The Folklore Project
Stranger in a Strange Land
By Charlie Moss
“I feel like there’s someone in this room who needs to be saved,” hollered the old, red-faced, preacher. I looked around the congregation, praying that it might be someone other than me. Of course, it wasn’t. I was the only Jew in that tiny, country church. And the preacher, along with everyone else in the small crowd, knew it.
He said the same thing in every service. I cowered in my seat, praying nobody would offer me up as the sacrificial lamb. Then, one Wednesday night, someone did. And I did the only thing I could think of at the time. Instead of politely declining, I saved face and got saved. I had instantly become the worst Jew in the world.
I didn’t actually become a Christian that night. But the experience did change me. In fact, I walked away from religion in general after that. I saw it as a sham — all of it. Since then, I’ve questioned the validity of it all.
Growing up in the Bible Belt can be, to say the least, a true test of one’s Jewish identity. And I was always up for the challenge. I wasn’t a model Jew by traditional standards. My family went to synagogue about three times a year: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and for the Passover Seder. We didn’t keep kosher, though my grandfather owned a kosher deli, which I always thought made up for our lack of commitment. And it was through him I learned the importance of Jewish pride, of standing up for my beliefs. Before he died – a week before my sister’s and my B’nai Mitzvah – he gave me his high school football trophies, one of which was a plaque. It told the story of how, growing up in Nashville, my grandfather helped bridge relations between the Christian and Jewish students in his high school. I knew how important this could be in the South, where Christianity, particularly the Southern Baptist religion, was the dominant belief, and Jews were often looked at as a people who needed saving.
As I got older and transferred from Hebrew school to confirmation class, my rabbi taught us Jewish wisdom through the writings of Dave Berg, author of Mad magazine’s “The Lighter Side of…” It was an untraditional education, to be sure, but it reaffirmed my Jewish pride, teaching me another way to look at Judaism — a more lighthearted and honest approach. To me, being a good Jew wasn’t just about going to synagogue and keeping traditions. There was a responsibility to lead by example, to be a good citizen, and to be tolerant of others’ beliefs, even if they differed from mine. And, like my grandfather, my rabbi believed it was our responsibility as Jews to help people overcome the religious barriers that existed in the South between not just Jews and Christians, but all religions.
But after I graduated high school, things changed. The rabbi I grew up with left the synagogue, and a new one came on board. His view on Christian and Jewish relations was different and much more cynical.
When I brought my Baptist girlfriend to Shul so she could experience Judaism for herself, I promised her the ceremony would be warm and that my synagogue was always open to gentile visitors. Once we arrived, it wasn’t quite that way. The new rabbi spoke badly about Christians and their need to convert Jews — a complete contradiction to how I was raised. I was embarrassed and appalled.
But it was nothing compared to when I attended church with her.
It was a tiny, forgotten building just over the state line in the small town of Rossville, Georgia. There were maybe 50 members. As we sat down, I remember the whole congregation stared at me as if to say, "Who is this strange, new visitor?"
The preacher was an old man with a tuft of white hair and gold-rimmed, wire glasses. He always wore a suit and seemed to have a good rapport with his congregation. He had a thick Southern accent, and when he pronounced his vowels he would draw them out. He made a few announcements and started his sermon. As he progressed, his speech became faster and his voice grew louder. He preached about saving sinners from hell and the duty of everyone in that congregation to save as many people as they could, to preach the word and the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. It’s called proselytizing, but they called it God’s work.
The faster and louder he yelled, the redder his face became. He gasped for air and tried to catch his breath, and every word he spoke, he pronounced with "uuuggghhh" at the end of it. The old man jumped up and down and banged his fists on his pulpit and stomped his feet and screamed and shook his wrinkled hands up in the air. I watched spit fly from his mouth into the audience, and his glasses went crooked on his face, and I really thought this guy was having a heart attack. I kept looking at my girlfriend to see her reaction, and she just sat there smiling and nodding her head in agreement.
"Should someone call an ambulance or something?" I asked her. She just giggled.
