Oakland Optometrist Pens Jewish Primer for Non-Jews

By Dan Pine

January 2005


Reprinted with permission from j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

Robert Schoen does not lead a double life. Rather, he leads a triple life: optometrist, musician and Jewish outreach activist. But it’s that last role that has the Oakland resident most excited these days, having written a new book, What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About Judaism.

Schoen, 57, will be reading from his work and meeting with the community 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, at the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival. Odds are the event will bring out mostly fellow Jews, but clearly Schoen wrote the book with a non-Jewish audience in mind.

“I’ve noticed there is a certain naiveté the general population has about Jews,” he says when asked why he wrote the book. “They don’t understand Jews or what we stand for.”

His book is a personal and humorous overview of Jewish religious practices, holidays and lifecycle events. It includes the Jewish take on everything from the Holocaust to chosen-ness.

Of course, his book is far from the first introduction to Judaism. But Schoen targeted a very specific audience when he set out to write the book seven years ago.

“There weren’t many places for Christians to learn about Judaism,” he says. “When I thought about my audience, I pictured a churchgoer who believes in God and who respects Judaism because it laid the foundation for Christianity.”

They’re out there, as Schoen found out. His publisher, Loyola Books, is a Catholic press, and non-Jewish readers he has heard from so far have praised the book.

“I felt it was going to be easier to please Christians than Jews,” he says. “A very important outcome was the realization that as little as Christians know about Jews, Jews know less about Christians. They read our Bible, but we don’t read theirs.”

To write his book, Schoen not only pored over existing literature on the basics of Judaism, he also started attending church, looking for contrasts between Jewish and Christian worship.

“I was surprised to see there were things I could identify with. They would say, ‘Holy holy holy’ and ‘The Lord bless you and keep you.’ Their services can be both solemn and lighthearted, just like Jewish services.”

He gave early drafts of the book to friends and advisers, including his stepson, the celebrated novelist Michael Chabon. A second draft went to rabbis, ministers and laypeople, who helped Schoen further refine the text.

Some of it came naturally to him. A native of Long Island, N.Y., and raised in a Conservative home, Schoen holds degrees from Boston University and U.C. Berkeley. Since 1983, he has lived in Oakland, building up a successful optometry practice as well as a side business as a musician. (He plays saxophone and piano.) He is a longtime member of Oakland’s Temple Sinai and serves on its outreach committee.

Through his interfaith work, he has developed a respect for other faiths and his Christian friends. But he remains immune to any missionary appeals from them.

“Many Christians believe if Jews don’t accept Jesus, they are damned. I have respect for the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus is not part of my belief system. I’m quite comfortable not being ‘saved.'”

At the same time, writing his book only strengthened his personal commitment and understanding of his own faith.

“This tied a lot of loose ends together,” says Schoen. “It’s not always easy to define our Jewishness. But I feel I have a job to do: to provide a bridge between Jews and Christians, to provide a call for understanding and tolerance, and to be a messenger for what Judaism is within the Christian community. I enjoy it.”

“What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About Judaism” by Robert Schoen, (200 pages, Loyola Press, $13.95).

The Contra Cost Jewish Book Festival runs from Nov. 9-21 at the Contra Cost JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. Information: (510) 839-2900, ext. 253.



About Dan Pine

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany, Calif. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.