Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Accidental Missionary

I have been trying to think of an appropriately holiday-themed topic for my blog post this week, but I couldn't come up with anything. I was writing about the stupid War on Christmas bullshit that is the most useless movement in the history of life (people, saying Happy Holidays is not an insult to Christians) but it was getting long and preachy and not very exciting.

As I was writing it, though, I remembered a funny little story from my childhood. And what's more Christmassy than a story about childlike curiosity, youthful naivety and friendship? I can't help but chuckle to myself as I'm writing it, so I hope you think it's funny too.

When I was a kid, around nine or ten years old, I got a pen pal through one of those Let's All Be Friends and Hold Hands With Kids Around The World type programs. It didn't last long - maybe two letters each - before we stopped caring about each other. My pen pal was a little girl from New York who I'm sure was a very nice person despite our general indifference to continue the letter-writing friendship after the novelty wore off.

I don't remember her name, but I'll pretend it is Hannah. One of the first things Hannah told me about herself in her initial letter to me was that she was Jewish. I found that very exotic and exciting. I didn't know many Jewish people and, because I was nine and stupid, I figured that she probably didn't know many Christians or much about Christianity.

I was curious about Judaism. I knew that Jews celebrated some sort of weeklong holiday called Hannukah around the same time that us Gentiles were waiting for Santa, but I didn't know anything about Hannukah or what Jewish holiday traditions were like.

I wanted to ask her, but I thought it would be rude to just ask her for information and not give her any of my own. We were pen pals, after all; it was all about getting to know one another, and sharing parts of you with someone else in the name of cultural harmony and yada yada yada. So I figured that, if I was going to ask her what Hannukah was like, I should tell her about Christmas.

Now, I've told you this before, but my family is not religious. So I didn't have much of a religious background to go on when it came to educating the Jews about Jesus. All I really knew was the stuff I had learned from movies and books and other media that are produced by a predominantly Christian society. You know the kid-appropriate version of the story: woman gives birth to baby god and world is saved.

What I failed to realize, of course, was that as a Jewish New Yorker, Hannah had probably also absorbed the same messages about Jesus and the same story of Christmas that I had picked up from TV. It didn't occur to me at the time that just by virtue of being Jewish, Hannah wouldn't suddenly not understand what Christmas is. It didn't clue in that kids of all religions living in New York and watching American movies and TV probably had the same idea I did about Jesus and the nativity and all that jazz.

So in my good-natured ignorance, I decided to educate Hannah about Jesus.

I cracked open my pen and paper and started writing a long-winded letter about the story of Christmas. I told her all about how Mary got pregnant  but it wasn't Joseph's baby (and I am not 100% sure I even fully understood the implications of that at nine or ten), and how God impregnated her and Jesus was going to save the world and everyone was happy and wise men brought presents.

I feel like I need to repeat this: I was trying to inform, not sway. I was a little kid, I didn't even have an opinion on religion yet; I was just interested in Judaism and figured Hannah might be interested in Christianity, purely from a similar place of intellectual curiosity. I wasn't even sure whether I believed in god myself; I was just trying to shoot the shit with my pen pal and hoped for some repricocity in the way of learning about Judaism from a peer's perspective.

My mom was sitting near me as I was writing the letter. She probably just thought it was cute or something that I was so into my little pen pal hobby, and she asked what I was writing to Hannah about.


"Telling her what you want to get this year?"

"No, I'm telling her the story of Christmas, cause she's Jewish."


My mom lifted her head. "You're what?"

"She's Jewish, and so I thought maybe she would be interested in the story of Christmas and Jesus and Mary and all that cause she won't know about it."

My mother frowned very tightly. "You're telling a little Jewish girl the story of Jesus?"


"And she didn't ask you about it?"


I was beginning to sense something was wrong.

"Caterpillar, I don't think you should tell her that story."

Now it was my turn to frown. Here I was, proving my genuine interest in things cultural and forging an important nondenominational bond with a Jewish girl, and my mom was crashing my dreams. "Why not?"

"Because for one thing, she probably already knows it. But even if she didn't know it, I don't think her parents would like that very much."

"Why? What's wrong with teaching someone?"

My mom sighed. This was, of course, a question way more loaded than nine-year-old me could ever have understood. And this is where my memory goes blank a bit, because although my mom tried her best to lay it all out in kid-appropriate language, this was the point in the conversation that got too complicated for me to follow. I didn't quite understand all the delicate intricacies of Christian privilege, Jewish persecution, religious tension, or any of the other complicated issues involved in a seemingly innocent conversation among little girls of different cultural backgrounds.

What I did gather from my mom's explanations was that this was all way bigger than I realized. In the much-simpler vocabulary of little girls, I protested to my mom that I wasn't anti-Semitic. My mom, bless her, immediately acknowledged that was true and that she knows I didn't mean to be insensitive; just that talking about religion was maybe not an appropriate subject for my Jewish pen pal whom I had never even met in real life.

I sighed. My letter was epic, guys. It was a grand story of courage, humility, love, and friendship - and Jesus. I was really sad that Hannah would never read it, although I accepted my mom's concerns that it wouldn't be right. I don't remember what I ended up writing to her about instead, but I'm pretty sure my mom looked it over before it went in the mail.

And that is the story of how I almost became an unintentional Christian missionary before middle school!

Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah, everyone, and indulge like crap over the holidays - you damn well deserve it. And, Hannah, wherever you are, I am sorry our pen palship didn't last. You were the best two-letter friend I ever had.

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