It Only Hurts When I Stop Laughing

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Ed. This article first appeared in New Oxford Review, Oct. 2003, pgs 24-29, and was reprinted with permission in The Hebrew Catholic #79 Winter 2004. Marilyn is a housewife and free-lance writer, mother of eight, and grandmother of many (she says the grandchildren appear so fast she can’t keep track). She lives with her husband Phil in Claremont, New Hampshire.

It Only Hurts When I Stop Laughing
A View of Jewish Catholic Relations From Both Sides at Once
Marilyn Prever

Jews and Catholics of good will have been twisting themselves into pretzels these days trying not to offend each other. Some Catholics are bending over backwards so far they’re in danger of going into spiritual hyperspace and undoing their Baptisms, if such a thing were possible. “No, no,” they exclaim. “It’s just that we no longer believe there were any Jewish people involved with you-know-Who getting killed. It’s all been a terrible misunderstanding. Modern scholarship has shown that those Pharisees were actually Southern Baptists.”

I do believe we all need a good laugh – but who dares to laugh? I can only think of one group of people who are in a position to inject a little humor into the situation, albeit strictly Jewish humor, which is the only appropriate kind for those times when you laugh to keep from crying. I happen to belong to that group, namely, Hebrew Catholics – or Jewish Catholics, or Jewish converts, or Completed Jews, or Messianic Catholics, or Catholics of Jewish origin, or oy vey, you see what I mean: Even finding a name for ourselves is a problem.

We are an embarrassment to everybody. There are Catholics who are trying to assure Jews that Catholics are not even trying to convert them anymore, not even praying for them to convert – God forbid that Catholics should even hope for such a thing. What are such Catholics supposed to do with us, we who are not only already converted but usually pretty excited about it? Let’s face it, most baptized Jews are not good at keeping quiet about their new faith. We tend to write books, we go on TV, we tell all our friends, we wear tasteful Jesus Made Me Kosher T-shirts, we even sometimes get up enough nerve to tell our families, who then become horrified and either resign themselves and hope it will blow over, or else sit shiva for us, which is what you do when somebody dies.

What can such Catholics say to us other than: “Would you mind apostatizing, please? You’re messing up our plans. We’ve been trying so hard to re-build that wall of separation St. Paul told us about, the one between the Jews and the gentiles. We understand it was taken down so the gentiles could come in, but now we would just like to put it back up, only this time to keep the Jews out. Not that we want to make you feel unwelcome – it’s not that Jesus doesn’t love you, or doesn’t want you, it’s just that you Jews have a perfectly good religion already and, as Our Blessed Lord Himself said, He ‘came for the lost sheep of the House of O’Shaughnessy.’”

This is called, by some, development of doctrine. Cardinal Newman, pray for us!

Such people need to be reminded that it’s important to have Jews in the Church – one reason being that only Jews get the jokes in the Bible. Without Jews, we would miss out on all the Jewish humor in the Old and New Testaments. Let me give you an example: Every year when the cycle of readings at Mass comes around to the passage where Our Lord cures the man born blind, I find myself giggling helplessly in my pew, surrounded (in my New Hampshire parish) by Poles and French Canadians and Finns who don’t see anything to laugh at. The reason I’m giggling is that all the people in the story sound exactly like my relatives. Even the multiple translations from spoken Aramaic to Greek to St. Jerome’s Latin to modern English can’t hide the fact that Jews still talk the way they have always talked: They answer questions with questions, they are ironic and even sarcastic, they love to argue, nobody agrees with anybody (“nine Jews, ten opinions”), and they wave their hands around when they talk (I know the hand-waving is not specifically described in the Gospel, but take my word for it, these people are waving their hands around).

For me the high point of humor in the story is when the Pharisees interrogate the parents of the man who gained his sight: “Is this your son, of whom you say that he was born blind? How then does he now see?” And they answer, “We know that this is our son [they don’t want to go so far as disowning him], and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we ourselves do not know. [We don’t know anything, we didn’t see anything, we didn’t hear anything, we were in the kitchen eating chicken soup]. Ask him, he is of age, let him speak for himself.”

