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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

When You Are the Only Jew for Miles Around

I don't know about you, but I always feel most Jewish when there are no other Jews around. When I'm NY or even Washington, DC I don't walk around thinking "hey, I'm Jewish". But when you are in rural Tanzania and no one knows that you are Jewish but all assume that you are Christian - that's when I feel my Jewishness most profoundly.

It is not like anyone would care. Seriously. Most of the American Jews I know think that the whole world is against us. But frankly, that's a very Jewocentric view of the world. The truth is - and I know this because I've traveled the world - most people don't even know what a Jew is. I don't walk around with my Jewishness on my shoulder because it would just be confusing for the people I'm working with. Seriously. Let me give you an example of a conversation between myself and our fabulous nanny, Secunda. Mind you, Secunda is pretty with it for here. She speaks excellent English and even spent a year living in Arlington, VA with an Embassy family that took her back to be their nanny.

Secunda: "Hally, do you and the children go to church on Sundays?"

Hally: "No. We don't go to church. We are not Christian."

Secunda: "Don't go to church? [Confused] You mean you are Muslim?"

Hally: "No. We are Jewish. Instead of church we go to a synagogue, which is like a church but it is where Jews go to pray."

Secunda: "You're Jewish? I don't understand."

Hally: "It's another religion like Christianity. But it is different."

Secunda: "So you believe that Jesus is the Lord Savior?"

Hally: "No. Jews don't believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But actually, remember, Jesus was a Jew."

Secunda: "No. Jesus was a Christian."

Hally: "Actually, Jesus was a Jew who taught about a new way of thinking and living. After he died some of the people who followed him created a new religion called Christianity."

Secunda: "I don't understand, Jesus was a Christian. He assended to heaven. They never found his body"

Hally: "It's OK. What religion we are doesn't matter much. What only matters is how we live our lives and treat others, right?"

Secunda: "Yes. You are right. That's what Jesus taught. That's why he's a Christian. So you don't believe in Jesus?" [Even more confused.]

Now, my friends, I'm sharing this with you only because I've had the exact same conversation probably more than 100 times over the past 10 years. And what I've learned is that Jews just aren't on the radar screen for most people in the world, especially here in Africa. Perhaps that will reduce some of our paranoia.

But every now and then I have moments when I'd like to open people's minds. For example, yesterday I was at the Word and Peace Organization (WAPO), a Pentecostal denomination here in Tanzania which has a VERY dynamic Arch Bishop who is head of the Tanzanian Council of Bishops and also a Tanzania AIDS commission officer. I've become extremely found of Bishop Sylvester and I think that he has become fond of me. We are going to fund WAPO Mission to do some work promoting partner reduction and they have a huge reach of several million people. We've been meeting several times a week - along with my Tanzanian counterpart, Abdulrazak. Now Abdulrazak is not Christian, but the Bishop is fond of him, too. And when we are in meetings together, especially when other WAPO officers are around, the Bishop teases Abdulrazak in a very lighthearted way about being Muslim, and Abdulrazak reciprocates. Just last week we were in a meeting in his new rural center with 20 or so people planning for the launch of our joint campaign and the Bishop once again pointed out partner reduction is for everyone, except for maybe his friend, the Muslim, Abdulrazak. I responded with a note to Abdulrazak:

And they think there is only one non-Christian in the room. We've fooled them, huh? :)

Now everytime we go to the Bishop and he teases Abdulrazak, the non-Christian in the room, Abdul and I share a knowing glance. As for me, I'm waiting for the right, most impactful time to share with the Bishop that his assumption of my Christianity is just that, assumed. And it makes me smile to think of the conversation we will have - about Jesus being a Jew and all. And I'm enjoying it all the more, because I'm sharing the secret with my Muslim colleague.

Just yesterday I was about to "come out of the closet" when another colleague asked the Bishop what was going on in the building next door, where there were a bunch of handicapped people lined up.

"Ah," said Bishop Sylvester, "that is where we cleanse people who have been taken over by demonic forces."

Abdulrazak and I exchanged glances again - both thinking the same thing. Perhaps I should wait a bit longer... :)


Blogger Mom101 said...

Oh what an amazing perspective and so well told.

Jewocentric. Heh.

11:17 PM  
Blogger theirstepmom said...

Hi dear Hally,
Love the blog and love to the 3 of you. It would be great to read more about your work, as well, and to see past work in your profile. You are doing amazing things. You might get recruits.
Have a wonderful time!
Peace and kisses,

5:31 PM  
Blogger MommyWithAttitude said...

That's a great story.

I'm totally fascinated by what you're doing and glad I found this blog!

8:15 PM  

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