For the 10 years I lived in Philadelphia, I was blessed with a wonderful neighbour. Carolyn embodied generosity, openness, and caring, qualities one truly appreciates with the person with whom one shares a patio, and who could say “gesundheit” through her kitchen window to a spring sneeze from next door.
We organically became a part of each other’s lives, celebrating birthdays and holidays together, as well as supporting each other’s clans through losses and illnesses. Carolyn was a frequent guest for Shabbat, and we were regulars at her Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
Some of my favourite Christmases were those that overlapped with Chanukah. We would light our menorah, say our blessings and sing our songs, and then I would sit down at the piano to accompany Christmas carols, to the surprised delight of Carolyn’s guests.
It was particularly sweet to witness her blossoming relationship with my daughter. During a Passover week one year, Carolyn invited her on some errands. Since she would normally bring her to a café, or pick up a snack, I reminded her that the range of options would be limited to fruit.
When they returned, I learned that the errands had included a visit to a candy shop, where Carolyn had to pick up some jelly beans for Easter festivities at her workplace. Nonplussed, my young daughter turned down the storekeeper’s offer of a candy, saying that she was Jewish. But her next phrase was the surprising one. She went on to explain to the bemused shopkeeper that Carolyn – was Christian and Jewish!
She certainly could have been right. My now-grown children have friends who are Christian and Jewish by heritage. But my four-year-old was intuiting something else. She could observe Carolyn comfortably joining in our Chanukah candle lighting while knowing that Carolyn and her family observed Christmas. She could also sense her godmother’s spirit – open and seeking, comfortably witnessing Jewish blessing moments while rooted in a very different set of experiences.
Not every Jewish-Christian or other cross-faith relationship is a comfortable one. The memories and legacies of destructive historical encounters linger in our daily lives, and contemporary versions of their hateful expressions are certainly not absent from our communities and our news feeds. The weight of this legacy can feel overwhelming. And then, there are our neighbours, circling our shuls, joining us for Chanukah.
Earlier this month, My teacher and president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College when I was a student, Rabbi Arthur Green, wrote: “We have seen, and need to acknowledge, the many thousands of genuinely caring friends and neighbours, including political leaders, who have come out in what feels like genuine support and empathy… we have a vital need to engage in positive dialogue with members of the [Christian] majority religious culture, as well as other minorities, especially Muslims.” https://tinyurl.com/yd75ntgu
Interfaith encounters are embedded in our peoples’ story, sometimes unsettling, sometimes celebratory. As possible encounters with each other’s faith calendars present themselves throughout the year, let us keep the patio doors wide open.