On Veteran’s Day, my husband (who had the day off work), my children, and I had lunch at a Taco Bell in the Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul. Taco Bell is one of the very few fast-food establishments at which I’ll eat because I can eat vegetarian there.
(No, Taco Bell is not a kosher restaurant.
Yes, some Jews who keep kosher will not eat there or any other non-kosher restaurant, no matter what vegetarian items they offer.
No, I don’t want to get into a debate about whose kashrut is “more right.”)
So, I’m eating my bean burrito when a middle-aged woman with a lot of makeup and gaudy jewelry and her shirt tag sticking up in back sits down at the table next to us. She keeps eyeing my family, and finally asks, “Excuse me. I hope you don’t mind if I ask, but are you Jewish?”
This is not an uncommon question, especially when kippot are in evidence. (I was wearing my usual black crocheted one with a few iridescent beads sewn on; my husband was wearing a black leather one; and my four-year-old son, who had dressed all in green because he felt like it, was wearing a bright green one to match his outfit.)
I nod to her, swallowing the last of the burrito in my mouth. “Yes, we are.”
“So, do the men wear the black caps and boys wear green ones?”
I have to wonder about the question. I get a lot of questions about women wearing kippot, but never before has anyone assumed that one’s age determined the color one wore. “No,” I say with a slight chuckle, “my son is just wearing green because it matches his outfit today. People can wear whatever color or design they want.”
“Oh,” she says. “There’s a synagogue near where I live. On Fairview?”
I nod again. “There’s an Orthodox synagogue on Fairview.”
“And they wear the black hats and long black coats?” She sounds vaguely excited, like here’s someone who can finally help her sort out what she’s been seeing.
“Yes.” I go on to explain briefly about Chasidic dress and how different communities express their Judaism differently. I make the comparison that the same could be said about Christians.
“So they’re like a cult?” she asks.
“No, not at all,” I say. The cult question throws me a bit, but I can see I’m dealing with someone who knows little to nothing about Jews and Judaism. Odd, though, for someone who lives in Highland Park. “It’s not a cult. It’s just a different expression of their beliefs and their cultural standards.”
“Oh,” she says again. “And do you, what do you call it, keep kosher, with separate dishes and everything?”
“Yes,” I say, keeping it simple. We’re having a hard enough time with comparative forms of Judaism. Best not to explore comparative forms of kashrut.
“So you’re in a cult,” she says, as if she’s just figured out the answer to the universe’s greatest question.
“I have to disagree,” my husband says, trying to be respectful and diplomatic, while getting up and gathering our kids’ stuff.
I decide to forego diplomacy. “No. That's absolutely wrong.”
“Well, anything that denies the power of Jesus Christ is a cult,” she declares.
I feel like I’ve just been slapped, and speak in the heat of the moment: “I’m very sorry you think that way. I hope you learn to be more tolerant of others. This conversation is over.” And I usher our kids out of the restaurant, wondering if chasing us out was exactly what this woman wanted.
I’m furious about this for half an hour, and wonder what other responses I could have used. None are particularly useful; they’d just make me feel better. A few of my then-favorites:
- Look, kids! See the lady sitting next to us? She’s what we call a bigot. She hates Jews for no good reason.
- Really? (feigning interest) And what church teaches this? Where is it located? I’d really like to know (yeah, right, so I can report them to the JCRC).
- Hmm… and you believe in the resurrection of a dead Jew. Hey – that’s a cult!
Today, I asked my friend and fellow writer, Amy, what she would have done in this situation, and as usual, she had an inspirational answer:
“I’ve learned to ask people, ‘Before we go any further, are you asking because you want to learn about me and my being Jewish, or are you asking because you want to tell me how you think I should live my life?’”
What can I say? I have cool friends!
I doubt the lady at Taco Bell could say the same.