By AKIN AJAYI
Every so often, I'm asked - by friends, by acquaintances and even by complete strangers - whether I've converted to Judaism. Actually, I should reword that: I'm asked occasionally, by friends and acquaintances abroad, if I've converted to Judaism. I've been asked twice in Israel - quite aggressively, and by complete strangers - why I haven't converted to Judaism yet.
With the first group, I think the question comes out of a genuine curiosity, coupled with a sketchy acquaintance with the concept of a secular Judaism. A simple "no" usually suffices, sometimes supported by a little gentle humor: that I lack the intellectual rigor and strength of character necessary to undergo the conversion process, for instance. Or that I'm not particularly keen on undertaking theâ€¦ how can one put this delicately?... the excisions necessary to introduce me to the covenant that Abraham established between God and his people.
Actually, in the interests of accuracy, the country of my ancestry happens to be one in which male circumcision is almost universal. More to the point, my parents, immigrants to '70s England - a time when circumcision was not available on the National Health Service - were obliged to employ a mohel to do the job for me. So in a sense, you could say that a part of me is authentically kosher.
Sadly, this approach is less effective when I'm faced with the abrupt directness of an absolute stranger. The only reasonable option - other than fisticuffs - is disarming candor. So both times I answered - honestly - that I wasn't particularly keen on swapping one deity in whom I wasn't entirely certain I believed, for another. If nothing else, I suspect that if there is a partisan God, he probably doesn't appreciate fickle followers who choose to switch sides mid-game. And then I backed away carefully.
IF I'M completely honest, christianity - with an emphatically small "c" - has never really played that big a role in my life. It's always hummed along unobtrusively in the background, closer to habit than formal commitment. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a sort of "christianity-lite" - you know, the sort of thing that is passed down from parent to child without much thought or deliberate intent. Like an argumentative disposition. Or a propensity to pick one's nose in public. I suppose that if I had been born to Buddhist parents, I'd be into meditative chanting and vegetarianism, rather than Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Well, perhaps not the vegetarianism bit. I like my meat too much.
Seriously, though, I'm always a bit bemused by the vague suspicion with which Christianity is treated by some in the Holy Land. One shouldn't dismiss out of hand, of course, the various illogical perfidies that some of my less enlightened brethren have propagated against the Jewish religion through the ages. That said, this is the 21st century,. Most Christians I know - "lite" or not - use their religion as a tool to provide a personal framework, a guide to help them negotiate the moral morass of modern life. It is all rather benign, at best. That's my impression of modern Judaism in Israel, too, albeit with notable exceptions.
I was not entirely surprised to read last week about a humorless organization that calls itself the Lobby for Jewish Values. According to news reports, members of this group - who, I'd bet, would welcome my past interrogators with open arms - have been handing out fliers condemning Christmas. The fliers propose a boycott of restaurants and hotels in Jerusalem that put up Christmas trees. After lecturing sternly about "Jewish Values" and the "Jewish Identity," the fliers instruct the good Jewish residents of Jerusalem to "continue to follow this path of the Jewish people's tradition, and not give in to the clownish atmosphere of the end of the civil year. And certainly not help those businesses that sell or put up the foolish symbols of Christianity." Charming.
The phrases "Jewish Identity" and "Jewish Values," I think, are often used as a catch-all to encompass a vast, confusing and at times out-and-out contradictory range of objectives. I'm clearly not best placed to try and define what exactly "Jewish Identity" is - hey, in the eyes of these charmers, I'm actively seeking to subvert it - but I can't help but think that the less confident one feels about a particular concept, the more aggressive one becomes in defending it. These guys from the Lobby for Jewish Values seem just a tad too defensive to be really credible. To be honest, I feel a little sorry for them.
That said, it may not be fair to suggest that they are representative of broader public opinion about Christmas. As was reported in The Jerusalem Post last week, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jewish National Fund decided to distribute Christmas trees to the city's Christian population - and, presumably, to anyone else interested in having a pine tree shedding needles willy-nilly all over their carpet - during the week before Christmas.
"There are people of faith from the world's three major religions living in the city," a municipality spokesman said. "We respect them all and want them to enjoy their respective holidays."
And so it should be. Religious observance need not be a zero-sum game: There may be a great deal of mutual incomprehension among the three monotheistic religions that center around Jerusalem, but at the same time, there is plenty of space to find the common ground among their adherents. So in this spirit, to friends, family, readers - and to the Lobby for Jewish Values - I'd like to extend a traditional Christmas greeting: Peace and goodwill to all men and women on earth.
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