2.27.2017

Judaism: A Question & Answer Session with Betsy

I am so excited to have my friend Betsy here with us today. Betsy and I have talked quite a bit about religion via Twitter and she has become someone whose voice I really value. This blog post grew out of one of our conversations on religion and we thought it might be interesting for my readers, who are mainly Christian, to read a bit more about Judaism and Betsy's experience as a Jewish woman in today's society. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!


Betsy grew up in Washington, DC and, after spending nearly a decade in New York City, Paris, and London, moved back to her hometown where she now works as a fundraiser in the arts. She was raised Jewish, became a Bat Mitzvah at age 13, and is a practicing Jew today, though she isn't terribly observant. She went to an Episcopalian school from the age of 5 through 18, studied early/medieval Christianity in both undergrad and grad school, and her husband is culturally Anglican, so she thinks about interfaith dynamics a lot!

Betsy currently (occasionally) blogs at btransatlantic and can be found on Twitter and Instagram, where she shares microstories about her dog, her home, and her cooking.


What would you argue is the most fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity?

Well, from a theological perspective, the primary difference is that Jews don't believe that Jesus was the Messiah or that he is the son of God. Jews are monotheistic, which means that we believe in one God and one God only, so we'd argue that the Trinity is incompatible with monotheism. Beyond that, though, a lot of the core teachings are the same - after all, we share the Hebrew Bible (your Old Testament) and the Ten Commandments!


What does being Jewish mean to you in today's society?

Honestly, it means being "other." I live in DC and spent four years in Manhattan; I've almost exclusively lived in cities with significant Jewish populations and have usually been able to find a synagogue to attend. However, the default across the United States (with some rare regional exceptions like certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn) is that the people around us are Christian - or, at the very least, they know about Christianity and they don't know much about other religions even if they aren’t themselves practicing Christians. It's why many stores are still closed on Sunday mornings - because the assumption is that people are or should be in church then - but why an acquaintance wouldn't hesitate to ask me to hang out on a Friday evening, despite the Jewish Sabbath starting at sundown on Friday evenings. The default in this country, culturally and commercially and, yes, legally, is that being Christian is the norm, and that makes me feel other.

Some of the comments in Cassie's post on privilege touched on this already, but here's a good example of how Christianity is the default in today's America: December 25 and January 1 are federal holidays. I don't know anyone who doesn't work at a Jewish organization who gets a holiday for Rosh Hashanah (our New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). We have to take the two holiest days in the Jewish calendar as PTO or vacation time, whereas Christmas Day and New Year (by the Gregorian calendar, which was commissioned by Pope Gregory XII in the 16th century) are freebies. That feels really marginalizing.

I am proud to be Jewish and I love my faith and the history of my people, but I do feel like I have to constantly be aware of being Jewish and prepared to explain Judaism, which I don't think I would if I were Christian because it would be assumed and understood.


According to the FBI, Jews are the primary victims of religious hate crimes. What can you tell us about hate crimes against Jews?

The short answer: hate crimes against Jews are really scary because, historically, they've led to the murder and genocide of Jews. I got my degrees in Medieval History, and I remember that when we learned about the Crusades my professor told us that thousands of Jews were sort of incidentally slaughtered during the Crusades because people (Christians) thought, "Why should we travel all the way to the Holy Land to kill infidels (Muslims) when there's a whole community of infidels (Jews) in the next village over?"

Of course, the more recent situation that gets referred to is the Holocaust. It's not like Hitler woke up one morning, decided the Jews needed to be exterminated, managed to convince everyone relatively quickly that he was right, and went from 0 to genocide in a short period of time. Anti-Semitism had been brewing in Germany (and in France and in Poland and and and) for centuries, and it was given an opportunity to flourish by the Nazis . The slope from "Jews control the media" to "we need to take Jews' businesses away from them" to "let's round up all the Jews and make them live in one confined place" to "Jews don’t deserve the full rights of citizens of this country" is very steep and slippery, and many in the US are afraid we've already started the descent.

However, because the Holocaust was so extreme, people who seem to think that something isn't anti-Semitic if it doesn't reach the point of premeditated physical violence directly against Jews. Skeptics say that the bomb threats called into dozens of Jewish Community Centers were just hoaxes, as if that makes them harmless, and that graffiti on the side of a building or in a subway car doesn't hurt anyone. But, actually, these acts and this thinking does assault people. For example, my husband and I are supposed to go to our synagogue this weekend to celebrate our friends' wedding. Since the new wave of bomb threats against Jewish organizations earlier this week (including against the ADL on Wednesday), I've considered not going because I'm afraid that our synagogue might be a target. Therefore, even if my life isn't in immediate danger when I practice my faith, these threats inhibit the free exercise of my religion, which damages our country and the principals on which it was built. It’s all part of the slide down that slope.

Something that adds a new dimension to anti-Semitism today is that Israel exists, which it didn't during the Holocaust. I hear a lot that it's impossible to be anti-Semitic and be pro-Israel at the same time, but that is not the case at all. Wanting a strong state of Israel doesn't have to have anything to do with the preservation of the Jewish religion or the Jewish people – just about ensuring a particular geopolitical balance/structure. The safety of Jews in the United States is irrelevant to the security of Israel as a national ally in the Middle East.


Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Cassie! I really enjoy sharing my faith in this way and would be more than happy to answer any other questions your readers might have.

If you have more questions for Betsy, please leave them below in the comments! Thanks for reading along!


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