the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: proselytizing

The Orthodox Jewish Guy Outside the Supermarket

I went down to Pathmark Supermarket to buy whole wheat hamburger buns and some bottles of Snapple.   In front of the entrance, was an Orthodox Jew handing out leaflets.  He was wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit, a traditional fringed garment worn under the clothing.  I’ve seen these guys before.   Some ultra-religious Jews go around and try to get less religious Jews to pay more attention to the various rituals of Judaism.  These men believe that the spreading of their religious fervor will hasten the arrival of the Messiah.

Usually, these Jews only bug other Jews.  They frequently ask passerbys, “Are you Jewish?” before they annoy the hell out of you.   I understand that they are on a mission, but sometimes I just want to walk to the supermarket without having to discuss religious issues.   The only time I’ve ever said that I WASN”T Jewish had nothing to do anti-Semitism.   It was to avoid one of these ultra-religious guys pestering me on the street about lighting the Shabbos candles.

“Here, take some candles. Light them on Friday night. Do you belong to a temple?  Come to our temple.  We even will feed you!”

They will feed you. I know their trick.   You go to their temple.  They feed you some good chicken soup, and then they OWN YOU!

What surprised me about this guy outside the supermarket was that he was not asking, “Are you Jewish?” to anyone.   He was handing out his leaflets and talking to every passerby, whether they were black or white or Latino or Asian.  Some of these shoppers quickly walked by, while others politely took one of his leaflets.

Was he trying to convert everyone to Judaism?

Three years ago, I wrote a post advocating Jews trying to convert other religions. I was being a little tongue in cheek.   At the time,  I felt that if other religions are always trying to convert you, why not return the favor?   In reality, conversion is a dirty word for most Jews because it brings up a sad history of forced conversion, mostly at the hands of Christians.   Even though I wrote that post, I don’t really feel comfortable with anyone trying to convert another person.

I wondered if this zealot outside my Queens supermarket felt safe trying to convert others to Judaism because we were in Queens, and there were many Jews in the neighborhood.   Maybe he felt safe in numbers, despite the fact that there was a mosque right across the street.

This made me angry.   If I were a Jew in a Christian neighborhood, I would hate having someone try to convert me outside my local supermarket.  I would feel as if I was being pressured to be “one of the majority.”  I’m not a hypocrite.    Why should a Jew try to convert others in our neighborhood?   Surely, the religions of others — whether it be Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism — is as worthy a religion.   This smug Jewish guy, passing out leaflets, was arrogant.  It didn’t matter if he was “part of my tribe.”

I walked into the supermarket, using a side door, just to avoid him.

After I finished my shopping, I looked through the store window, and saw my Jewish friend deep in conversation with a black mother and her son.  The mother took the flier, nodding in agreement.  Did he just sucker in another victim to leave her own religion behind?  My face grew red.  This idiot was giving the Jewish people a bad name.

I walked outside, waiting for him to hand me a flier and engage me in conversation.  I walked by and he completely ignored me.   What was up with that?!   Did he see that I was angry and was worried about a conflict?   Or could he tell that I was already Jewish so he didn’t need to convert me?   And how did he know I was Jewish?   Was he judging me on my Jewish nose like a racist would do?   Was this Jewish man stereotyping a fellow Jew?

Hell, I wanted him to try to convert me!   I wanted him to hand me one of those leaflets, so I can shove it back in his face and tell him that this is not the ways Jews should behave.  That it is a shame for him to stand there in his yarmulke and tzitzit and show such disregard for other cultures and other religions.

I did a 360 and entered the supermarket again, just so I could exit a second time and get one of those leaflets.  I quickly re-walked my steps, leaving the market as I did before, not even waiting for the electric door to fully open.  I walked past the ultra-religious Jewish guy, who was eagerly handing out his leaflets — and the asshole ignored me again.

