Let walnuts be walnuts

Opinion: Editorials

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By Tom Holmes

As they sipped their decaf coffee and munched on chocolate chip cookies after the interfaith Thanksgiving event last Wednesday evening, Pastor Walter Mitty asked the five other men sitting at his table, "So what did you think?"

"It's about time," said Dan Bailey, editor of the Poplar Park Times, after giving everyone a minute to consider the question. "Ever since our president tried to institute a Muslim ban in 2017, I've been pushing the religious community here to make something like this happen in our community."

"And you know that the small number of us in town appreciate you supporting us," said Ehud Ahmadi with a look on his face that mixed gratitude with sadness. "It did feel good to see my imam on the stage sitting with the other religious leaders."

Rabbi Levine asked, "But what?"

Ehud noticed the irony of a rabbi asking a Muslim how he felt, smiled at his Jewish friend, took a deep breath and answered, "It's complicated. I mean, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, right? So this evening I should be talking about all of the good things I've received since I came here. Everyone at this table has treated me and my family like their neighbors — no better, no worse."

"That's one of many things we have in common, my friend," said the rabbi." I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents telling stories of the Holocaust. They were determined to make me appreciate what I have in this country."

The people around the table fell silent, recalling the stories they had heard growing up, stories meant to frame the present with meaning and perspective.

Ehud broke the silence. "But the reason I said it was complicated is because the interfaith event we just experienced can be taken in more than one way."

"Say more," said Pastor Mitty with piqued interest. He had participated in the event that night with mixed feelings and wanted to hear about Ehud's ambivalence.

Ehud was choosing his words carefully. "On the one hand, I want to teach my children to respect people who think and believe differently than we do. But I also want to pass on to them the faith I love and cherish. The problem, as I see it, is that the picture of all the different traditions having an equal place on the stage can send the message that America is a huge marketplace of ideologies and faith systems and that they are free to choose whichever one they like the best."

"Let me put it another way," said Rabbi Levine. "Ehud and I are both members of small religious minorities, and we worry that our children's religious identity will be eroded by being immersed in this culture. The term is assimilation."

"You know," said Dominique, jumping into the conversation, "Something clicked in my head just now. Part of the American myth is that we are a melting pot and the story goes that people like the grandparents of Father Sullivan here came to this country as immigrants who were different from real Americans but they gradually blended in with everyone else."

"And part of the problem with that story," said Fr. Sullivan, "is that my Irish grandparents were white and could 'melt' in, so to speak, easier that Dominique's forbears."

"And that's why we don't share Black History Month with other ethnicities," Dominique explained. "As a racial cohort, we are coming to the place where we don't want to be just like everybody else. What most of us black folks are trying to do is find our authentic place in this society without sacrificing who we are."

Ehud nodded, "And I want to remain a distinct chocolate chip in the cookie and my friend the rabbi wants to remain a recognizable walnut."

Rabbi Levine said, "That's the challenge the chocolate chip and the walnut face every day. Can we find a recipe that allows us to blend with the other ingredients and still maintain our peculiar identities?"

"And let me put it still another way," said Fr. Sullivan. "If you stay in the realm of rational, abstract concepts, I suppose Ehud could imagine being married to many, many women other than Amna. But if he wants to dive into love in a profound way, he has to get concrete. He chose one out of the many and made a commitment to her, for better for worse."

After he stopped laughing, Ehud said, "How did a celibate guy like you gain such profound insights about married life?! But the guy in the brown habit gets it. Fr. Bob must pray in Jesus' name and I cannot, not if I'm faithful to the tradition I love. Like someone said — authentic religion is like the mafia; you're either all the way in or all the way out."

"The trick in getting along," Pastor Walt thought as he walked home, "is not to throw every religion and philosophy into a spiritual blender and conclude that, in the end, we're all the same. The trick is finding the recipe that allows chocolate chips to remain chocolate chips and walnuts to be walnuts."

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