Christian, Jew? Definitions in the Face of Death

Ana_Bondzic_Do_not_crossSomeone I’ve never met needs a rabbi. That someone wants the rabbi right away.

The caller ID says it all: the phone call is coming from the local hospital or hospice. The issues, the questions, the fears – they are pressing. Whatever I’ve planned will be set aside for someone I do not know but whose life I will suddenly, mysteriously, share.

This week’s call was about a sixty-two-year-old patient with an obviously Christian first name. His surname is one of the top five most common last names in Norway and Denmark.

But Jews come, after all, in all sorts of forms. The patient was, according to the chaplain, Jewish. He was insistent, she said. He needed to see a rabbi.

I drove to the hospital, found the room, and knocked at the open door. Then, I introduced myself.

“I am Jewish,” he said. He also told me that he believed that Jesus Christ was his Lord and his savior. Jesus had come to earth to give him the certainty of eternal life.

I asked him to tell me more about his Jewishness. He referred to an ancestor of three generations earlier. She was Jewish, therefore he was. He had read that. And he had always felt Jewish, he said.

Then he asked me a question: “What does it feel like to be Jewish?”

I smiled wryly. “Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said. “During which century? In which country? Is denomination a factor?” I could tell him what it felt like for me to be Jewish, I said, but it would be both overconfident and ignorant to try and speak for the entire tribe. Not to mention impossible.

He took that in good spirits and turned our conversation to what Judaism had to say about life after death. “I know I would be buried the same day in a plain box,” he said. “But then what?”

I explained that there were different ideas to be found in Judaism about the afterlife and summarized three or four. He listened carefully. Then I asked him to tell me what he believed.

“I know I have eternal life,” he said, “but sometimes I feel anxious.”

“Can you tell me more about that?” I asked.

His surgery had been postponed because of various complicating factors; he didn’t know when it would be done. Sometimes thinking about the surgery made him angry. He didn’t like not knowing. “It’s the human side that makes me anxious,” he said. “The spiritual side knows it doesn’t matter if I die tomorrow or later.”

I asked him to tell me what happened when he felt anxious. He described his heart racing, his hands shaking. We spoke about fear.

“Suppose Jesus was here in the room,” I said. “What do you think he would say to you when you are feeling afraid?”

As we talked, I found myself relying on his cues; when he needed Christian imagery, that’s what we both evoked. When he spoke about an experience wrestling with God in a wilderness, he brought up his Jewishness and I answered from that space.

I needed to honor the person this man believes he is; it was not a time for definitions or boundaries. In such moments, we must simply speak to the individual before us. In such a time, we may simply speak to God.

As I did, praying throughout our conversation that I would stay with the words of the moment, the feelings and thoughts of the person before me. That, in the end, is always the task – no matter who I am encountering.

Death hovered in the hospital room. I do not know if he will visit for real.

“I hope I didn’t waste your time,” he said.

“I hope I didn’t waste yours,” I answered, smiling again.

Who is a Christian? Who is a Jew? For this kind of work, it doesn’t much matter. Who is before me? That does.


Hanukkah Waddya Know at TOO

latkesWe’d lit the candles, eaten a sumptuous meal including latkes, chicken (for the birdievores among us), a spicy bean stew, shepherd’s pie, crisply cooked green beans, and the usual assortment of desserts. We’d sung Ma’oz Tzur, S’vivon, and other Hanukkah songs. A variety of congregants delivered jokes, stories, poetry, puns, and song during dinner. Afterwards, we all collaborated on a cool craft project whose final outcome will be seen at the next Shabbat service, I am told.

Finally, during digestion, a game of “Hanukkah Waddya’ Know.”

I gave each table a minyan of questions. They were to work as a group.

“Accuracy counts,” I said, “but feel free to be creative. The winning table receives a free trade dark chocolate bar to share with each other.”

(Everyone in our community is fully aware that I believe that milk chocolate is an Abomination to the LORD.)

I wandered about listening and observing as everyone got to work. But I didn’t get too close. Otherwise people feel they have to check in with rabbinic authority, and I prefer the etz chayyim hi model, where they do their level best to find out just how much they know and how much fun they can have on their own. Jewish practice should feel like blowing soap bubbles: Start the breath flowing and all sorts of magic will sparkle before your eyes – and heart.Hanukkiahs

One table repeatedly burst into collective laughter, another remained steadfastly serious, and yet another featured individuals experiencing excited “yes” moments evidenced by jumping up and down in their seats. (This is not an easy thing to manage.) After about fifteen minutes, we gathered up the answers, a representative of each table read their answers, and the entire group was asked to declare the winning table.

The steadfastly serious table repeatedly demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of the holiday by answering all questions directly and correctly. Yes, Hanukkah means “dedication.” No, Hanukkah is not mentioned in Torah. Yes, it is the shammash candle that is used to light the others.

You get the idea.

