If you had called me on the telephone when I was growing up, the phone exchange would have been Blackwood, New Jersey. Had you sent me a letter, it would have been mailed to Laurel Springs. The school district I attended was Gloucester Township. However, the name of the town in which I was raised is Chews Landing, named for Lt. Aaron Chew who became famous when the British captured him during the American Revolution. Chews Landing is about twenty minutes south of Cherry Hill, but for me it was like a different world.
At that time, our synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom, was in Haddon Heights. The Jewish Community Center was even further away and most Jews in the area, like today, lived in Cherry Hill.
Within Chews Landing, I lived in the population center of Glen Oaks, a housing development constructed on a farm the year I was born. Three years later my family moved there and during the time I grew up, more fields and forests were cleared as the development expanded.
Most of the kids with whom I attended school were Italian Catholics whose families had migrated to the suburbs from South Philly. Their influence was so strong that despite the fact that the Pope had said it was OK to eat meat on Fridays, our public school served fish for lunch every Friday. In elementary school I was the only Jew in my grade. When I came to middle school two other Jewish kids joined me and there was even one Jewish teacher in the school.
During this time, I commuted to Judaism. My sister and I went to Hebrew school and our family went to services every Shabbat. My mother worked at Jewish Family Service and in the summer we went to the JCC Camps at Medford. Most of my friends were from Hebrew School. The closest of them lived about 15 minutes away by car.
Back in my neighborhood, I was the token Jew sometimes for good, sometimes not. My mother and I were invited to talk to my class each year about Hanukkah, to bring in a menorah, a dreidle, some chocolate coins and to tell the story. I was always proud to be Jewish and never hid my identity. Some of my t-shirts had Hebrew on them and I took off for Jewish holidays. My mother had the names of our vacation changed on the school calendar from Christmas and Easter vacation to Winter and Spring break. Our school still had a Christmas tree and we sang Christmas carols, but when I said I did not want to sing Jesus Christ is Lord no one ever made me.
All this made me feel like a guest in a Christian culture. I often encountered anti-Semitism from other kids. Sometimes it was name-calling. Other times it was more violent, getting into fist-fights or in other form types of attacks (once the kids at the bus stop got together and threw pennies at me).
All of these experiences not only gave me a strong Jewish identity and a sense that living in America is living in Christendom, but they, coupled with an awareness of my mother’s history of fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1939 gave me a strong sensitivity to all minorities.
I often marvel how two people can have the same experience and react in diametrically opposite ways. One person, for example, may have grown up poor and had a hard life with no help from anybody and consequently be miserly and self-centered. Another person may have had a very similar experience and devote their life to helping others specidfically because no one helped them growing up.
So too, I find that Jews react differently from their experiences as minorities. There are those who become very insular and if not xenophobic, at least highly distrustful and suspicious of anyone who is not Jewish. For me, because I know what it is like to be a minority, I feel that I am in a unique position now that I am part of the Jewish majority in Israel to reach out to minorities, to build bridges, to defend and even to protect them.
This Christmas season, my wife and I attended our second meeting of a group of Jewish Israeli and Christian Arab couples. We met in the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem’s Old City, a magnificent building reminiscent of a medieval church with courtyards surrounded by columns, winding stone staircases, and glorious vaulted ceilings, mosaics and tapestries. We taught our Christian hosts about Hanukkah and they taught us about Christmas. We told them the Hanukkah story, taught them traditions, ate foods and sang songs. We even divided up into groups and had a great time playing dreidle for chocolate coins.
For reasons similar to mine and with more of an inclination to be tolerant of others than native-born Israelis, many of the Jews who attended are originally from English-speaking countries. Ironically, I, together with others, who had refused to sing Christ s name in my youth as a minority living in a Christian culture, having been so committed to Judaism that I chose to live in Israel, now had the security to gather around the piano in a church in the heart of the Holy Land and, as a Jew together with Christian Arabs, enthusiastically sing the Christmas carols which had alienated me in my youth.