That was enough for me.   Like Abraham, who would sacrifice Isaac, his son, because of God’s word, I knew that it was my moral obligation to confront my Jewish nemesis.  I stepped in front of him.

“May I have one of those leaflets.”

“Sure,” he said reluctantly.

He handed me one. I held it tightly in my hand, ready to start my diatribe against religious hypocrisy.  And then I read the piece of paper:

“Looking to sell your condo?  Call 718-555-1212.”

When I arrived home, I looked at myself in the mirror. My hair had gotten long again. I was unshaven. I was wearing an old t-shirt. Apparently, I was stereotyped by this guy as someone who can’t afford to own a condo.

A Year Ago on Citizen of the MonthTruth and Fiction

Want to Join the Tribe?

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(Hanukah Lamp, Manfred Anson, 1986)

Jews are comfortable in America, maybe too comfortable.  With a large percentage of Jews intermarrying and a low Jewish birthrate, there’s been a drop from 4 percent to 2 percent of the general American population in the last fifty years. 

Is there a way to stop this demographic decline?

New York Times columnist William Safire has the answer.  In a speech in Jerusalem, he said American Jews should do to Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Muslims what they’ve been trying to do to us Jews for thousands of years — convert them.

It’s not a bad idea.  I always thought Jews were too wimpy in promoting their own religion.  So, as a service to my fellow Jews, let me do my small part by trying to convert you, my non-Jewish reader:

Being Jewish is cool.  I’ve enjoyed it my entire life.  I went to Hebrew School.  I got bar mitzvahed.  I had a great Jewish wedding ceremony, complete with klezmer band.  I like temple… sometimes.  I don’t even miss not celebrating Christmas. There’s no law that says I can’t sing "The Little Drummer Boy" with my non-Jewish friends or even with Jewish friends.   The secret is out — Jews love those great Christmas songs.   That’s why Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond made those awful Christmas albums.  You Christians win hands down with Christmas over Hanukkah, but sorry, guys — Passover is better than Easter. 

Jews love food, and there is always a lot of food at a Jewish event.  Jewish woman are smart and funny.   Jews like education.   Jews don’t talk all the time about scary things like "original sin" and "Satan."   Jews have made it through a lot of bad times.  Temples aren’t usually as nifty-looking as cathedrals and churches, but rabbis are usually friendly guys and gals.  While there are many conservative Jews, most Jews don’t spend every moment of the day worrying about abortion and the evils of stem cell research.  One bad thing is that Jews argue a bit too much among themselves.  I even remember two Jewish talent agents  fighting over the same seat in a Beverly Hills synagogue — on Yom Kippur of all times. 

"I’m with CAA!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.

The Ten Commandments — ours.   If you love reading, Judaism is for you.  There’s the Torah, the Talmud, the Mishnah —

Think about it, my Christian friends, do you really believe that Jesus was the son of God?  I mean, I respect your religion and all, but c’mon.  Let’s be rational

The only problem with this conversion attempt is that if I’m being rational, which I am, much of this Jewish stuff is as far-fetched as your religion.  In fact, it’s as far-fetched as every other religion on this planet.  

How am I going to convince you to be kosher if I’m not kosher?  How can I sell being Jewish if I’m not sure what it means myself?  Does William Safire really think that American Jews, a mostly secular bunch, are going to be effective spokespeople in converting others? 

The most successful branch of Judaism in converting others is the Orthodox.  After all, they are the most "religious" and confident in their beliefs.  I sincerely doubt that Mr. Safire was addressing Orthodox Jews when he suggested Jews should proselytize.   I think he was probably thinking of someone more like himself, a sophisticated, newly minted Jewish man or woman who could sit with him all morning in a cafe and talk about the latest Op-Ed page.  The Orthodox man is probably too busy working and praying, while the Orthodox woman is too busy taking care of her six children. 

I tried my best.   Next Year in Jerusalem.   If not, maybe we can at least share some bagels and lox while singing carols on Christmas.

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