Jean Coppock co-directs CCD classes with Eric
by Eric Zuckerman, SJ
Consider for a moment, if you will, a recent photo on the front page of the New York Times. Two men are shaking hands -- one of them a Roman Catholic cardinal of the French Church, the other the chief rabbi of France. Ordinarily, such an occurrence would not appear unduly complex. The Catholic Church, especially since Vatican II, has profoundly deepened its dialogue with other religious traditions, Judaism one of them. The heightened complexity of this particular photograph is due to a number of circumstances, though none perhaps more inescapable than the fact than the cardinal shaking the rabbi's hand is by birth and initial upbringing a Jew.
I have studied Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger's life and thinking quite carefully, for I, too, by birth and initial upbringing am a Jew. I am also a member of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus. For the past nine years these disparate identities have continued to unfold with surprising complexity as well as rich apostolic opportunity. There are few (if any) road maps available to navigate this thinly charted terrain.
Complexity, however, remains for me the salient characteristic of being a Jesuit of Jewish background, for the history of Judaism's involvement with the Church, as any reader of history or the gospels well knows, is as complex as it is integral to its makeup.
And I have found that when one places the initials SJ after a name like Zuckerman, curious things can happen.
The circuitous path to my Jesuit vocation began with a frighteningly presumptuous challenge to God on my part at age thirteen, when I was a seventh grader at Merrick Avenue Junior High in Merrick, N.Y., on Long Island's south shore. The challenge (which found its way into a poem I wrote some 30 years later, included in these pages) occurred a few months after my bar mitzvah at the Reform Jewish Congregation in Merrick and a visit with my family to the New York World's Fair, where we saw Michelangelo's Pietà, an image that haunted me by its power. I had the strange feeling I would be dealing with those faces at some future point.
I was alone in my room shortly after that trip. I felt an impelling hunger to know, which was swelling within, and I suspected what I was hungering for was God. I challenged whatever that movement was.
"Who are you?" I spoke to the air in my room. "And if you are, please let me know." (I surmised if I did this with no response back, I'd be free to forget the matter entirely, satisfied I'd done all I could.)
The weight of the air in the room suddenly and tangibly changed, sort of deepening. I felt a mesmerizing joy, uniquely other, slowly filter through me, then mount, then really mount, until I had to push it away with the stunning awareness that this living God I had been hearing about all these years really was living, and seemed to be living in me!
However, there was one slight problem with this splendid epiphany of mine: the name affixed to this entity infusing through my bones was Jesus. What was a nice Jewish boy going to do with that?
The thought of going to my rabbi with the story of my "epiphany" didn't sit too well. My parents, both as loving and caring as any child could hope for, were not at all religious -- "culturally" Jewish, you could say. So I found myself in the bewildering predicament of being the recipient of a profound (to my mind) grace, but without a single soul I could share it with. I spent the next ten years running from the repercussions of a prayer answered.
I finished high school, went to college for a year, and then moved to New York, where I ran an elevator in Times Square for four years in order to support my writing, which at that time was mostly lyrics for off- and off-off-Broadway musicals.
Over those years, the dialogue between Jesus and myself continued. But with that exchange came the realization that my heart, soul, and passion were viscerally tied up with Jesus yet coupled with a totally Jewish background that, in certain schools of thought, was considered at best an unfortunate, rogue exception, or at worst, aberration itself.
I formally entered the Church in 1978 at age 26 and embarked on what I thought would be a career in cooking. I trained at the California Culinary Institute and worked as saucier at Domain Chandon in the Napa Valley and as executive chef at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle.
My time in that city marked the start of my being drawn to the religious life. I had met some Jesuit scholastics in San Francisco, but my first "vocational" contact with a Jesuit was with Fr. Patrick O'Leary, rector at Gonzaga University, the person most influential in my decision to join the Society of Jesus in 1988.
During the second year of my novitiate, I was sent on "experiment" to Jesuit High in Portland, Oregon, for a semester of teaching. Upon arrival, I heard from a Jesuit there that a faculty member of the English department was Jewish and that he'd "heard about me." And though that English teacher and I have become close friends over the years, I'll never forget the look in his eyes upon being introduced to me in the teacher's lounge. To say that those eyes were attentive would be only mildly descriptive. The word grilling comes to mind. Piercing would work, too. That initial response has grown familiar as other Jews have learned of my status as a Jesuit who converted from Judaism.
And I am certain this reaction has much to do with the complex and oftentimes painful historical intertwining of both traditions as well as the unfortunate notion of supersessionism that permeated the Church's sensibilities until Vatican II. This mind-set of supersessionism -- that the "new covenant in Christ" has superseded or supplanted the original covenant with the Jewish people -- was intrinsically tied to the Church's interreligious outlook and relationship with the Jewish community for most of its history.
Rightly or wrongly, many Jews suspected that any dialogic overtures made by the Church were done with the ultimate hope of their "finally seeing the truth," as it were, abandoning their own faith traditions and joining the side they "should have joined" long ago.
Needless to say, colossal emotions are raised by such a stance, and one might begin to understand that initially cautious look in my friend's eyes. If he exuded a healthy dose of suspicion back then, he was not without historical fodder in doing so.
This fairly pervasive perception by many in the Jewish community is sadly grounded in fact. And though the Declaration on the Church's Relation to Non-Christian Religions in the documents of Vatican II specifically speaks against this supersessionist approach, the residue from centuries of its prominence in the Church is still painfully with us. For instance, when conversations regarding the politics of Israel come around in Jesuit rec rooms, eyes still flicker toward me despite my twenty years of being Catholic. People I minister to almost always ask me about my conversion. It intrigues them. Was it easy? Was it hard? And always, always -- how do your parents feel?
Instances such as these have inculcated within me a profound sense of how truly complex and potentially volatile the vocation of being a Jesuit of Jewish background can be, especially when relating to Jewish persons, and how deftly one must tread in this regard. And when I find myself being met with some cautious initial reactions from Jewish individuals I encounter, I see this as a highly graced and privileged opportunity to help break down some long-fostered and deeply felt notions toward both the Church and the Jesuits that were formed before Vatican II and that have had little exposure to changes brought about since then.
Like Cardinal Lustiger, I still feel I have retained my Jewishness despite my belief in Jesus as Lord. I'm not sure I could divest myself of that identity even if I wanted to. Coming to the Jesuits with a background grounded in Judaism is an enormous help and blessing to me as a vowed religious preparing to be ordained a priest. The prayers of blessing said by the priest over the bread and wine at mass are more or less the same ones I prayed in my youth. I resonate deeply with them as I do with all the mass, which, among other things, is basically an extension of a Jewish meal.
In this final year before my ordination, God willing, I see my apostolic focus as a Jesuit priest centered primarily around the eucharistic table, poetry, and the proclamation of God's word. My Jewish upbringing has been heavily infused with the sensibilities of word and table, respect and love of ritual, and a profound quest for learning. All of these have translated seamlessly into my Jesuit life. And due to the not insignificant remnant of Jewish theology and liturgical practice still inherent in Catholicism, a Jewish upbringing has given me a highly efficacious tool in attempting to show commonality between both traditions.
Though both clearly have divergent tracks, the paths have moments of striking proximity as scripture often reminds us. I remember some sermons I've preached when the readings reflected such closeness. I remember, as well, being deeply grateful at such times for my Jewish past, whose cherished strains profoundly enrich my Jesuit life and ministry.
by Eric Zuckerman, SJ
What if you, as a sifter, stood alone
what if you
What if you breathed
then stood beneath