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Jewish World ReviewDec. 22, 1999 /13 Teves, 5760

Sam Schulman

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Chicago, Say "OK, You Baptists, Come 'n' Git Us!" --
I AM FILING THIS COPY early, for I travel home to Chicago this weekend, a dangerous place. But the threat is not the usual one--to my self-esteem by mother's rapier wit (she was the model for the fencer in the Thurber cartoon who cuts off the head of her opponent and murmers "Touche'"). This time, the danger comes from elsewhere. The South is on the move.

When I return to New York on Sunday evening--by the time you read these words--I will probably be a goy. The Southern Baptist Convention has decided to send 100,000 missionaries to Chicago, targeting my native city's Jews for conversion. And I am fully resigned to being swept up in their evangelistic dragnet.

Many Jewish leaders are up in arms about the Baptist campaign, and about any attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. I'm not so sure this is wise. By all means, establish some ground rules to make it sporting: leave children alone. Don't sail under false colors, as the Jews for Jesus do. But to restrict members of one religion from spreading their message is unworthy of a people who have been prevented so often and so bloodily from practicing their own-and rather dangerous. It can't be done without raising a terrible legal and moral precedent.

I myself will face the missionaries like a man. And if they take me down, well, let's face it. There will be many advantages to being a Christian. I will become as much a rarity in New York's literary circles as my fellow writer Jim Holt. Soon I too will be asked to the sort of swanky dinners where, as a party trick, Jim is made by his hosts to expound such doctrines as Original Sin and the Eternity of Divine Punishment. I know Jim will understand that I am not trying to take the really good claret out of his mouth-I merely wish to remove a heavy social burden from his Brooks Brothers-tailored shoulders. I may also have a new career path open to me, because we do very well in the Church when we turn our minds to it. I may well become Archbishop of Paris, if I choose to follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Lustiger. But then when I become a sleek and sophisticated prince of the Church in France, it will put Jim's nose out of joint as well! Since by a tragic accident of fate he was born to Christian parents, he won't have my advantages in the hierarchy. Jim, life isn't fair!

The reaction of Chicago's Jewish leaders is curiously fraught. They are up in arms. But they have to be a bit circumspect, so they have hit on the notion that the missionary campaign might be "conducive to hate crimes." They explain that when the Baptists say that Jews and others (including most Christians) have yet to be "saved," it is really a coded way of saying that we Jews are inferior. And some-not the Baptists themselves, but others "on the edge,"-might find the implied suggestion of Jewish inferiority "the final straw that pushes them over" into the commission of hate crimes (in the words of the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, in an interview with The Forward). Such an attitude is disingenuous, logic-chopping, and cowardly.

My advice to my fellow Chicago Jews is, when faced with a Christian missionary, to imitate Bugs Bunny when confronted by Elmer Fudd's shotgun. Writhe sarcastically in fear, and say "Oh, a hunter. Oh, a big gun! I'm scared, I'm weally scared." Or, if you like, choose an attitude with a bit more dignity. Let's model ourselves after John Wayne at the Alamo. "They're sending 100,000 missionaries after us. Let them come." 100,000 will set out, but how many will re-cross the Mason-Dixon line who aren't wearing yarmulkes and tzitzis? How many of those who came North with a light step, carrying a little wallet card enumerating the 10 commandments, will stagger back with 613 mitzvas? How many will be bringing back to Mother a dark-eyed olive-skinned wife who will in NO circumstance EVER obey him? If we stand our ground and convert back, this could be a very costly campaign, and the mothers-in-law of Dixie will be weeping next year.

In any case, the most powerful missionary force confronting the Jews is not sweetly earnest young Baptist missionaries, but something far more nefarious. It is depicted in all its horror in the old Elaine May/Bruce Jay Friedman movie "The Heartbreak Kid": the young achingly-blond child-woman Cybill Shepherd, her father Eddie Arnold, Sr., in a white dinner jacket at a Minneapolis country club, proferring a pitcher of martinis at lakeside, and a genial atmosphere of moonlight, Adirondack chairs, canoes, and lobsters. I've faced that situation mebbe a dozen times, and let me tell you--anyone who says he's not frightened is lying.

My problem now is to figure out whether New York will be big enough for two Christians--me and Jim Holt. It's a question to be settled by a showdown on the sidewalk outside Elaine's. And, sorry, Jim, I've already asked George Plimpton to be my second.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman