In a recent episode of her provocative podcast “Adventures with Dead Jews,” Dara Horn unpacks the wildly successful 1947 film Gentlemen’s Agreement, arguing Jewish acceptance into normative Christian society is conditional. A scene from the film helps to underscore Horn’s point. In it, Gregory Peck’s character Phil Green, pretending to be Jewish to write an exposé about American antisemitism, has a conversation with his young son Tommy. Tommy asks his dad: “What are Jews anyway?” Phil’s reply: “…Remember last week when you asked me about that big church, and I told you there are all different kinds of churches? Well, the people who go to that particular church are called Catholics, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Protestants, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Jews, only they call their churches temples or synagogues.”
The problem with this framing is it subsumes shuls under a Christian category and ignores the reality that synagogues are authentic expressions of Jewishness, not “Jewish churches.” I write a lot in this column about Beth Am’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood where I live. But, in my neighborhood, which I love and whose residents are generally supportive and appreciative of our presence, from time to time I encounter two forms of Jewish minimization. The first is seemingly benign: people do refer to our building as “the Jewish church.” Whenever this happens, I simply correct people. “Churches are Christian,” I say. “Synagogues are Jewish sacred places for gathering.” Most of the time people are happy to be corrected. Sometimes, they’re clearly perturbed they must learn a whole new word when the word they previously knew to describe all houses of worship is shown to no longer be sufficient.
But, sometimes this minimization equals full-on erasure of Jewish identity and self-determination. I was reminded of this recently when a nearby neighbor who identifies as a Hebrew Israelite began to shout and shame Jews outside the shul. To be sure, the Hebrew Israelite ideology doesn’t necessarily equal hate, but the Southern Poverty Law Center does designate four specific Baltimore-based “Israelite” groups as hate groups. This man’s toxic views, expressed belligerently and without any regard for the humanity or dignity of his neighbors, must be called out for what it is: antisemitic.
But, most conditional acceptance (and therefore tacit rejection) of Jews is much more subtle. From the annual Christmas tree at the public Baltimore School for the Arts where my daughter attends High School, to de minimis attempts at interfaith gatherings to provide food I can eat, to prayers offered at these events which non-Christians cannot affirm because they are offered in Jesus’ name, being Jewish in practice is a consistent challenge.
One final example. I was asked by a Baltimore interfaith clergy consortium of which I’m a part to host an in-person retreat at Beth Am. I explained that the two days they were considering, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, were important Jewish holidays and simply wouldn’t work for us. “The following week would be fine,” I indicated, “and we’d be honored and delighted to host.” The response: “Hi Rabbi Burg! It seems like September 28th is when the majority of members will be able to attend, several will be out the first week of October…. I hope you can attend!” He then informed me a Bishop from the group had graciously offered to host. When I replied that I would be leading services and would be unable to do so, I received no response. The gathering proceeded exclusively with Christians.
The late British Rabbi Lionel Blue is said to have quipped, “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.” The joke, of course, is that so much of the time we have to work harder to be accepted, because others work so little to accept us. Gone are the policies that excluded Jews from universities, from jobs and from neighborhoods. But what remains are the small indignities, the ways the majority culture encourages our having to pass, to abide by their gentlemen’s agreement.
A version of this post will appear in Jmore