I teach Jewish history in North Carolina, a land haunted by Jesus Christ.
It is a land where the present is the biblical past. It is a land where the Second Coming is apparently coming any moment now. It is a land where devout Christians are eager to share the good news. It is a land where the Jews are a conundrum, ghostly incarnations of an old covenant, the original chosen people whose “history” ended on the cross and in the apocalyptic fires of Roman carnage.
When the Southern Baptist meets the Jew, the Southern Baptist seeks to understand this apparition from “Isra-El”: why he has not accepted the Gospel and achieved salvation in the universal heavenly kingdom of The Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
As a Jew by descent and education (but with little faith in an Almighty who seems to be perpetually out to lunch), I am a constant object of scrutiny: in the classroom, on the street and in the steam room at the YMCA. And being from Canada further complicates matters; I’m a “Canuck” in a land of “Crackers.”
The following journal entries document my unexpected encounters in Wilmington, North Carolina, those of a Canadian Jewish emissary teaching history in a sweltering Southern outpost of Christendom.
First day of class. I enter the room. Time to talk about the origins of the ancient Hebrews. They already look bored; perhaps I should inject some humor into the topic.
Me: “Well, let’s throw ourselves right into it, shall we? I won’t bother covering Adam and Eve. We all know the story. God makes boy. Boy meets girl. Snake seduces girl with apple. Girl and boy eat fruit, discover they’re naked, and life has sucked for all of us ever since….
And this is Abraham. He is the forefather of many nations. But before that could happen, he heard a voice in his head telling him to go into the desert, mutilate his body, and then shtup the maid.”
Later, after class:
Student: “As a devout Christian, I believe every word in the Bible; I found your presentation to be offensive.”
Me: “I do not mean to challenge your belief system. And I didn’t make this up: the mutilation and shtupping are right there in Genesis.”
Student: “Please be more sensitive. Now I have to run to my human evolution class.”
Me: “Good luck with that….”
Student: “I would like to enroll in your class. I love Jewish culture.”
Me: “Sure. What do you know about Jewish culture?”
Student: “I know the basics: Passover; Anne Frank.”
The air conditioner has been broken for three days, and the sweltering Carolina humidity is taking its toll on my mishpucha’s delicate Canadian bodies. The repairwoman has arrived, but she can’t seem to fix it.
Repairwoman: “What does your husband do?”
My Wife: “He teaches Jewish studies.”
Repairwoman [bursting into tears]: “Oh I love the Jews…. Without y’all and Isra-El, the Messiah wouldn’t be coming back.”
Me [from the other room]: “Will He be returning before or after the air condi- tioner is fixed? I need to plan my day….”
Repairwoman: “When can we bring you into the faith and ensure your salvation?”
Me: “You can’t fix my air conditioner. How can you possibly ensure my salvation?”
10 a.m. Sitting in my sweltering home office in my underwear, preparing a lecture. The air conditioner is broken yet again, and yet another person pops in to repair it. This person decides the moment is ripe to come into my office to chat theology and history.
Him: “What d’you teach at the college?”
Me: “History. Jewish History.” [Damn. Damn. Mistake. Mistake. Mistake.]
Him: “So what does it mean to be Jewish?”
Me: “Uh, that’s a rather complicated question [particularly at 10 a.m., in my underwear]. But we don’t accept the New Testament.”
Him: “Ah, so Jesus hasn’t come yet.”
Me: “In a manner of speaking.”
Him: “So y’all believe in jist the Ol’ Testament.”
Me: “Well, some people do. As a historian, I don’t believe in the authenticity of most of it. We don’t have any evidence, for instance, that Abraham actually lived.”
Him: “Well we don’t have any evidence that anyone ever lived. I mean, we don’t have any evidence if George Washington ever lived.”
Me: “Well, we do have his body.”
Him: “When can I bring you to my church?”
Me: “The air conditioner is upstairs.”
Just when I thought there existed a singular relationship between air conditioner repair and evangelical Christianity, I find myself engaged in a theological debate with my plumber.
The Plumber [hunched over the bathtub]: “Good to meet ya. Man, I love throwing myself into my work, taking on an exhilarating project, and seeing how it all coalesces into one great revelation.”
Me [staring blankly at him]: “Uh, right. I feel the same way about teaching. Yet I spent 14 years in college and undoubtedly make less money than you.”
The Plumber: “Now don’t be so sure. I have a Master’s of Divinity and spent a good many years spreading the word of Our Lord, Jesus. But like Jesus, I returned to my roots —carpentry and plumbing. Now I get to combine my work and fulfill my calling.”
Me: “Does that mean you can conduct a baptism in my toilet once it flushes again?”
The Plumber: “And how! And then I can expel the money changers from this here temple.” [He points majestically to my toilet, bathtub and sink.]
An hour later
The Plumber: “Hey — come here. I solved it! God is truly a miracle worker! Your bathtub will never leak again. Jesus, the Messiah shall come]!”
Me: “Uh, you do know I’m Jewish, right?”
The Plumber: “Indeed I do! I love you people! You’re so chosen, and blessed.”
Me: “Right. You must excuse me, I need to read about the Holocaust to prepare for class.”
The Plumber: “And God is against anti-Semitism! Where’s the toilet brush?”