In case you still don’t get it – that the parents are lying through their teeth and passing the buck – St. John gives us a little aside: “These things his parents said because …if anyone were to confess him to be the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue…” So the Pharisees run and get the son again and start yelling at him. But he’s so thrilled at being able to see that he doesn’t care what they do to him. He’s carried away with joy, he forgets his precarious situation – he’s the fiddler on the roof. They try to get him to say that the man who cured him is a sinner. He answers, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.” (He’s on the edge of disrespect here, and sarcasm is right around the corner.) They ask him the same questions he answered before, and he loses patience altogether: “I have told you already and you have heard. Why would you hear again? Would you also become his disciples?” (Bingo.) At this point they “heaped abuse on him” (a good Yiddish chewing out is an art form and can last ten full minutes without repeating a word, and these men were probably just as creative in Aramaic), whereupon he loses all control and starts lecturing them on theology. That finally does it: he gets thrown out of the synagogue, but Jesus takes him in – a situation Hebrew Catholics can identify with.

I use the phrase “Hebrew Catholic” because it’s the one I finally settled on, on the grounds that “Jewish” refers to a religion but “Hebrew” to a people. But I’m not quite comfortable with it, because I’m from the generation who were just getting back to calling ourselves Jews, for whom the word Hebrew had taken on a rather snooty connotation, as a sort of euphemism: “Are you of the, ah, Hebrew persuasion?” We were the generation who didn’t change our names; some of us even changed them back: “How do you do, I’m Moishe Lefkowitz, and this is my father, Maurice Lewis.” Ironically, my last name is now French, though I married a Jewish man of Eastern European roots (we both came into the Church later on). His family came to the U.S. from Russia on a French boat and the immigration officials thoughtfully Frenchified their name so that they, the officials, could pronounce it. So when people hear our name and see us in a Catholic Church not far from the Canadian border, they assume we’re French Canadians. My maiden name is Oguss, which was probably shortened from something barely pronounceable when my Grandfather came here from Poland – or maybe it was Lithuania. Once when I was a little girl traveling with my family in Georgia, a motel clerk said, “Oguss – what an interesting name. What kind of name is that?” My mother, catching the implication, said, “It was shortened from Goldberg!” and stalked out. It was a very educational trip for my sister and me.

Jews are liable to have any kind of name, especially in America. I had a cousin who was always called Mary Kelly, because that was what American ears heard when she pronounced her Yiddish name. She didn’t even speak English.

On the other hand, I know a Catholic priest named Fr. Cohen, and he’s not Jewish. I wrote to ask him, and he replied with one of the most gracious demurrers I’ve ever heard: No, he said, I’m sorry to say I don’t have that privilege. (God bless you, Father, you’ll get time off in Purgatory for that.)

You may be surprised to learn that I’ve run into very little anti-Semitism in the Church, rather the opposite. In my experience the philo-Semites (people who have a special affection for Jews) out-number the anti-Semites about ten to one. I realize that some of them may be hiding their true feelings. That’s fine with me; that’s what is known as civilization, and I’m all for it. My earliest experience of anti-Semitism was when I was four or five years old, and a Catholic friend told me I had “killed Christ,” and she hit me. I don’t remember whether I hit her back, but I do remember answering, strangely enough, “It wasn’t me, it was my Grandfather!” I had some vague idea that there was trouble over this Christ fellow a long time ago in the past, “Grandfather” being the closest I could come to the idea of ancestor. We were one of only two Jewish families in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, and there was never any trouble except from that one family, who were the black sheep of the neighborhood in any case – the father was a drunk (we didn’t say “alcoholic” in those days) and beat his wife and children.

