We savor some interfaith harmony

When my younger brother was in 11th grade, in 1965, he brought a classmate home from high school. "Since my brother is off at college," he asked, "could Linda have his bedroom for next year?"

Linda's father, it developed, was in the Foreign Service, and was about to be posted to Khartoum. While Sudan was somewhat more peaceful in the mid-1960s than it has been more recently, it did host occasional anti-American demonstrations. It also had no appropriate school, and Linda did not want to spend her senior year of high school at boarding school in Switzerland. She wanted to stay at Wheaton (Md.) High School with her friends. She asked her friends if anyone had a spare bedroom. In due course my brother brought her home, along with her question.

My parents were agreeable, but Linda's parents had one concern: Her mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and my family was Jewish. Would my family undertake, insofar as it was possible, to continue to encourage Linda to be a good Catholic? So, among other things, my father agreed to drive Linda to Mass every Sunday, and my mother promised that Linda would have nonmeat dishes available on Fridays.

It worked fine for a while. My parents were transplanted New Englanders who loved fish and would happily have eaten it several times a week, but Linda regarded eating any form of fish as a great sacrifice. One of the compromises that developed was that Linda developed a taste for potato latkes (pancakes) and matzo balls. She promoted their inclusion in Friday dinners.

I was the one who caused the crisis. There came a Jewish holiday (perhaps it was Rosh Hashanah, the New Year) when I came home unexpectedly from college for the holiday. My mother welcomed me home like the Prodigal Son, and was busy all afternoon cooking the traditional festive dishes when she suddenly realized it was Friday. Surely she couldn't feed the rest of the family my favorite (at that time, lamb chops) and sentence Linda to be the only one not eating meat.

She didn't have enough fish to redesign a fancy dinner around it. Linda wasn't home from school yet to discuss alternatives. So my mother went to the phone book and called the priest at the local parish church.

"I'm not sure how these things work," she explained to the priest, "but there is this girl who lives with my family, and she is a good Catholic, and is there some kind of special arrangement I could make so that she can eat meat on Rosh Hashanah?"

The ensuing conversation was rather confusing, but eventually the priest understood. He agreed that it was entirely appropriate, under the circumstances, for Linda to have a dispensation to eat meat that Friday evening.

Linda didn't believe my mother. Her mother had drummed "no meat on Friday" into her so hard that she had to call the priest and have him explain that, yes, it really was OK on this occasion.

The priest later came for a visit. He was clearly impressed that a Jewish family had made such adjustments to welcome a Catholic "daughter." He told my father that such an effort at interfaith relations merited any dispensation needed to cope with Jewish holidays. My father offered to make a donation to the parish poor fund each time such an accommodation was needed. The priest insisted that wasn't necessary but was delighted at the offer. He said we could have all the dispensations we needed.

Family traditions can grow from strange beginnings. The Jewish holiday of Purim (March 18 this year) celebrates the events recounted in the biblical Book of Esther. It is an occasion for a joyous feast and party, but usually comes during Lent. In later years, my father took to inviting Catholic friends to dinner for Purim and assuring them that the parish priest would grant any dispensation necessary, in the interests of interfaith friendship.

Thirty-seven years have gone by, and every year I still offer a few friends a brief dispensation from Lent on the occasion of Purim. If they want to accept, I call their priest or minister, tell this story, and ask for the dispensation. I've never been turned down yet.

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