A (Mixed) Blessing on My Jewish Head

Why Some Unsolicited Benedictions Are Better Than Others

Gesundheit: If a nun blesses you, it’s a good thing, even if you didn’t sneeze. It’s not easy to feel the same about every ‘blessing.’
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Gesundheit: If a nun blesses you, it’s a good thing, even if you didn’t sneeze. It’s not easy to feel the same about every ‘blessing.’

By Nancy Kalikow Maxwell

Published October 06, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
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When I worked at a Catholic college, the nuns were forever blessing me, even when I hadn’t sneezed. The nuns’ blessings were like a warm, fuzzy blanket on a cold winter night. During my seven years at the college, I came to admire the dedication and selflessness of the sisters. I considered it the highest compliment whenever I was mistaken for a nun. “Sister Nancy” filled me with the same kavod, or honor (to use a Hebrew term), that I felt being blessed by them.

And the setting for the blessing — the campus of a Catholic college — normalized such utterances. God was alluded to so often at the college that one would have thought He was one of its benefactors (which, in a sense, they considered Him to be). Prayers routinely opened department meetings, faculty assemblies and student activities.

At my first staff meeting, I was even prayed over, and proclaimed to be a blessing to the library and the college. When was the last time your boss thanked God for your employment? So expected had these benedictions become, I would have been disappointed if I left the presence of a nun without being blessed.

But being blessed at a community college by a colleague’s phone message that said “Have a blessed day” was different. Religion was rarely a topic of conversation at that publicly funded institution. Of course, as the old joke goes, as long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school.

Because of our secular work setting, I didn’t know my colleague’s religion. I wasn’t sure if she was wishing me a day blessed by Allah, the Earth Goddess or Xena the Warrior Princess. According to one online source, “Have a blessed day” is the secret handshake of Southern Baptists, frequently used in Texas, especially by Sam’s Club cashiers.

But even had I known her religion, I couldn’t divine what theology she believed in. Was the God she had in mind an inclusive, merciful, loving God? Or was it the hellfire and brimstone, “Jesus is the way, the only way” kind of God? As a Jew, I wanted to know before accepting the blessing.

At least her invitation was more open-ended than the one I received volunteering at an evangelical church’s community food pantry. After helping load groceries into my car, one of my fellow volunteers took my hand, looked into my eyes and asked, “Now, is there anything you would like for me to pray for you?”

I pulled his hand closer, lowered my voice and said, “No, thanks. Now, is there anything I should pray for you?”


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