I believe the anti-Semites still exist mainly on the fringes of the Church – today they seem to belong mostly to the ultra-“Traditionalists.” My husband and I have a book business with a specialty in Catholic books, and only once did we have an anti-Semitic customer. He was a priest, sad to say, who put out a little Traditionalist newsletter teaching among other things, that the Holocaust never happened, which he sent us, not knowing our background. We sent him the book he ordered along with a note explaining why we were not happy with his newsletter, and assuring him of our prayers through the intercession of St. Edith Stein, who was martyred in that non-event. (“I know, let’s sic Edith Stein on him! Serves him right.”)

He wrote back, very humbly apologizing for the offense, thanking us for the prayers, and explaining why his views were not, in his mind, anti-Semitic. I still feel more affectionate toward him than otherwise — he was a true “character,” shall we say, and ended by declaring himself Pope, reigning from somewhere in the Midwest with a handful of followers.

When I was growing up, this man Jesus hardly came into our lives at all – He was the God of the gentiles, and they were welcome to him. If they wanted to decorate their walls with little statues of a half-naked man being tortured to death, well, there was no accounting for taste. While studying for his bar mitzvah my husband once asked his Hebrew teacher who Jesus Christ was, and the teacher replied, “A man who made a lot of trouble for the Jews.” (You have to realize, Jews tend to see everything in terms of how it affects the Jews: Global warming? The Red Sox win the pennant? A cure for cancer is found? A giant asteroid is heading toward Earth? We only want to know one thing: Is it, or is it not, good for the Jews?) My mother said she remembered her own mother mentioning Him only once, and that was to say that He was a man who had a machine that caused Him to fly up into the air, to impress people with his supernatural powers. I wonder, was that connected with some memory of the Ascension? You wouldn’t believe the strange things that used to float around in the stetls of Eastern Europe.

When I went to elementary school in Brooklyn, there were two kinds of students: Jewish and Catholic (or Italian – same thing). You could tell which was which by the holidays they stayed home on. My family was not religious but we always stayed home on the High Holy Days “so the goyim [gentiles] would respect us,” because they stayed home on their holy days (probably so the Jews would respect them). Once there was a boy in my class who stayed home on neither, poor thing. I thought he must be one of those Protestants I had heard about – an exotic minority group who were neither Jewish nor Italian. They lived somewhere beyond the pale in Indiana or Georgia and they didn’t celebrate holy days, they didn’t yell at each other, and they didn’t like to eat. You could learn about them on TV.

Then, suddenly, culture shock. After this pleasant upbringing in Brooklyn, I found myself, along with my husband and children, living in a totally foreign country. (We had lived in Israel for a year, but that was not foreign, being full of Jews, who yelled, ate, and celebrated in ways we were familiar with.) The foreign country was a town in Vermont, where we settled after a sudden and dramatic conversion to evangelical Protestantism (we didn’t become Catholics till eight years later). The church we went to was called the Community Bible Chapel and the people were sincere Christians, full of charity and good will, with a culture that was pure — you should excuse the expression – WASP. It took me a good three years to realize that they were taking my joking remarks literally, with disastrous effects on my reputation. It took me five years to catch on to the fact that among them, disagreeing with someone was bad manners, not lively conversation. It took me forever (that is, I never got there) to stop feeling loud, vulgar and fat in their company. They shocked me with their bizarre ideas about Jews, such as their belief that the revelers at the wedding at Cana were drinking grape juice – they had obviously never been to a Jewish wedding – or that the mezuzah on our doorpost contained a tiny vial of lamb’s blood. Thank goodness it was only lamb’s blood – that one could have been a lot worse. (In case you’re wondering, it contains a Hebrew scroll with a passage from Deuteronomy, the one Our Lord quoted when someone asked him which was the greatest commandment.)

