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My Neighbor's Faith: Trouble Praying

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"I envy you Jews," said the young German as he poured my morning coffee.

The year was 1980. I was the guest of a graduate student at Heidelberg University. My stay in his home was part of a month-long trip through Germany with Jews and Christians engaged in "post-Holocaust interfaith dialogue."

My host's statement surprised and bewildered me. I was just beginning my dissertation on the topic of anti-Judaism in Protestant "Old Testament" theology and I thought I knew a lot about the relationship between Jews and Christians. In fact, I was planning to devote my career to helping Christians see their complicity in the suffering of the Jews and to transcend the flaws in their theology. I could understand my host feeling sorry for us Jews. I could understand him apologizing to us. But I could not understand him envying us.

"Why in the world would you envy Jews?" I asked.

His reply changed my life.

"I envy you because it is easier for you to pray. You see, we young Germans carry the weight of what our parents and grandparents did -- or did not do -- during the war. It is hard for us to talk to God. We feel a little embarrassed." Although the conversation took place 30 years ago, I can conjure it up in an instant: the earnestness in my fellow student's voice, the clarity in his blue eyes.

I had thought, until then, that it was we Jews, the victims, who had trouble praying! There was something about the way he said it -- perhaps the phrase "a little embarrassed" -- that made it feel completely genuine. This conversation clarified for me my core belief, a very useful thing to discover at the age of 27. After that morning, I possessed an orienting idea, a place to check in regularly to see if my plans were aligned with what I believed.

I believe that we should live our lives so that our children won't be "a little embarrassed" if they want to pray. Until that morning, I thought that meant being a good daughter, a compassionate friend and a dutiful citizen. But now I saw something new: taking responsibility for the group from which I derive my identity, the group whose actions will lead my children to be proud or embarrassed before God. For me, that group was and is the Jewish people.

The immediate result of this revelation was that I changed my dissertation topic. Rather than looking at problematic Christian texts, I would study problematic Jewish writings. I would investigate the ways in which my own tradition misunderstands others rather than point a finger at the others for misunderstanding us.

That can be challenging. For example, today, when I choose to speak out about certain policies pursued by the State of Israel, colleagues -- including good friends -- e-mail me to say they disagree with my action. "You ought to be criticizing Hamas," they say. "There are enough non-Jews jumping on the bandwagon to condemn Israeli actions; we don't need rabbis doing it too!" "Besides," they often add, "however bad Israel's actions, many other countries have done much worse."

They are right, of course. But what can I do? I can learn as much as possible, consult Israelis I trust who know more than I do, and try to speak with humility. My commitment to Middle East work, like the interfaith work to which I devote most of my time, grows from my core belief to which I have tried to stay true. Being part of a community means being ready to argue with it, to critique it, to ask it to live up to its best self.

I say I do it for tikkun olam, to make the world more whole. But the deeper truth is that I do it for my daughters. They are now in their 20s, still figuring out their relationship to their Jewish heritage and to God. I want them to be able to pray without embarrassment. Although there is much to lament in the way some Christians and some Muslims have treated and continue to treat Jews, that is not my issue. My job as a Jew, as a mother, is to scrutinize my own faith tradition and my own community. Given that I have uncertain knowledge and limited power, all I can do is my best. But thanks to an encounter 30 years ago, I know what I am trying to accomplish.

This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'