Kvetching in Antiphon

Max LindenmanLast April, a very cruel month for the Church indeed, a visiting priest opened his homily with a running attack on the mass media. They were out to get the Holy Father, he said—to smear him, libel him, bastinado him—and all for the sake of their secularist agenda. All good, high-grade Catholic agitprop. But then Father's harangue took an unexpected turn. Citing a sympathetic column written by a Jewish pundit, he spread his hands and beamed. 

"You see?" He cried. "This Jew gets it!" 

I can't swear he used that particular, rather indelicate, construction. It's just possible he said, "This Jewish writer." But the fact that the words "this Jew" stick so stubbornly in my memory should testify to the speech's overall toxic effect. Quite unwittingly, the priest had invoked the ugly stereotype of the Jews who use their influence in—some would say control over—the media to attack Catholicism. By praising this one columnist, he had made him into the exception that proves the rule. It was like saying, "Alfredo works hard for a Mexican." 

I hate to be a kvetch—Yiddish for a complainer. This sort of thing is best let go. The man meant no harm. He was young, new to the priesthood, and had grown up in the suburbs, where cultural sensitivity was, I'm guessing, a non-issue. But even now, making these allowances requires a teeth-grinding act of will. At the time—forget it. Right there in the pew, I had an Annie Hall hallucination. I could see myself in Father's eyes, growing a beard, side curls, and a mansion in Scarsdale.

The punchline; I'm not even Jewish.

At least, according to the best Jewish authorities, I never was. My father, now he was Jewish: a descendant of Galitzianers, bar mitzvah at thirteen, buried in a linen shroud at 66. The test, says Jewish law, rests with the mother, and mine is a cradle Catholic turned cafeteria Buddhist. My knowledge of Judaism is appallingly shallow; I wouldn't know a mikva from a Mossad agent. Nevertheless, I have a Jewish name and a Jewish punim. These alone would have been just grounds for the Nazis to deal me out a Jewish death, so I consider them just grounds for nurturing a Jewish sense of paranoia. My baptism may have tweaked the DNA of my soul, so to speak, but it did not give me a new birth certificate.

A surprising number of cradle Catholics feed the Jewish convert's sense of dual identity. In fact, some take the initiative in bestowing it. A friend of mine who is a converted Jew—full-blooded, folks, the real deal—tells me her fellow parishioners hasten to add, "She's Jewish!" when introducing her around. Some of my RCIA instructors regarded me with a sense of wonder, as they might a high-ranking KGB defector. I imagined them thinking, "This is what we used to pray for every Good Friday—this guy right here!" One dogged my steps for the better part of two years, insisting I have coffee with some other Jewish convert he knew. His ardor unnerved me. (What were us two landsmen supposed to do, anyway? Start our own ghetto?) To this day, by my own choice, I wouldn't know his friend from Adam Gopnik. 

Owning any kind of Jewish identity, no matter how diluted or hybridized, means adopting a cockeyed view of history. Too often, what's bad for you is good for the rest of the world, and vice-versa. Some celebrated geniuses, like Wagner, Henry Ford, and General Patton might well have hated your guts on general principle. Conversely, some irredeemable gargoyles, like Generals Hideki Tojo and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, might have saved your bacon (if that's the right word). When I saw 300, I rooted for Xerxes. After all, he was Esther's old man.

What demands kvetching, far more than the slight tone-deafness of lifelong gentiles, is how seeing history through Jewish eyes throws up obstacles to becoming a completely comfy Catholic. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II decree that cleared the Jewish people of deicide and condemned anti-Semitism, is great for the present and future, but it can't change the past. Many of the men and women who built the Church, also rated my ancestors lower than dog doo. Knowing that drastically limits my choice of heroes. Some of my friends revere John Chrysostom for his austerity and defense of orthodoxy—me, I think of Adversus Iudaoes and feel like belting him right in his golden mouth. Unless Thérèse, that darling girl, shared none of the biases so common among pious French Catholics during the Third Republic, I like her better for not having heard her thoughts on the Dreyfus affair. 

So what, you might ask. Well, so everything. Nostalgia is the Catholic's substitute for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Chesterton dreamed gauzy dreams about gallant knights and antic friars. Your average Catholic today sighs over the years between World War II and Vatican II, when priests wore cassocks, nuns wore habits, and popes wore the triple tiara. Both eras, I'm sorry to say, leave me cold. The Cold War years are a little too close, for my tastes, to the Fr. Coughlin era, and overlaps neatly the Westbrook Pegler era. The pious sod-busters of the High Middle Ages believed unwaveringly that Jews killed William of Norwich and Little St. Hugh of Lincoln in bizarre cabalistic rituals.