Old people in the crowd began to shout “Amen!” from their seats, and a few waved their hands in the air. One old lady stood up, ran out of the pew and down the middle of the church, screaming as if she had been stabbed in the back, waving her arms and shaking her head. I was afraid. I felt horribly uncomfortable and looked around me, waiting for the next surprise. Things eventually calmed down, but not before the preacher said he felt like someone needed to be saved. He went on with the guilt trip about not accepting Jesus Christ into your heart and that if you were to walk out of the church tonight and die, you would be spending eternity in Hell. The only thing I wanted to accept into my heart was a warm glass of Manischewitz.
When Sunday came around, I went to church again. I was greeted with, "Nice to see you again, Brother." Brother … really? OK, brother. I went to church with my girlfriend twice on Sundays and every Wednesday for more than a year as our relationship grew more serious. The members of the church and even the preacher knew me by name. When the question of where I attended church arose, I shuddered at what they might do if I revealed that I was Jewish. After all, Jews and damnation were among the main topics in the sermons. I lied,sort of. I told them that currently I was not a member of any particular church.
The day of reckoning for me came on a Wednesday night. The preacher began one of his fire-and-brimstone sermons, and the congregation went nuts. He was yelling, waving his hands in the air, stomping, doing some sort of hokey-pokey dance, and turning red in the face. An old lady began jumping up and down, screaming and waving her hands all over the place.
I had an uneasy feeling. I refused to make eye contact with anyone, not even my girlfriend. I stayed focused on the floor, waiting for the moment to pass. And that’s when I felt someone grab my arm. I looked up and saw an old man, Brother Ray, pulling me away from my seat. I looked at my girlfriend for help. It was too late. She was caught up in the hysterics. Tears were streaming down her face, and she was clapping with a look of hope in her eyes. I tried to resist, but then another old man grabbed my arm, and they pulled me out of the pew. I resisted as much as I could, but I soon had four or five people around me, and so, I gave in. They led me down to the front of the church where the preacher stood.
They placed me in front of the preacher and the congregation surrounded me, sealing my escape routes. The preacher told me to kneel, which I did, hesitantly. Then he placed his hand on my head and asked me if I was ready to be saved. I panicked. If I told them no, would they let me go? I knew it wouldn’t be that easy. Did I really want to go through all of that – the arguing, the embarrassment, the confrontation? I did the only thing I knew that would get me out of there as quickly as possible. I said, “Um, yeah, I guess.” A few minutes later, I was saved for all of eternity. It was a pathetic performance on my part. But they bought it. I was part of the club.
But I really wasn’t. And I had no desire to be. For a ritual that was supposed to make me feel better about myself, it did the exact opposite. I felt worse. I knew I was participating in a lie. I had no desire to be saved, yet I didn’t try to fight it. I didn’t once stand up for my own religion. And, at the same time, I insulted theirs. I felt as though I had been religiously raped. I just kneeled there quietly, head bowed, waiting for it all to be over. By the time it was done, I felt humiliated and betrayed. And I was extremely angry. I was angry at my girlfriend for being a part of it, and I was even angrier at myself for not standing up for my beliefs.
We broke up that night.
For years afterward, I drifted away from Judaism and from organized religion altogether. I drifted away from my local Jewish community. I grew bitter and untrusting toward Christians and was convinced they all were out to convert me. I became what I had tried so hard to avoid. Instead of bringing religions together, I became cynical toward all of it. I had forgotten about my grandfather and my childhood rabbi and all the things I learned from them.
It wasn’t until I began having discussions with my wife – who was raised with a mixture of Catholic, Baptist and Mormon religions and had become disenchanted with organized religion herself – about the role religion would play in raising our children, when I felt myself beginning to miss Judaism.
Little by little, as I get older, I realize how much Judaism and its teachings have played a role in my life, even when I wasn’t close to God.
I have yet to fully embrace it again. And to be honest, I don’t know how far I’ll take it. I don’t see myself ever going to synagogue weekly or celebrating every Jewish holiday. But I feel myself wanting to share my religion with my wife and kids, the pride slowly coming back, the desire, once again, to mingle with fellow Jews in my community and to occasionally go to Shul, maybe host a Seder.
I’ve come to understand now that my girlfriend at the time, along with her church, had sincere intentions when they saved me, despite the aggressive manner in which they did it. And they honestly didn’t want to see me go to hell. I guess I should thank them for that. But looking back now, the incident is forcing me to examine just what kind of Jew I want to be — and, more importantly, what kind of example I want to set for my children.