People often ask me how Judaism continues to impact my Christianity. There are many answers, but one of them is starkly relevant today: Judaism has given me a strong sense of empathy, because I am still too keenly aware of the frustration of growing up a minority in America.
Before I started straightening my hair and waxing my eyebrows, my stereotypical outward Jewish-ness wasn’t difficult to spot. I was told I “looked Jewish” all through elementary school (thankfully, no one ever made fun of the size of my nose). Even giving my last name invoked questions about my perceived ethnicity. It took years for me to take such comments in stride and turn them around into strong symbols of identity, because all you’re concerned about when you’re young is fitting in. And fitting in was just not something God intended for me to be good at, then and now.
I remember arguing with Christian friends who felt the need to point out to me that my relationship with God wasn’t real because Jesus wasn’t a part of it. I remember having to explain that it’s more than okay – really! – to use the C-word (Christmas) in front of me. I remember explaining to my art teacher why I wasn’t making an ornament because I had no tree to hang it on, and she ignorantly suggested I make one anyway to hang on my menorah.
Those incidents aren’t persecution, of course, but they sure were frustrating. I felt like my identity was constantly being misconstrued for something it wasn’t; therefore, I had to constantly defend it. There were plenty of times when I mistakenly perceived intolerance from people, but who could blame me? When the cars in your synagogue’s parking lot are the routine targets of evangelical pamphlets, paranoia becomes a knee-jerk reaction.
I have no concept of what it’s like to be gay in America, but I can imagine the frustration of having to explain that homosexuality doesn’t equate with sexual attraction to every person who shares your gender, and the only legitimate ‘gay agenda’ is a desire for the same rights and privileges that straight people have. I imagine that not only gets old fast, but also chips away at one’s sense of identity and maybe even safety.
So it’s with great disgust that I read about the proposed bill in Indiana that will make it legal for businesses to openly discriminate against homosexuals. People have argued that this is about protecting the rights of businesses, but refusing to serve a gay person is different than refusing a patron without a shirt or shoes. The right to discriminate based on religious beliefs is a slippery slope, explained well by this blog post from Patheos:
Theoretically, the law would allow restaurants to refuse to serve gay or interracial couples, hotels could refuse to provide lodging for Jews, landlords could refuse to rent to African Americans, pharmacies could refuse to dispense birth control to women, and employers could fire anyone, so long as such behavior was justified by “sincerely held religious belief.”
I am not only reminded of Jim Crow laws that allowed businesses to discriminate against black people. My Jewish upbringing forces me to hearken back to the period of European history when it was my own people who were denied service. I suspect a great number of white evangelicals can’t fathom a country where their own rights and privileges are rarely threatened; when the assumptions made about them – Christian, middle to upper class, heterosexual – are correct more times than not. I don’t understand how proponents of this bill are completely unaware, or otherwise choosing to ignore that this law reeks of déjà vu.
I’ve seen enough vitriol on Facebook and Twitter to almost reconsider wearing my Star of David again, just so I’m not lumped with “those people” who support intolerance. I fear for the future of Christianity in America when negative assumptions could be made about me simply for admitting that this is my chosen faith.