For many people, the first significant encounter with someone of a different faith happens on the day their child brings home a Jewish boyfriend or a Baptist girlfriend. Suddenly, questions of holidays and Sabbaths, eating restrictions, and even clothing loom large. Why don't I know more about this faith? Will he be offended by a shrimp appetizer? Will she need to find the nearest Catholic church on Sunday?
Here's where a new book - "Understanding Your Neighbor's Faith: What Christians and Jews Should Know About Each Other" - could come in handy. Organized by Rabbi Philip Lazowski, a Holocaust survivor and rabbi emeritus of Beth Hillel Synagogue (a Conservative congregation) in Bloomfield, Conn., the book includes a long explanation of Judaism in all its forms, as well as chapters on a range of Christian sects, written mainly by the clerics of those faiths.
When he led an ecumenical journey to the Holy Land in February 2000, Rabbi Lazowski realized that his 75 pilgrims had questions about each other's beliefs - made real by visits to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall. Lazowski believed that a book about the different faiths could remove "religious misinformation" and offer an "invitation to friendship" among the faiths.
"Understanding Your Neighbor's Faith" is probably not meant to be read cover to cover. In fact, a reader might be better off dabbling in different chapters and learning all sorts of fascinating tidbits:
• Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, is probably the basis for the Lord's Prayer.
• The liturgy of the Word in the Roman Catholic Mass was taken from Jewish services.
• The Greek word for Easter, Pascha, is a transliteration of the Hebrew word Pesach, or Passover.
• St. Francis of Assisi popularized the custom of the crèche by creating a live manger filled with straw on Christmas Eve in the Italian town of Greccio.
Even more than the tidbits, we can find important religious information, such as the origins of anti-Semitism or how Orthodox Christians use icons as an aid to prayer.
Some writers are quite direct. Baptists, says Bishop LeRoy Bailey Jr., believe that "those who refuse to receive Christ are unrepentant in their unbelief and are under the curse. This will lead to eternal damnation."
But then there are the Unitarian Universalists. A member of that church, says W. Robert Chapman, "can easily be a theist, a deist, a pagan, a humanist, or even an atheist - bound together by religiously informed moral and ethical principles drawn primarily from the Judaic and Christian traditions."
Unfortunately, most of the writers shy away from hard questions that outsiders often ask about the traditions or rules of their faith. The Roman Catholic chapter, for instance, ignores the question of the ordination of women. The Anglican chapter hardly mentions the foibles of Henry VIII. The chapter about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) doesn't talk about the church's early history of multiple wives or clearly explain who a "latter-day saint" is.
And although no one said the book had to be inclusive of all Christian sects, I was surprised to see so many missing. There are no Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Lutherans, Quakers, Christian Scientists, or Dutch Reformed. Methodists appear only briefly in a chapter on the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
The biggest gap of all, though, is the absence of one of the fastest-growing religions in America: Islam. We're almost as likely these days to have a neighbor who's Muslim - estimates say there are between 5 million and 8 million in the US - as to live next to someone who belongs to an Orthodox Christian church (estimated by one count at about 5 million). There are still tensions between Christians and Jews, of course, but there are almost certainly more misunderstandings between Muslims and Jews and between Muslims and Christians.
Despite these omissions, "Understanding Your Neighbor's Faith" might be useful for the comparative religion lessons in Sunday school. In the long run, a book like this can help build goodwill, if not a complete understanding of another faith.
• Debra Bruno is assistant editor of Moment Magazine, a Jewish publication based in Washington, D.C.