My time in New Orleans ended with a screening of Faces of Israel co-sponsored by two local congregations, Beth Israel and Gates of Prayer. During Hurricane Katrina, Beth Israel (the Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans) was completely flooded, destroying several Torah scrolls and thousands of books. Following the flood, the synagogue found its home in nearby Metairie where it maintained its own prayer service and presence but shared a space with Gates of Prayer (the local Reform temple). Beth Israel has now raised enough funds for their own building, but sharing the space has been such a positive experience for the two congregations that they have chosen to continue partnering together at one location. Each respects the other’s needs and though Gates of Prayer is installing motion-detector lights to save financially and environmentally, they will refrain from converting over parts of the building used by the Orthodox who are not permitted to turn on lights on the Sabbath.
It was beautiful to see pluralism, respect and a sense of greater Jewish community in action and it was a treat to have such a diverse and open-minded audience at the Faces of Israel program. Following the event, several community members took me to a local cafe to try the famous beignets, which reminded me of sufganiyot. They were a tasty treat and I was excited to try something so hyped-up and connected to local culture, but I’d still go for chocolate chip cookies if given the choice. I overnighted at Uri and Dahlia’s house (the Rabbi at Beth Israel and his wife) who are very cool people and headed to the airport the following morning.
I didn’t know that the flight home would be as interesting as my time down south. I slept through the first leg and – when I had to change planes in Dallas – rode the enormous Skytrain that felt more like an amusement park ride offering a scenic view of the city than a functional terminal to terminal transport. Three guys boarded the train in uniform, two whose shirts read “Explosives Unit” and one whose shirt read “Bomb Parts Specialist”. When I asked what the difference was, they told me that they all have the same exact position. Bomb Parts Specialist was just the old title and they haven’t replaced all the shirts yet. Interesting.
But not as interesting as Nate and Jen, an outgoing and very Christian couple who sat next to me on the plane. The two were on their way to the Reno/Lake Tahoe area to get married the next day (this past Friday). I didn’t realize at the time that we would be deep in conversation for the next three and a half hours straight. Nate is not enamored with Christian churches and organized religion, but he is a devout follower of the Bible and the New Testament. Nate shared with me his unorthodox view of marriage and divorce, one small piece of which is that sexual immorality is the only grounds for divorce. But what if there is physical or emotional abuse, or what if you’ve grown apart? Since there are provisions for none of those situations in the Bible, Nate believes that you must get your partner help for whatever issues they have but you still should not be able to divorce in those situations. You got to stick it out. He reasoned that when the people of Israel created the golden calf by Mount Sinai and subsequently complained constantly through their journey in the desert, God was mad and often frustrated but still did not break the covenant with His people. To Nate, marriage is about unconditional love and unconditional love is the highest power of all, represented by Jesus and his sacrifice.
We spoke significantly about Jesus as a historical figure, bouncing back and forth between Talmudic Jewish perspectives and the writings of the Gospels. I expounded on the importance of Jewish law as a blueprint for making the mundane holy and sanctifying our lives, but explained that middot (personal traits and values) and beliefs are still important. We even explored the provisions in the law allowing for a Jew to break the Sabbath to save a life, ideas that were new to him and contradicted what he had been taught in church. It was an intense but a fun and enlightening conversation. When Nate found out that I was Jewish, he was in awe and asked if he could shake my hand. (“To be in the presence of God’s chosen people is such a blessing.”) What I write here can’t do justice to the strange yet wonderful conversation we had, but it was a fun time and many of the people sitting around us listened to our conversation and occasionally piped in.
Upon arriving in Reno, I introduced Yair to Nate and Jen and we all went out for all-you-can-eat sushi. (Nate was very excited to meet a second Jewish person and – in the grace that he said before the meal began – thanked God for sending “two of his chosen people” to bless them on the day before their wedding.) Only the boys ate, but Jen and I took turns sneaking a piece or two of sushi into our mouths. Yair would normally never let me do this as he is straight as an arrow, but he gave me a little more leeway since we were out with friends and just doubled the tip to assuage his guilt and pay for the missing pieces. Overall, I enjoyed my time in the Big Easy and word has it that they are looking for a ba’al koreh, so maybe we’ll be back!
posted by ayo