[10 minutes later]
The Plumber: “All done! Hey, do you know this masterpiece of Jewish culture and theology?” [He starts humming “If I Were a Rich Man.”]
Me: “You mean ‘Fiddler on the Roof’”?
The Plumber: “Boy, you really know your stuff. I wish I could take your class.”
My Daughter: “Santa Claus came to school today.”
Me: “Did Jesus come, too?”
My Daughter: “No.”
Me: “Okay, good. Just checking.”
Sitting in the YMCA steam room. It is just me and one other man.
Him: “Y’all ready for Christmas?”
Me: “Pretty much.” [Opting to leave things at that.]
Three minutes later
Him: “I suppose I should be politically correct and say ‘holidays.’”
Me: “Well, now that you mention it… I am Jewish”
Him: “Oh, then I should apologize.”
Me: “It’s Okay. I’m just a little tired of hearing, ‘I’ve never met a Jew before’”
Him: “Whaddaya talkin’ about?! I grew up in Statesville. My two best friends were Jewish. Hell, I even walked down the street with black kids.”
I am manning the history booth at the freshmen student fair. The father of an incoming student sticks around for what appears to be a clandestine tête-à-tête with me.
Father: “You teach Jewish history? So you Jewish?”
Me: “Indeed I am” [But I may quit the club if these encounters keep happening.]
Father: “Wow, never met one-a-you before here in Carolina. What’s it mean to be Jewish?
Me: “Well, it’s complicated,”
Father: “So Jews don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah?”
Me: “That’s the only thing all Jews seem to agree on.”
Father: “Well, what’ll you do if we be right and Jesus comes back?”
Me: “I guess I’m going to hell. But I’m going to hell anyway if the rabbis or the mullahs of Islam turn out to be right.”
Father: “The Muslims ain’t right. They want to destroy Israel so Jesus can’t ever come back, right?
Me: “Uh, I’m not really qualified to answer that question. But dialogue between religions is essential if there’s to be peace.”
Father: “Well, there won’t be time for peace when Jesus returns.”
I go to Brookstone to buy a keyboard for my iPad.
Brookstone Sales Lady: “Oh you teach at the college. What subject?”
Me: “Jewish history” [I’m clearly walking into a trap, but alas, I need new material.]
[Her eyes light up as if Jesus himself has come in to buy her gadgets. Though in her defense, I’m wearing sandals and looking rather scruffy and ragged.]
Her: “Well, we need to be best friends!”
Me: “And why is that?”
Her: “Because I’m a Christian! And I need to know everything about the Jews! Are you a Christian?”
Her: “Uh, no, actually I’m Jewish.”
Her [Now practically in tears]: “Oh my, that’s amazing! You people are so special, so chosen!”
Me: “That is the word on the street.”
Her: “Are you a messianic Jew?”
Me: “Alas, no, but to quote the Doobie Brothers, ‘Jesus is just all right with me’”
Her: “And you Jews all have such wisdom.”
Me: “That’s the word in the steam room. And the bathroom. I’m interested in this iPad keyboard. Might you offer a Jewish discount?”
I’m back in the YMCA steam room. It is just me and one other man.
Him: You teach over there at the college, right?”
Me: “I do.”
Him: “History of Mississippi, right?”
Me: “Close. Jewish history.”
[A few minutes pass.]
Him: “Wait!…Wait!… I got it…. Ay voy!”
Me: “Indeed. Though I believe you mean ‘Oy vey!’”
[A few minutes pass.]
Him: “Man, that was some Holocaust!”
Me: “Indeed. Holocaust.”
One of my devout Christian students decides to interrogate my theology.
Student: “So you are raising your children without belief in God?”
Me: “Essentially. At least until they’re old enough to understand the nature of religion.”
Student: “That’s terrible. I don’t know how you can face the world.”
Me: “Why does it bother you so much? And wait a second. We’re Jewish. So if I raised them with God, it wouldn’t include a belief in Jesus. So we’d be going to hell anyway, no?”
Student: “No, no, there will be a special place for the Jews.”
Me: “And where’s that?”
Student: “In the bosom of Abraham.”
Me: “The bosom of Abraham? I’ve read my share of Christian theology, but this is indeed a new one for me. Being ensconced in Abraham’s bosom with millions of other Jews sounds rather unpalatably shvitzy. And what then? What if we still don’t recognize Jesus. Do we go to hell?”
Student: “No, because you will recognize Jesus when you see him.”
Me: “You know what? I think I’d rather just stay in Abraham’s shvitzy bosom. It doesn’t sound so different from the steam room at the YMCA”
Despite being a professional Jew perpetually in the spotlight, North Carolina and its legions of Christian soldiers have been kind to me and my mishpucha, my extended family. We are, after all, the original chosen people who received the covenant at Sinai, begat the Apostles, and perfected the art of curing pastrami. They have made me feel at home, be it in the classroom, the steam room or the bathroom. Carolina is nothing like the treacherous land of exile our Eastern European ancestors endured; Scripture-quoting plumbers are not the sword-wielding Cossacks of yesteryear. But should Jesus ever return, I fear that all bets are off.
Jarrod Tanny is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of ‘City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa’ (Indiana University Press, 2011).
I Survived Teaching Jewish Studies in North Carolina