Religious tolerance -family style

In light of last week's shootings of a postal worker and kids at a Jewish day camp in Los Angeles, our nation's need for religious and ethnic tolerance is more apparent than ever.

But the struggle for tolerance and understanding can be felt right in the home - and even within the same religion. My own family offers an interesting illustration of that struggle.

Thirteen years ago, while Wall Street reached then-dizzying heights, my brother dropped out of graduate school and emigrated to Israel to become an ultra-Orthodox Jew. He studied in a Yeshiva from dawn until midnight, observed the Jewish Sabbath (he even took special Shabbat elevators that stop on every floor), adopted kosher dietary laws, wore the traditional garb (black suit, white shirt, yarmulke and sometimes a hat), and grew a beard and ear locks. He became an Israeli citizen (retaining his American citizenship) at the time of the Gulf War so he could support the land he loves, and he took hard-line positions on the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

All of which drove my family to distraction. My parents prepared for his once-a-year visits by ordering kosher food and coating a shelf in the refrigerator with tin foil. They drove him to an Orthodox synagogue for prayer.

Each visit was a sort of acid test: How long until my Reform Jewish dad blew up over my brother's ultra right-wing politics, his lack of involvement in the "real" world, his absorption in his studies, and his lack of a career? How long until my mother blew up at my father's lack of acceptance. How long until my brother voiced disapproval for our "watered down" Judaism?

Early on, my brother would ask me how I felt about his new life.

"If it makes you happy and doesn't hurt anyone, I think it's terrific," I said. But the feelings weren't mutual. He didn't attend my wedding to a non-Jew, telling me I was breaking thousands of years of Jewish heritage - which made me feel less than terrific. And, two years later, he told me my kids weren't "properly" Jewish because my wife's conversion wasn't Orthodox.

But on a recent visit, the dust finally settled. After my brother solemnly performed the tefilin prayer, wrapping a phylactery to my forehead and arm, he asked if I had any questions.

"Yeah," I said. "How about going to the Cubs game with your sister and me?" We went. He'd never been to Wrigley Field. As we ascended the ballpark steps, I waited to see if the great expanse of green grass, brown dirt, and blue sky would affect him the way it does me. It didn't seem to.

He looked a bit like Fidel Castro in his baseball cap and his long beard. People looked. I had to ask him to remove his cap for the national anthem. I had to sit between my brother and sister because she was wearing a halter top and he felt it might give people the wrong idea. I even held his jacket and prayer book when he went to the men's room. I felt his isolation with vendors hawking food he couldn't eat.

He didn't know balls, strikes, or outs. Yet, after an hour he commented, "It's like looking at the inside of a watch."

"Yeah," I said, "There's a moment when you can't tell if the players activate the ball or if the ball activates the players." He nodded.

We left in the top of the seventh. He had to pray. I had to catch a plane. He said goodbye to my sister without hugging her. Then, as we were getting in the car, that delirious psalm, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," filled the air. We turned in unison. Tears filled my eyes and I belted out the words, joining the faithful from within the park.

My brother looked on with curiosity. I wondered if he was already envisioning being back at the West Wall, prepared to daven and watch people jam scribbled prayers between the cracks.

We hugged and declared our love. It was as if we not only accepted but respected each other for who we were, despite our obvious and profound differences.

I remembered that day when I heard about the tragic shootings. It's too bad our vast extended national family couldn't find some way to sit down together and listen to the crack of a bat. Maybe we'd discover that our differences don't have to lead to the crack of a rifle.

*James Douglas Barron is a writer living in New York with his wife and their two children. He is the author of 'She's had a Baby - and I'm Having a Meltdown' (William Morrow, 1999).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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