I think what Catholics would really like to know is, “How do I talk to Jews? Can I talk to them about religion at all? How can I avoid offending them?” I am happy to tell you the answer is simple. If you have ever played Pickup Sticks you will know how to proceed. Pickup Sticks is a game where you throw a bunch of sticks on the floor and then you have to pick them all up one by one, very carefully, lifting each stick in such a way that it doesn’t make the others move. In this case, each stick represents something you can talk to a Jew about – very carefully. You cannot stir up ancient memories, or use a word that may make him uncomfortable, or imply something that might cause bad feelings, or allude to one of about six dozen topics that are off-limits. You can easily find out what these topics are if you read the accounts of the various Jewish-Catholic dialogs that have been going on for the past forty years or so, the ones that end in separate press conferences giving two entirely different accounts of what everybody said.

Another important rule to remember is not to ask certain questions. I don’t mean questions like, “Is it true Jews have horns?” or “Is there an international Zionist conspiracy?” I’m assuming we’re beyond that point. The kinds of questions I mean are ones like, “Is it true what they say, that most Jews in America live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans?” The fact is, this is perfectly true, but you’re not allowed to say so.

In the midst of all the misunderstanding, hostility, and general looniness, Hebrew Catholics are in a perfect position to mediate the dialog. When I say mediate, I don’t mean in the sense of being umpire. (In fact, nobody really wants us there at all.) What I mean is that since we are both Jewish and Catholic, we identify – and suffer – with both sides at once. We can even be ashamed of each side on behalf of the other. When some self-righteous pornographer goes on TV to wrap himself in the mantle of the First Amendment and his name is Rabinowitz, we want to remind him of the old saying, “Never be ashamed you’re Jewish; it’s enough that I’m ashamed you’re Jewish.” And we also cringe when we meet Catholics who believe that the Church was cravenly giving in to Jewish pressure when she reminded us in Nostra Aetate of her constant teaching that people are responsible for their own sins, and so you can’t blame the Jews of today, or even the majority of the Jews in Our Lord’s time, for the sins of those who called for his death.

We once attended the Divine Liturgy at a Carpatho-Ruthenian parish in New Jersey where many of the parishioners were the children of immigrants. Afterwards, a woman asked me if my parents ever came to their church. “No,” I said, “they’re Jewish.” She was a little taken aback, and then said, with simplicity and sincerity, “Well, that’s all right, we’re all people.” Her attitude was lacking in modern sophistication and political correctness, but it got to the heart of the matter, and I wish there were more Catholics like her in the U.S. Maybe she was a little prejudiced – who isn’t? Let him who is without prejudice cast the first stone. Maybe she didn’t especially like Jews as an ethnic group – do we really all have to like one another’s culture? That’s asking a bit much of human nature. I don’t like everything about Jewish culture myself. If I can’t stand some of my own relatives, why should I expect other people to approve of them?

Some people get so nervous about all the taboos that they decide extravagant compliments are in order. Someone once asked me to pray for him because he thought that as a Jew and a Christian both, I had some special “in” with God. Please don’t do this sort of thing. Jews are very uneasy about this chosen people business. Our experience has taught us that if on Monday they’re giving us such compliments, on Tuesday they’re going to want the place Judenrein. Give me the Carpatho-Ruthenian attitude any day.

There are things in Catholic culture that look unbelievably weird from the outside. Recently, my son came back from the Stations of the Cross to say that the parish was using a new book of prayers. It was by St. Alphonsus Liguori and included the earnest request that Christ should “nail my heart to the Cross, that it may always remain there.” I don’t like to speak disrespectfully of a saint, but I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t a little lacking in normal visual imagination. We all have our limitations, and even sanctity doesn’t sand down all the odd bumps and ridges of our personalities.

Let’s not expect too much of human nature, even human nature aided by grace. If Jews and Catholics can sit around a table for an hour and talk about religion and history without actually coming to blows, we’re making real progress. And if we can stop and remember occasionally that we’re all people – which is to say, we’re all potential saints and potential Nazis – I’m sure there will be rejoicing in Heaven.

  • You are my witnesses (Is. 43:10)  •  You shall be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)