I’m in the midst of one reading one of the best book series I have read in a while, the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. While the story is interesting, I didn’t think it had anything to do with interfaith families, making Jewish choices or encouraging a welcoming Jewish community – until I read the following paragraph:
(Officer) Bublanski felt an urge to talk with God about the case, but instead of going to a synagogue he went to the Catholic church … As a Jew he had no business being in a Catholic church, but it was a peaceful place that he regularly visited when he felt the need to sort out his thoughts. He found the Catholic church an equally good place for contemplation, and he knew that God did not mind. There was a difference, besides, between Catholicism and Judaism. He went to the synagogue when he needed company and fellowship with people. Catholics went to church to seek peace in the presence of God. The church invited silence and visitors would always be left to themselves.
While the novel was keeping my attention, this paragraph caught me by surprise and I started to think about the differences between walking into a church and walking into a synagogue–at least those I’ve walked into. My experiences in church have been primarily around Christmas services, weddings and family baptisms. Having come from a Conservative Jewish background, I was taken aback by the formality and what I initially took as coldness of a Catholic church worship service. You walk in quietly, respectfully, find a seat and sit. You don’t talk, you never yell and if you see someone you know, you may wave inconspicuously. Even though many times the entire church is full, you hardly hear a peep. During the service there is hardly any fidgeting and once the service is over everyone files out nice and orderly. There may be a bit of socializing afterwards, but most of the time you walk to your car and leave.
You couldn’t easily walk into a synagogue during a Friday night service, sit down and pray without everyone there turning their heads to see who just walked in. If you are new to the community, sometimes even before the service is over, someone–the president of the synagogue, the membership vice president and/or even the rabbi themselves — will come up and introduce themselves to you. They will ask you questions about who you are and what you are doing there. They may try to find out about your family, background, occupation and upbringing–and invite you to participate on a committee. It can be an overwhelming experience for a person who is used to walking into a place of worship, sitting down, praying and leaving.
Having had both experiences, Stieg Larsson’s description of the differences between Catholic and Jewish worship services hit home. While I enjoy the part of the synagogue community that welcomes people who walk in the door and the social aspect of services and events, I can understand how a person who has not had the typical synagogue experience could easily be put off by the welcome they get. Being aware of this is one way the Jewish community can be even more welcoming to interfaith couples. It’s not that a Catholic partner in an interfaith couple is not looking for company or fellowship, they just may need some time to get used to the differences.
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