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Crossing Paths MAG
I don't think studying world religions is vital. However, I believe that having an open mind and, ultimately, an open heart toward people of other religions is the key to unexpected unions.
When I was eight, I met Ashley on the soccer fields in New Orleans. She was just another normal, giddy girl trying to kick the ball without missing. She had the same mud and gunk mushed between her cleats as I did. Naturally, we became fast friends.
It wasn't until her thirteenth birthday, when I learned she was having a Bat Mitzvah – a Jewish coming-of-age celebration – that I realized Ashley and I weren't exactly the same. I never knew a simple party could be so different from what I was used to. The actual ceremony where Ashley read the Torah in Hebrew was obscure to me. But the afterparty could have been a Hollywood A-list fete. Because she was a creative artist, Ashley's artwork was displayed everywhere, including her painting of a huge tree featured on the invitation, which had also been turned into an ice sculpture. I was given seven party favors for attending. Men hoisted each other in chairs and danced.
This was all great, but what struck me most was Ashley's father's speech. I hadn't realized how important this event was to her family. According to her faith, Ashley was now an adult. A full year of studying and learning Hebrew and scripture was displayed to her friends, family, and guests in three hours. A remarkable part of her life was celebrated, and a new chapter began.
I can't remember Ashley and me ever having a deep discussion about each other's beliefs and faith. There were instances of curiosity when one of us posed a question or simply asked “Why?” For instance, when we had Saturday sleepovers at her house, I always had to wake up early to go to Mass with my family. Ashley's mother would wake me up so I could have breakfast and be ready when my parents came to pick me up – not because she had to, but because she that's what she would have done for her kids. Ashley always stood there in her big pajama shirt and watched me leave.
Being around Ashley's house was a rich experience. I became the fourth child. Ashley's mom was in charge; she was loud and painstakingly organized, but most of all, hardworking. Her dad was more laid back, but added lots of humor. I learned Yiddish words like shmuck (idiot), khurbn (catastrophe – which was used frequently during post-Katrina times), schlep (to drag around, which Ashley's mom often used when she was tired of driving us around). I got to witness first hand how one's faith can effect every aspect of life. Ashley's family ate kosher food, used Hebrew and Yiddish words, and saw the world differently from my family.
Ashley often attended Mass with me during our travel soccer tournaments. She could have stayed at the hotel and slept, but she came and knelt when we knelt, stood when we stood – even went to the alter for Communion with her hands crossed to her chest. She smiled when we held hands for the Our Father. She knew it was important to us, just as we knew her Bat Mitzvah was important to her.
My family became so close with Ashley's that they invited us to their Seder meal during Passover. We felt honored. What an odd picture: Ashley's family surrounded by their extended Jewish family and five devout Catholics ready to share the most important meal of the Jewish year. Just seeing my dad with his “puff daddy” hair in a yarmulke was enough to make my mom chuckle.
The meal was filled with symbolism. To hear the pain and the hardships of the Jews from Scripture and then to think about the Holocaust was humbling. I felt so grateful that Ashley's family survived, and moreover, became a part of my life.
One Monday night later that year, I arrived on their doorstep. Ashley's sister answered the door and screamed, “Mal's here!” I hadn't told them I was coming, but Ashley's mom and dad hurried to get me a plate of brisket and potatoes – Ashley's favorite meal – so I could join them for her last, homecooked meal. I sat at the table taking it all in, tuning out the feverish talk of last-minute packing between Ashley and her mom. In my head, I was thinking about our friendship: the first times we hung out, her Bat Mitzvah, the times we got in trouble (which I can now laugh about), and the fact that I was there, comfortable and more than welcome, on Ashley's last night at home.
Of course I didn't say this out loud, but I truly felt God's grace at the table that night. I was in awe that I had been blessed with an unforeseen but beautiful friendship that I knew would last forever.
Plastic tubs were stacked on top of each other, along with bags, suitcases, pillows, and lamps. Ashley was packed for the University of Texas in Austin. She wouldn't be home until Thanksgiving. We were in her empty room just sitting and thinking, “Is this it?”
She started talking about her worries and excitement, particularly about rushing for sororities. Her mom was pressuring her to pledge the predominately Jewish sorority AEPHI. I knew Ashley would never do what she didn't feel comfortable doing, but just in case, I advised her to decide herself after seeing what each sorority was like.
“If I like it, I might do it,” she replied hesitantly, “because it's a way of staying in touch. And – I know this is far from now and weird to think about – you meet Jewish boys, and you know, that's sort of important to me … for marriage …,” she said.
We had never seriously discussed our faiths until now, the strangest of times. Not even thinking I replied, “I'm sure God will work it out, you know.”
Ashley smiled and said, “I know exactly what you mean.”
Learning about world religions is one thing. But experiencing a religion other than your own is an experience that can give you many riches. I would never have known that Ashley's family was any different from my own if I hadn't gotten to know them so well. In fact, it's easy to see they are avid Saints fans, uptown residents, loud people, seafood eaters (they break the rules), affected by Katrina and the economy – pretty much your average New Orleans citizens. But I can't imagine what my childhood would have been if I hadn't become friends with Ashley.