In the far-off city of Stockholm, I sit thinking of a discussion last night. A chance encounter with a fellow passenger that got off the bus with me at the same stop. We both attended the same conference; were staying in the same hotel. She approached me to thank and compliment me for a presentation offered I gave in the afternoon. She asked if we could talk and so we sat down in the hotel lobby and spoke for hours.
I’m not sure if I’m the first Jew she has ever spoken to, but certainly, at least one of very few and the only one she felt comfortable enough to open a conversation. She doesn’t understand why her church encourages her to learn about other religions – Buddhism, even Islam but not Judaism. Aren’t we related? At the beginning, I was thinking this is yet another missionary trying a new approach that would, yet again with some assistance from me, crash and burn. But she was genuinely interested about Israel and Judaism and bewildered why she had never had the opportunity to view into the life I live every day.
And so I spoke about Judaism, about our concepts of heaven and hell (and who would go to each). I spoke of Israel, of the amazing life I have there. Of the true acts of compassion that Israel has done all over the world – to help people in Haiti, Kenya, Turkey, Indonesia, Florida and beyond. I spoke of having sons in the army and daughters who served in Sherut Leumi (National Service).
Several years ago, I took a visiting Christian to Masada and as he listened and looked around, he came up with one question, “What have you Jews done to make people hate you so much?” She was surprised when I told her about Masada and about this comment. She wanted to know it “hate” was a fair word and I assured her it was. I told her we didn’t do anything other than be who we are and that I truly believed antisemitism is rooted in the very bones of people, governments and countries around the world.
She didn’t understand why she had never heard about Israel helping other countries, why Jews believe good people, all good people go to heaven and the bad, all bad, don’t. She couldn’t argue that Christianity says the gates of heaven are only opened to those who believe in Jesus and she couldn’t enlighten me on the age-old question of how 1+1+1 could possibly equal 1. And I explained the Jews only believe in One God and have no understanding of how a religion can call itself monotheistic and yet have three gods. She told me it was an issue of faith but did look a bit confused.
And I shared with her what my life was like in Israel and that Israel was just named the fourth happiest country in the world. We agreed to stay in touch by WhatsApp and perhaps meet again in the future. She told me about her corner of Austria and how beautiful it was. We found commonality in that she was a transplant from Slovakia, while I was a transplant from the US and we both marveled at how our children had adapted to their new countries and languages.
What struck me, again and again, was her bewilderment. Why does she never hear anything good about Israel? Why does her church discourage her from learning anything about the Jews?
To some extent, I didn’t want to “enlighten” her. I wasn’t interested in converting her to Judaism and yet I wanted her to understand that Judaism offers a way of life that transcends any individual. While Christianity is nothing without Jesus; Judaism is a religion of laws and practices seeking to make you be the best person you can be. I asked her about the Ten Commandments. She told me she has ten of them but was unsure if they were the same as the ones we had.
I assured her they were the same, but hers was probably a mistranslation. I asked her to tell me about hers. She told me the first few and then I asked her about the “nots”. And sure enough, she said “not to kill”. And I explained that “killing” is not only allowed but it a commandment under certain circumstances. The commandment, I explained, is לֹא תִּרְצָח – which means, “don’t murder” and I explained the difference between killing (someone who is trying to murder you or someone else) versus murdering someone.
On and on, around and around, the conversation went and the more we spoke, the more I saw her bewilderment. Thirty-one percent of the world is Christian; only 0.2% of the world is Jewish. She had never heard the Jewish narrative. That was the stunning part. Why, she asked several times.
The answer, for me, has always been quite simple. It’s hard to hate something you like. It’s easier to hate something you don’t know. Perhaps now, she will look beyond BBC News, beyond her church’s curtain. I told her of Israel’s beauty, of the life we have built and a country where we deeply care for each other. I told her of the special day in which we close out the world, the telephone and computer and simply spend time as a family.
She asked about kosher and what logic it offers. What is wrong with eating everything, she asked. And I told her of one passage in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible that says it is simply cruel to cook a baby goat in its mother’s milk. It’s simply barbaric to make an animal suffer by tearing a limb off of it to eat. This is the essence of being kosher – if animals must be slaughtered to be eaten, can’t we, at least, do it in the most painless, humane way – that is the Jewish custom of shechita. And I told her that before we eat anything, we say a short prayer of thanks. We are not animals that cannot wait for food.
I told her of the time my husband had a crippling headache while we were returning home from the north and his visiting sister was very worried and so, almost without thinking, I turned off the major road onto a side street and stopped at the first house that had a light on (it was about 10:30 p.m.). I knocked and explained to the surprised family and asked if perhaps they could give me some aspirin to help him. The woman quickly invited me in and asked if perhaps my husband wanted to come in and lie down for a little while on the couch or they could even give him a bedroom.
I remember thanking the woman and explaining that we had young children in the car. She was a grandmother, she said, and had a pile of toys. It took a few minutes of gentle arguing until she finally let me go back to my family with pills and a bottle of water. That is Israel, I explained to this woman from Austria.
And I told her that somewhere in Stockholm, there was a Jewish family that I had never met that would open their homes to me in a minute, offer me food and a place to rest if I need it. Such a family exists in countless cities and countries around the world (thank you, Chabad). People I have never known, who know me simply as a Jew and therefore someone to help. She found this concept a bit unusual, to say the least.
We spoke of the Holocaust and I told her about the first time I visited Germany and had trouble taking a shower or a train. She asked me if it bothered me to take trains in other countries, in Israel and I assured her – only Germany. It was all so new to her, so strange, so foreign.
And it all comes down to the same thing…why? Why does the Christian leadership, why does the media want to keep the truth of Judaism and Israel hidden? How can the truth of the beauty of my religion and my country be shown to the world? If everyone says you are wrong, you probably are…or so we are taught. But there is a more sinister truth here. For two thousand years, Jews have done the unthinkable. We have rejected their religion and earned their eternal punishment. Antisemitism will only end when the church allows the truth, when the media spreads it. Until then, despite all we are and all we do, we remain different. It is, as she said, easier to allow access to Buddha and Mohammed than the kind and gentle teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher.
And if we are to battle this giant misinformation, the question is no longer WHY, but HOW. I don’t know if the answer is one person at a time. One voice at a time. Or if even that is hopeless.