When I was growing up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1960’s and 1970’s, most of my friends were Jewish. I can say with confidence that I went to more seders than novenas, and attended more bat and bar mitzvahs than First Communion parties. At one point, I had been to so many bar mitzvahs that I was able to recite a few Hebrew blessings, which I did to great acclaim during dinner at a friend’s house when I was in junior high school. "Did you learn that in Sunday school?" asked my friend’s father.
So I have never really understood why the phrase "Some of my best friends are Jewish" is supposed to be some sort of joke. My best friends were indeed Jewish; it seemed quite natural, and still does.
My years as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania were similar: the majority of my friends were Jewish. It was there that I added to my knowledge of Yiddish phrases, which would serve me well when I moved to New York City after graduation. At college I learned the difference between mazel and mazel tov, between goy and goyim, and I found out exactly what a schmuck is.
More interesting for me, though, were the reactions that even my tepid Catholicism drew in college. Some of my friends, for example, used to ask to join me at Mass on Sundays, where I happily taught them how to bless themselves, when to kneel and to stand and, most important, how to avoid slamming the kneelers.
During my junior and senior years, I lived with my friends off-campus in a decrepit but spacious Victorian rowhouse in West Philadelphia. For our first Christmas, the few Christians in the house decided to buy a tree. For many of my Jewish housemates, this was their first Christmas tree and, quite frankly, they were more excited about the festivities than we Christians were. One of my friends, Andy, asked tentatively about the protocol for hanging ornaments: "Am I allowed to put one on?"
One night a few months later, the conversation turned to Lent. "What is Lent? Why do Catholics give things up?" Finally, a provocative question from my friend Rob: "Who decides what you’ll give up this year?"
"Gee," I said, "I do."
"Isn’t that kind of easy?" he asked. "Wouldn’t it be harder if someone else told you what to give up?"
Rob had a point. So when he asked if he could decide what I would give up that year, I agreed. Besides, I was curious about what he might choose.
Rob took the decision quite seriously, even soliciting suggestions from the rest of the house. (Giving up beer was rejected as being impossible.) Finally, on Ash Wednesday Rob announced that I would be giving up Sunkist orange soda (which I drank in great quantities as an aid to late-night studying) and candy. It was a decided challenge, but one that I met, breaking my abstinence with a sugary binge on Easter morning.
Since then-for over 20 years-Rob has called me up every Ash Wednesday to assign me my Lenten sacrifice. But it’s not the only thing I’ve received from Rob: he has long been enormously supportive of my Jesuit vocation-even at the very beginning, when none of my friends were quite sure what I was doing. When I told him that in the novitiate we were studying Jewish Christians, that is, the early church, he laughed and said, "Like you?"
This year, I got the call early. In truth, the Lenten sacrifices have grown easier over the years: for 2002 I am to avoid anything with crushed red pepper (there’s usually a silly part) and chewing gum (which is supposed to be the hard part). Rob and his wife, Andrea (who now participates in the decision), aren’t aware that I don’t chew gum, but I didn’t tell him.
"You know," I said instead, "I’m getting worried that one of these days you’re going to give me something really hard to give up."
He laughed. Another reason to stay on my good side.