Not Contagious

By Jennifer Jennings

April 12, 2010

chili mac by Jeffreyw
Will eating this plate of chili mac make you Christian? Probably not, but Jennifer wanted to be on the safe side. Photo: Flickr/Jeffreyw

Upon entering University of Chicago Divinity School, I had no specific expectations. I only knew that I liked the idea of having a coffee shop in the basement where the barista’s t-shirts proclaimed “Where God Drinks Coffee” and that the school would, hopefully, provide me with a foundation in important textual knowledge that I could use in my future academic study. I did not know that I would be able to count the number of Jewish students in my cohort on my hand. Or that I would feel more kinship with the Ministry students and make jokes about wishing I could be in their program, “except I’m Jewish.” Oftentimes, in classes outside of Jewish studies, I am the sole Jewish representative.

In Divinity School classes, I don’t feel like a product of an interfaith family, instead I feel profoundly Jewish. Through my studies, I have become aware of how Christian the United States is, from the words that are used in colloquial speech to the education imparted in public schools. I have a deeper understanding of the history of the United States’ battle with religious identity and freedom, especially in the depths of the founding democratic principles. As a child of interfaith parents who chose one religion within which to raise their family, I do not have the facility to cross the religious aisle with expert knowledge or to feel at home in both worlds.

As a child, I did not want to have two separate heritages, Jewish and Christian. I wanted to be one whole Jew. Moyer, my mom’s maiden name, signified strict yet indulgent and present grandparents, a horde of girl-cousins around my age to play with, Passover Seders with over thirty family members, and singing “Rock of Ages” with my grandpa. My last name Jennings signified confusion, grandparents that rarely visited, and no raucous family gatherings. It was a British name that meant something “Christian.” Something I understood that I was not.

My parents did not discuss Christianity with my sister and me. Instead, we learned about it on the playground of our Northern Wisconsin elementary school. When I asked my parents why they did not educate us about Christianity themselves, my dad recoiled. “That would mean bringing you to church. I did not want to go to church. I wanted to embrace Judaism.” And he did. My dad, of a self-described liberal Christian upbringing, “where you go to church on Sundays and sing in the choir and then go home,” made falafel in the temple’s basement kitchen with the other parents and planted flowers outside on Tu B’shevat, the holiday that celebrates the beginning of spring. When we moved to Madison, he joined the Temple choir and then the leadership class and the Men’s Club board. And on my parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, he officially converted to Judaism.

While my dad was embracing Judaism, I was encountering playground Christianity, full of confusion and children’s misinterpretations of their Sunday school lessons. My classmates told me that I wasn’t Jesus’ child, or God’s. They thought that this was very bad. I told my accusers that that was OK; I did not want to be a child of God. I also learned that since I was Jewish, I might go to hell. I did not know where hell was–we didn’t discuss its location in Sunday school.

I developed some strange ideas regarding Jesus and Christianity. I had a very real worry–one that lasted for many years–that Christianity was contagious. While attending an outdoor church service with my friend and her parents, I decided that the best way to protect myself from catching the religion was by not obeying the pastor. When the congregation stood up, I sat down, and when they sat down, I stood up. Her mom asked me to just sit still. When family friends who happened to be devout Lutherans babysat my sister and me, they sometimes brought us to church with them after our Sunday school classes were over. One Sunday, the church was having a chili lunch after services. I looked at that Wisconsin style chili (with macaroni noodles and cheese) and saw Jesus. I asked if I could just eat a peanut butter sandwich at home.

Although my family did not discuss Christianity, many of our family’s friends and my own friends were religious Christians. My parents believed that they shared similar family values with their friends, which were important to expose to their children. In middle school, I had friends who would not say the word “luck” because it connoted the devil. Others believed that Jews killed Jesus. I spent hours explaining how this just was not true. Some of the social activities I participated in ended up being Christian-flavored. My first unaccompanied rock concert was with my friend’s church youth group. The headliners were Jars of Clay. Upon her invitation, my parents urged me to go. I worried about catching Christianity, but I went anyway.

I wish that I could say that it was Divinity School that changed my attitudes regarding Christianity, but it was actually Hebrew school that did it. As I entered graduate school, I was hired to teach a comparative Judaism/religion class to eighth grade students at a Chicago-area congregation. Teaching has pushed me to articulate my ideas about the different Jewish denominations and teach about the other religions of the world. I took my students to an Orthodox synagogue and to church.

It was while visiting a church in January with my Jewish students that I finally felt comfortable sitting in the wooden pew, looking at the carved cross hanging above the altar. I no longer fidgeted in the pews. I was calm. I understood, both intellectually and emotionally that in order to be Christian, you had to believe, and, of course, that Christianity wasn’t contagious.


About Jennifer Jennings

Jennifer Jennings a native of Wisconsin, is finishing her M.A. in Religious Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.