JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review August 27 , 1998 / 5 Elul, 5758

Southern beauty:
Stone Mountain, near 'Lanta.

Atlanta Diarist

Fundamentalist friends

Some call it life in Dixie. I call it lots of fun.

By Neil Rubin

OBSERVANT CHRISTIANS IN THE SOUTH say the darndest things. (And 'darndest' probably isn't one of them). You bump into these poeple everywhere -- just like I did Monday evening when talking to someone about life insurance.

Upon arriving here as a benevolent Northern carpetbagger in 1991, I immediately noticed that religion was an in-thing. Churches seemed to be on every corner. Billboards announced Christian call-in shows and stories about religion and state seemed more abundant than a presidential investigation. Then came news stories about book bannings in county libraries, Christian motivational speakers in public schools and political candidates talking about "this great Christian land."

In the 1993 mayor's race, there was even bantering over whether a Christmas tree should sit in City Hall seeing as how it's a religious symbol. Mind you, I raised the question; afterwards now Mayor Bill Campbell came up to me and jokingly said, "Christmas trees? Thanks a lot."

Now I don't come from a religious wasteland. In most of the northeast, religion seems more of an institution than part of daily life. In other regions of the country, most people don't talk as openly about religion as they do here.

That's the first thing that many new arrivals notice. And one of the first things I'm asked by people considering a Southern relocation is this: "Is it difficult to be Jewish in the South? Isn't the Christian right really strong?" Being Jewish in the South, I respond, isn't good. It's great. We're not overly dragged down by existing structures and loyalties, so there's no limitations on what the community can become. And the Christian right? They're here and they're strong. I disagree with much of what they believe, but they're not evil. They're worth engaging because they are generally caring, compassionate people.

There's another thing, too. Jews can't survive if they don't learn to thrive with all parts of the power structure. So we need to not ignore or laugh at such groups or people.

A typical encounter came Monday evening. A woman called on behalf of a life insurance company to verify some information.

First the routine questions -- Have you ever been convicted as an ax murderer? Have you offered a bribe to weasel out of a driving ticket in the past three years? Do you bungee jump on weekends to let off stress?

The interview done, and knowing where I work, she could ask the questions really on her mind. "What does the Jewish community think of Dr. Laura?" she began.

"Speaking for myself, it's great that she raises morality issues and often does it in a Jewish context. But she's rude to some people and that's not a good example of Judaism."

"I study the Old Testament and wonder, do the most Orthodox people still take part in animal sacrifice?"

"Well, we call it the 'Hebrew Bible' in English, and synagogue and prayer replaces sacrifice today. And remember that sacrifice must be seen in context of time and place."

"We went to a Passover seder last year advertised in the newspaper and people were real nice to us. Where would we go to learn more?"

"Check out the Atlanta Jewish Community Center's Jewish University or any synagogue around you.

[Editor's note: Tell them to read JWR!]

"They won't mind if we come to services?"

"Trust me, there's nothing secret going on. Check it out."

This woman, I could tell from the conversation, has zero desire to convert to Judaism. And she'd likely offer some ecstatic prayer if she could convince some Jews to accept Jesus as their savior. But she's no imminent threat.

Answering her questions politely, however, takes some of the mystery away from Jews, which is a very healthy thing for all. So perhaps one day when she discusses Judaism with friends, she'll be one of those who can stand up and say, "They don't hate us; they just disagree. In fact, they're pretty interesting."

I like to wear my Judaism on my sleeve --- with my dry cleaner, the guy who cuts my hair and even the parking lot attendant at a building I frequent. I have always found non-Jews in the South genuinely interested in my Jewish life and views.

Speaking with them about such matters, instead of brushing off the inquiries, either enhances our pride or encourages us to go learn some more.

With that in mind, perhaps every Jew should have a few Fundamentalist friends.

JWR contributor Neil Rubin is Editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.


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6/16/98: They keep coming (The growth of Atlanta Jewry)
5/27/98: What a show today!
Passover, 1998: Wait! You're not finished!
3/29/98: April means Passover ... and baseball
3/15/98: Has Jewish money run out?
3/9/98: Downsizing Jewish life
2/10/98: Film, Lies And Jewish Mothers
2/1/98: The news according to Sid

©1998, Neil Rubin