“But your name is Greenberg.”
It was a statement, made in disbelief, that I’d heard countless times. Only on this occasion it was being voiced by a security screener who would decide whether I could fly to Israel or, presumably, be stuck at the Newark airport.
I’d already suffered through a four-hour layover—three more hours before I would depart on my first trip to the Jewish state. I planned to report from the northern border after the 2006 war with Hezbollah, from a kibbutz along the Gaza border and from the prime minister’s conference room.
First, however, I had to convince the airline industry’s most disciplined security guards that there was nothing suspicious about a passenger named Greenberg who never received a Hebrew name and celebrated Christmas instead of Chanukah.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I’m a Christian.”
I’d gotten used to people being surprised to discover I was not Jewish. Poor eyes, curly hair, a thick beard; three Jewish grandparents, including both grandmothers; residence in one of the most identifiably Jewish cities in the world—it had been a long time since I’d been able to pass a Chabadnik without being invited to put on tefillin.
But I’ve been a practicing Christian since I was a small child in San Diego. There my father, a Jew, and my mother, who was raised Catholic, met at Protestantism. Before joining The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in May 2007, I would have considered myself at best Jew-ish. And I really had no idea what that meant.
I had wondered whether I was making a sound professional move when I left the Los Angeles Daily News for the world of Jewish journalism—would I ever be able to return to daily newspapers? But on a personal level I knew it needed to be done.
This was my chance to deeply involve myself in the Jewish community, to educate myself on American Jewish life and maybe, just maybe, sort out what it meant to be a Christian named Greenberg.
This was my teshuvah.
Having left the Jewish Journal in July for law school at UCLA, I’m no closer today to converting to Judaism than when I arrived at the newspaper. But along the way I embraced the Yiddishkeit piece of my identity and exposed some of my own misconceptions about the Jewish community.
Here are a few quick tips from my gentile’s guide to Jewish life:
* Jews don’t call it a yarmulke and Yom Kippur services don’t really start before 10 a.m.
* It’s a Jew’s duty to be critical of Israel, but it’s also an unforgivable sin to be critical of Israel.
* There really is a Republican Jewish Coalition.
My reporting took me from the corner offices of Hollywood CEOs to the front lines of the white supremacist movement to the Israeli border towns under rocket fire from Gaza. (Hollywood, of course, was the most frightening.)
In Israel—I eventually made that flight—I grilled the Israeli prime minister, walked the Holy Land and haggled on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Back in the United States, I profiled Jewish sports stars who give hope to bookish kids everywhere. And in exploring the consequences of the recession on American Jews, I realized just how ignorant my childhood friends had been when they made me the target of all those Jews-and-money jokes (though Bernie Madoff didn’t help).
I never expected to have these opportunities. In fact, if The Jewish Journal’s editor in chief, Rob Eshman, hadn’t approached me, I wouldn’t have had the chutzpah to apply for the job. I didn’t think the community would accept me—and I didn’t blame them.
“The ‘Jewish’ journal continues to employ this Christian with a Jewish name to tell us about Jews,” a reader of my blog, The God Blog, wrote in one of a handful of similar comments in 2007. “How ‘bout this: let the JJ change its name to the ‘Apostate Journal,’ and BG can change his name to Christian Berg.”
But such sentiments were few and far between. I had no illusions about my insider-outsider role in the community, but my story was well known and most people were far more concerned with the news I had to share about Los Angeles Jewish life than whether I was a full-fledged MOT.
And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that Jews are not a monolith. Plenty of people have their own sinuous paths to Jewish life. This was mine.
I wasn’t pretending to be religiously Jewish; this was no Christian mission or religious hybrid. I just found myself so strongly drawn to Jewish values—community building and helping the less fortunate, to education and culture-making, to reading and writing, and to God.
So I decided pretty early on that the best response I could give when asked that common question—“Are you Jewish?”—was to turn it around.
“Well,” I would say, “that really depends on who’s asking.”