 1960s, Orthodox Jewry reasserted its isolationism in a desire to avoid assimilation into the American melting pot.
Jewish girls were expected to date and marry Jewish men. Emily did so proudly after a brief courtship.
In our city the huge urban wilderness park became the great divide between Christians and Jews. On the north side of the great divide, Emily had attended a well-regarded predominately Jewish public school, while on the south side, a Catholic high school represented a logical progression for my education, with a background as a Catholic altar boy.
Throughout sixteen years of Catholic elementary, secondary, and collegiate schooling, followed by ten years of teaching in a Catholic high school, I literally never met a Jew.
While that deprivation was erased in dramatic fashion during my subsequent profession as a real estate broker, not until Emily could I boast of a Jewish friend.
In spite of the isolating tendencies of the nation-state, organized religion, agenda-driven media, and social peer pressure, basic humanity can reach a higher plateau. It had taken half a century, but I finally became a “first Jew” story for someone.
As time passed and our mallwalking relationship deepened, I came to realize that Emily had long been searching for the same human common denominators I sought from the other side of our city’s urban forest, and our ultimate touching in friendship was like solving the human psyche’s version of the “black hole” of the universe riddle.
From birth, various institutions in society begin deluging the developing child with a myriad of prejudices, stereotypes, and expectations, while building walls which compartmentalize the world and literally suck the love out of the organism as relentlessly as black holes suck matter out of the universe.
Emily and I touched in friendship in spite of those institutions, not because of them. We demonstrated in undramatic, elemental fashion that the human spirit cannot be involuntarily quashed; a truth eloquently explored in Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Free will is always accessible regardless of the intensity of an indoctrination process.
With daily visits to a mall of goyim, listening to Christian radio, and tenuously nurturing Christian friendships, she was venturing into the great unknown; uncharted territory for her at once unnerving yet comforting, fearsome yet protective, unbridled yet sheltering, intellectually stimulating yet emotionally ambiguous.
The character traits which enabled us to embrace in enduring platonic friendship—she happily married and now a Reformed-Jewish woman and I a happy, single, Catholic man—were, ironically, traits reinforced to some degree by our divisive families and churches.
When hate and love are imparted simultaneously by institutions, there is no guarantee that the recipient won’t evolve to a love far greater than those institutions’ limited vision can contain. That evolution of brotherly love to a more cosmic scope happened to Emily and me and we drew on each other for answers to the contradictions presented by our respective religions.
It’s self-evident that an institution which differentiates itself from competitors, while drawing members from the same pool of humanity, is by definition limited in its vision.
In a politically correct world reeking of hypocrisy, both religions publicly preached ecumenism in the 1990s and privately aimed doublespeak at followers to reinforce their stature as sole landlords in the neighborhood of truth; all the while serving the “big lie” that the hate we were clearly taught had not been taught at all. We simply misunderstood our teachers, our memories are faulty, or we hyperbolize because we have a flawed faith.
I concede, regrettably, that history will be what those writing it purport it to be. The most powerful institutions, or the victors in a war, get to do the recording, and, serendipitously, they always seem to be baptized by full immersion in benevolence. Ask any Native American, a.k.a. “savage Indian” about the acapriccio quality of recorded history.
There has been no statistical study of experiences paralleling the friendship between Emily and me, in which a lifetime of stifled and narrowed humanity is magically overcome.
We didn’t become friends because jobs thrust us together; because we were religious officials pressured to set a good example; because there was a sexual agenda; or because we were neighbors with an economic interest in harmonious living. We simply chose to be friends. Friends are discovered, not made.
Our friendship per se didn’t accomplish anything grandiose. That we were mutually receptive to it said something grandiose about spiritual resilience. It was like reaching the shrouded pinnacle of a mountain that seemed the ultimate challenge from the foothills, only to have the improved vantage point of the summit reveal far taller peaks.
Our anomalous friendship revealed broader horizons and if the world is fortunate, one day, anomalous won’t be an appropriate adjective. Perhaps the rampant hypocritical ecumenism currently in vogue will evolve to a more genuine version. My belief is that due to the intrinsically divisive nature of organized religion, it will not.
How can I sincerely reach out in friendship, firmly believing that I follow the true path to God while you are in error, without being condescending and patronizing at best, or disingenuous at worst?
There is no profound revelation about society or organized religion being unearthed here, just an anecdotal memoir about two ordinary people raised in unrelated societies, each diminished by prejudice, whose humanistic common denominators somehow osmotically permeated formidable barriers against the flow of their environments.
We separately paddled upstream and met by happenstance, not at a church or temple but at a suburban mall. For me, transcending the myopic version of love ingrained in me by the Catholic Church has been a catharsis; like an orchid gaining the ability to bloom in December.
This story has been the chronicle of an early dividend from that catharsis. In his book, To Life, Harold Kushner said one cannot be a “Jew for Jesus.” You are either Christian or Jew.
I deign to call myself both and am blind to any inherent oxymoron. Quite the contrary, preaching universal love while compartmentalizing humanity presents the bishops and rabbis with the true oxymoron to rationalize.
Their paradoxical preachments are the “Rubic’s Cube” of spirituality and they remain confounded by a lack of progress because they’re unenlightened to the fact that they’re missing a few pieces to the puzzle.
The world continues to progress technologically because there are no scientific boundaries and only one scientific language.
The world is making scant progress socially, because organized religions and the nation-states persist in partitioning humanity and waging wars to protect what they perceive to be the portion of the earth they own.
Virtually every area of protracted violence on earth today can trace its genesis of hate to differences born of organized religion, melting into border disputes and sucking a multiplicity of nation-states into the vortex. A “black hole” for the intrinsic love children begin life with.
The violence and hate are proliferating, as are the technological innovations which facilitate death-dealing delivery of those malevolent twins with increasing efficiency and range.
It’s been my good fortune to elude the “black hole,” as my intellect and my heart have grown closer to the boundary-less places they were at birth.
The suburban mall where Emily and I met, that cornucopia of humanity, didn’t just deliver my first Jewish friend; it delivered fourteen million of them through an experience which refocused my soul, sensitizing it to the universe and beyond.
It can never be compartmentalized again.
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