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Catholic Chronicles of a Jew
by Anna Eskenazi Bush
I am a Sephardic Jew which means that during the Spanish Inquisition my relatives were kicked out of Spain along with any other Jews that would not convert to Catholicism. Jews make up one percent of the world’s population and Sephardim make up one percent of that one percent. Mine is a Hispanic heritage that truly is a minority. Anyway, my ancestors fled from Spain to Turkey, so I have that heritage too.
I grew up in a black ghetto in Brooklyn, New York. Once I went to a wedding at a Catholic Church. My mom’s friend Fannie couldn’t wear white because it was her second marriage. I don’t think I was supposed to, but I took Communion at that wedding, not really knowing what it was.
When I was twelve, my parents moved to a mixed neighborhood. That was my first in depth encounter with Catholicism. My best friend, Mary Theresa Elizabeth Margaret H****** was from a large Catholic family, six kids to be exact. She went to St. ****** CatholicSchool during the 1970’s when nuns still hit hands with rulers. Two of her uncles were Priests, including one that I spent many afternoons chatting with on Mary’s porch. Her uncle had a great sense of humor and a terrific appetite for alcohol.
When I was in my late teens, my foster brother was engaged to an Italian Catholic woman. Because he did not wish to convert, they would not be permitted to marry at the altar.
My next experience with Catholicism was with a volunteer at the United Cerebral Palsy Center. Anthony was working there when I did a theater workshop for the clients. We became friends and Anthony told me that I was the most Christian woman he had ever met—except for the fact that I was Jewish.
In my late teens, I fell in love with a singing group called The Roches, three sisters from New Jersey who were, as you may have guessed Catholic. They were a bit unusual in that although it was apparent they were deeply spiritual and ingrained in their religion, at the same time their view was a somewhat unconventional. For example, when they did the “Hallelujah Chorus,” they sang, “She rules the world with truth and grace.”
In college I studied to become a teacher. At the university, I met Ed. He was Catholic and it took until years later for him to be able to be openly gay.
Also in college, I had to go to a high school to observe for twenty hours before doing my student teaching. I was assigned to Notre DameHigh School. I had the great fortune of being assigned to a sister that turned out to be really progressive. When her students brought up the issue of gay people and suggested that we put them all on an island and blow them up, she responded by saying that we must “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” I thought that was pretty cool for a nun.
Many years later and many miles away from Brooklyn, I ended up in WesternNew YorkState, not too far from Buffalo. For a while, I worked at a state college in the area. All was going well until a new Vice-President was hired. I called her “Hitler in a skirt.” She was able to get rid of me and a professor who was a lesbian. The other Jew was able to hang on to his job since he was tenured.
After a great deal of moving around the western part of the state with my two children, whom I had custody of after my divorce, I settled in a small city. I had been dating a man—Catholic of course—when I had yet another “they hired a new boss so I lose my job” situation. My boyfriend helped me as I searched for a new position. Looking at the newspaper classified ads, he said, “you can do this!” The “this” he was referring to was the position of Vice-Principal—of a CatholicSchool.
“Well, yeah, I could do that, but would they want me?”
“All you can do is apply and see.”
And I did.
And they did.
I was interviewed by the newly hired Principal (a lay person), the Interim Principal (who was a nun) and a Priest (who would be serving as President of the school). The Principal and I just seemed to click; later she would tell people that I was her Jewish sister. The Priest, being well educated, already knew that I was Jewish. They both thought it was cool that I wanted to work there. “Do you have a problem with attending Mass?” I told them about Mary, her uncle the Priest, and how I used to go to folk Mass with Mary on a regular basis. I told them how at one point in my life I had attended a MethodistChurch because that was the only place in one of the small towns I felt accepted. They actually invited my daughter and I to play songs in Church for the Jewish holidays. Of course, none of this should be too surprising since Jesus was a Jew.
After the interview, I went to see my beau. I told him, “I think she’s going to offer me the job, and I think I’m going to accept.”
It seemed like a dream come true. After years of working for various organizations that seemed to have no soul, I had just landed a job in education that would nourish my mind, body and spirit. Well, it did many other things too.
Just one year before the media blitzed the Catholic Church with the Priest abuse scandals, I learned first hand that the spirit of the law is not always observed by the most religious. Of course, I was well aware of hypocrisy before this happened. My favorite musical to do/direct/choreograph/watch was and is Godspell, which is the Gospel according to St. Matthew. It is directed to those who “make a show of their religion” but “do not life a finger to help their fellow man” – in other words, hypocrites. During that year, the trials that my Catholic sister and I went through were referred to as “being to hell and back” by the Brother who was the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Buffalo. Brother tried to educate our school board as to what their role was and what the administration was to do, but to no avail.
Rumor circulated. Illegal/criminal acts were committed, including phone tapping. I kid you not. On top of all of this, I had enrolled both of my children in this school system. At the end of the year, we were abruptly informed that a retired military lieutenant was going to be installed above the principal. Immediately, my Catholic sister quit. I was not able to do so, being a single parent. I was told that I would be taking a seven thousand dollar cut in my already meager pay. I was being removed from the vice-principalship and would be working in other areas I had already started in, such as grant writing, fund raising, and so forth. Luckily, I soon found another job.
My next job was teaching English in a public school in a very small town, not too far from my home. My daughter still attended the Catholic school, but only for a year. Despite the fact that the original agreement was that my children would attend for free, I was forced to pay a fair percentage of my daughter’s tuition this year. I understand that I no longer worked there, but it is not for my lack of commitment. I purchased a home in the area and jumped full force into my obligations. Perhaps I was simply meant to be a wandering Jew.
There were some great things about working at the Catholic school. There was Sister Mary Helen, whom the kids lovingly referred to as Sister Hairy Melon. What I loved most about Sister was that she would pray with passion on a moment’s notice. She did not have to prepare a ceremony or sermon. She had such faith that she knew if she stumbled over her words she would still be understood.
Then there was Father Glen who showed up at synagogue for Yom Kippur services. Although I could not really tell if he was friend or foe, I appreciated his passion for learning.
In addition to these things, there is the fact that I still maintain my friendships with Mary, Anthony and Ed. I am now married to my Catholic boyfriend. We belong to a Catholic Church which has its pros and cons. On the one had, during services I find it difficult to deal with some of the material and of course communion is nothing but that for me. On the other hand, through the church, we get to serve others. On Christmas we deliver meals to shut-ins and my husband and I added our own touch by also bringing small gifts to these people. One year we had some gifts left over, so we decided to deliver those to people who had to work that day, mostly in convenience stores.
So what was the point of all this? I started writing this story out of frustration. When I feel injustice I tend to want to write. By the time I get around to completing the work, my frustration has been released. Sometimes it’s because I can let it all out on the paper. More often than not, it is because I take such a long time to complete my work that the frustration seems to be a lifetime ago.
When I first moved from the big city to rural western New York, I was frustrated by the good ol’ boy network and sexist attitudes I felt were so prevalent. When I was younger, I never understood why my mom had bothered with her women’s groups in the city. While living there, I always felt that I could and would be anything I wanted to. Not so in rural America. From that frustration was born a publication I would edit and produce for five years to give a voice to rural women. Subscribers were both men and women, local and not-so-local.
So the point? I guess you take from this whatever you wish. A new thought? An idea of how to handle a door that has recently closed in your life? Whatever you take, I wish you the best, with love. For that is all each of us can truly do.