As a Southern Jew, I’m struggling with that whole ‘church thing’

A church exterior


(Kveller via JTA) — It’s been 9 1/2 years since we moved to North Carolina to save ourselves from schlepping our then-infant triplets up four flights of Queens’ stairs. Yet there are some things I’m still unnerved by here. Like how many women leave their pocketbooks wide open everywhere: in the shopping cart at the other end of the aisle. Swinging off the back of their chair in a restaurant. On the passenger seat of their unlocked, unoccupied car.

But without a doubt, what I still struggle with most here is “the church thing.”

I want my kids to know about all religions, all faiths, all people. I just like tidiness. I like the spirit of religion to flow freely in the universe, but the actual religious teachings and rituals to be kept in solitary confinement at home and religious establishments. That’s what I’m used to.

I grew up in Rockland County, New York, around a lot of other Jewish people. But whether it was in Rockland or at New York University, or when I lived in Queens, I could go a month without ever hearing the word “church” — or “synagogue,” for that matter. People attended or didn’t attend, but didn’t talk about it much either way.

But here, “church” seems to be part of most conversations. Not necessarily religious conversations, just conversations: “I met him at church.” “We’ll go after church.” “It’s two blocks from church.” I hear the word so much, sometimes I hallucinate hearing it when I’m not: “Ma’am, do you want church with that?” “If that doesn’t work, try rubbing some church on it.”

Church church church church church church church.

Some of it we bring on ourselves. My husband and I put ourselves in situations where we know church chat is inevitable. There are a lot of kids’ events open to everyone sponsored by churches. We are lured in every time by the sweet smell of free bouncy houses and face painting.

For the most part, we’ve learned how to navigate these festivals. As we enter, we’re fine filling out their registration forms with bogus contact information. We’re fine taking their goody bags and swatting through the layer of church information to get to the McDonald’s coupon at the bottom. When we get to the face painting, we dismiss the crucifix and Bible options and pick flowers and rainbows.

And yet I’m always on edge. Will there be a moment when smiling, taking a flier and saying “thank you” won’t work? Will someone corner me into telling them which church I don’t go to and why not? Sometimes I’m so nervous, those hallucinations kick in: “Did he just say ‘We don’t want Jews’?!! or was it: ‘Do you want juice?’?”

Maybe I have no right to try to draw the line, but like I said, I like tidiness. I like bouncy houses to be purely bouncy houses. I like “Toss Across” not to be “Toss-a-Cross.” If it’s a religious event, call it a religious event. If it’s a children’s festival, leave it as a children’s festival.

So when my kids were 5 and we attended one of these events, I didn’t like it when I saw the young girl who was doing my son Jacob’s face painting lean in and whisper into his ear. So naturally, my mommy bionic ear zeroed in on the space between her whispering mouth and Jacob’s ear canal. What I heard was:

“You know, Jesus died for you.” Between the whispering and his confused look, I was pretty sure this time she’d actually said what I’d heard and it wasn’t one of my hallucinations.

“Please don’t say that to my child,” I told the girl.

“I can’t talk to him?”

“Not about that you can’t.”

This summer my son went to a weeklong technology camp run by a tech company. Sounded secular enough. But it was held at a church. There was a morning prayer and a lunch prayer. (If it were held in a mechanic’s shop, would they be doing oil changes between computer apps?) Not a Christian prayer per se, but a prayer nonetheless. I send them to JCC camp for that, not technology camp.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want my child to be singled out. I told Jacob that whatever he was comfortable with was fine with me. Do the prayer. Don’t do the prayer.

Every afternoon I held my breath as I went to sign him out. I wanted to freak out on somebody, anybody.

“Stop it! Stop these prayers immediately. No praying. Stop it NOW!” I wanted to march in front of the church with a sign during camp hours: “Computers not Christ!” But Jacob didn’t grow up in New York. And between my emotional rant fantasies, I realized something: Jacob didn’t seem overly bothered by the prayer thing. So every day I swallowed my venom and put another building block on my burgeoning ulcer.

Then on Friday afternoon, the last day of the camp, as I signed him out and mentally patted myself on the back for not getting arrested at least once during the week, Jacob held something up to me as we walked to the parking lot:

“Mommy, I hope you won’t be mad at me. They gave us these mugs to color that said ‘Jesus loves me.’ So I crossed out ‘Jesus’ and the ‘s’ in ‘love’ and ‘me’ and so anyway now it says ‘I love you.’ Is that OK?”

OK, so I’d been stressing out about the tech camp all week and in like five minutes my 10-year-old son, without my help, had taken his own major step toward solving a problem. My 9-year-old problem.

 Lori Shandle Fox is a humor writer and mother of triplets. Her pieces have appeared in The Washington Post and Newsday, and on NPR.
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