The table of boisterous laughter proved they had a command of the material. They added definitions for “Hanukkah,” indicating that one might associate education, rest, and even grace with the term, depending on how you parse its letters.

When asked to name a popular Hanukkah song, they invented one, using the melody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Their version: “All about the nes, ‘bout the nes, no oy…’ll.” (Nes is Hebrew for “miracle.”)

One member of the seriously-minded table immediately accused this group of being nes-sayers. But the song deserved what it got: Much in the way of appreciative applause by the under-fifty crowd. Some over-fifties seem not to have gotten the joke.

The table with excited “yes” moments were, we all decided, the clear winners of the dark chocolate bar. Here are some of their answers to our quiz questions:

  • What does “Hanukkah” mean? “A weightwatcher’s setback.”
  • What is the right way to light a Hanukkiah? “With fire!”
  • Name something good to deep fry on Hanukkah… “Donald Trump.”
  • How many times is Hanukkah mentioned in Torah? “The same number of times as gay marriage.”
  • What is the significance of the number eight? “It is the number of ways to spell C/hannuk(k)a/h.”
  • How should one publicize the miracle of Hanukkah? (Drumroll, please.) “With a Goodyear Blintz.”

This prompted our percussionist to break out in song: “Someday my blintz will come….”

We may be one of the smallest communities out there in the Southeast. But I would wager we are among the cutest.

At the end of the evening, we exchanged our white-elephant presents and took a few moments for a group blessing. But really, we had already blessed one another – with good will and with humor, with joy and with laughter.

May you all experience the same: Hag sameach, and may your last night of Hanukkah be filled with joy and light and all good things.


The Abominable Snowblimp of the South

Live inflatableWe went round the bend and drove down our little street. There it was: Easily 20 feet tall, grinning menacingly. Strange, smaller figures clung to it or looked on. It was a scene out of some Disneyland ride gone utterly, awfully mad

Our new neighbors had set out their holiday decorations.

Now this is often a trial and a challenge for me. Where I grew up, Christmas lights were magical. Their many colors lit up the snow, making it look like some fairy had casually dropped gemstones across a white, rolling carpet. There were very few figures or scenes. Just lights, and pretty trees in the windows.

Here in the south, you may see sights you would never want to imagine. Santa Clause frequently shows up at the side of a cradle; biblical figures are placed on the other side. Gingerbread figures stand in a row nearby. Animal figures climb out of sleighs, following a pneumatic Santa on the lawn.

I should explain that I was once forced to endure the Disneyland ride “It’s a Small World.” It was a traumatic experience from which I have never fully recovered. For one thing, grinning dolls are scary. There is no comfort in them. For another, the ride broke down and we had to sit in one place for nearly half an hour while the dolls sang that dreadful, tinny song over and over again. You know that song. We all know that song because if we have heard it even once, it will creep into our brain and never, ever go away. Even playing “Jingle Bells” over and over again will not drive it out. That one, too, lives in our brain.

I began to worry: Could I go out late at night in the dark to bring the garbage bin to the street? Would I be gobbled up by the Abominable Snowblimp from the Land of Bad Taste? Would my end involve being smothered by the Cheery Penguins, or would I just be found in the emergency room of the nearby hospital, singing “Silver and Gold”?

It does not help that the things these figures intend to evoke – wintry delights and snowy activities – are almost never to be found where I live. If there were some snow on the ground, or snow to hope for this year, or snow that might make a furtive appearance sometime in the next decade or two, it might help. But in North Carolina’s Piedmont, our portion during the winter months includes plenty of rain and mud, but not snow.

Most of the first quarter century of my life was spent in the upper Midwest, where it might begin to snow around Halloween. You could be sure it would snow until March. One year, it snowed on my birthday in early May.

Here, the ground turns into a mucky brown in December, the weather is merely gray and gloomy, and no person – elderly or otherwise – should try navigating our roofs for any reason – even a religious one. The slimy, killing combination of rain and disintegrating leaves up there has to be dangerous for all beings – even imaginary ones.

I tried to imagine all the weeks leading up to the New Year haunted by the monster balloon just three doors down. What if it walked down the street and gobbled up our little house like the Stay-Puft Man in Ghostbusters? What do such beings eat? Do balloon beings live on other forms of plastic? I imagined it rooting through the bin of empty pots from the rhododendrons, the camellias, and the gardenias I had planted that same week, when our December temperatures rose to the sixties.

We had been such a restrained neighborhood, marked by many white and colored lights, and a little ceramic deer here or there. Grinning Inflatables of over twenty feet just weren’t our style. Until now.

The next morning, Ralf and I got ready to drive to UNC Charlotte, where we both teach. I dreaded – even in daylight – the sight of that monstrous Snowthing. Still, I looked to make sure it was still there, so I could convince myself that I would be brave when we returned that night, knowing what was coming in the dark.

This is what I saw.

Dead inflatables



I swear. I didn’t do it.


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