Moving from New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina upon ordination was my first serious foray out of a somewhat insular northeastern cocoon and into “real” America. I was not exactly sheltered until then. I grew up in an ethnically diverse Queens neighborhood, and the inner city public high school I attended was a testing ground for class and racial coexistence. Still, I thought I knew what difference was until I discovered how different difference could be in the same country, less than five hundred miles south of where I grew up. The Raleigh and East Carolinas that I remember from the early nineteen nineties were a study in contrasts. The city is part of an urban powerhouse of cosmopolitanism that attracts people and businesses from all over the world. Yet it also boasts some of the world’s most rigidly conservative churches and it sits in the midst of the American tobacco farming industry, a very traditionalist, hierarchical culture.
I had Jewish clergy status, which allowed me entrée into parts of North Carolina society I might otherwise not have encountered. Southern Baptists dominated the religious Christian scene. Though they were a fairly diverse group theologically, the Baptists I knew were quite united in their ignorance of and fascination with Jews. Their exposure to Jews was refracted mostly through the distorted lenses of literalist readings of the Bible. However, unlike many secular Christians – and Jews - who found my presence uncomfortable, these religious Christians were genuinely intrigued by Judaism. They wanted to know more at the same time that they could not understand why I consciously chose not to have my soul saved through Christian faith.
One year, a small liberal arts college in Tobacco Country, most of whose students I suspect had never been more than five miles away from home, invited me to teach some classes about Judaism to the college community. My host, the head of the religion and philosophy department, was a PhD in philosophy who had long since left his Baptist roots, yet who knew the world of Baptist Christianity well. On the first day I was scheduled to teach, he took me out for lunch. As the time for our first class drew closer, I said to him, “I want to say grace over my meal before we go.” I rapidly mouthed the words of the Jewish blessing of thanks after meals, while he abruptly stood up from the table, and from the corner of my eye I could see that he appeared confused. I quickly finished the prayer and got up to leave with him. “What did you just do?” he asked me. “Well, I said Grace over my meal, just like I mentioned to you,” I responded. I thought I had used my best colloquial “heartland of America” English to explain myself religiously, but the look on my colleague’s face told me he had not understood me. Suddenly, he began to laugh in that hard, knowing way that told me I was about to learn something about language as the handmaiden of culture. Wiping tears from his eyes, he explained, “Dan, when southerners – Baptists or otherwise – say ‘let’s say grace over that,’ what they mean is ‘let’s get this over with and get out of here now.’” We then both laughed over that one.
His explanation of the double meaning of this phrase points out to me one of my most difficult personal challenges in living meaningfully. At times, I find myself saying grace over grace after my meal, that is, rushing through the things that should matter most, as I dash to check off tasks from my never-ending task list. In this new secular year, I am committing once again to the sacred art of moving more slowly, in the hope that a deeper wisdom and attentiveness will attend me and grace my life with more consciousness about what is most valuable.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.
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