OPINION: A Franciscan priest from Brooklyn reflects on Yom Kippur

September 25, 2012 By Father Brian Jordan, OFM St. Francis College
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Wednesday is Yom Kippur and would also be my late mother’s 88th birthday. While growing up in Brooklyn during the late 1950s and 1960s, my siblings and I were taught at a young age to never ever be anti-Semitic.

It was tough to do while growing up in Cypress Hills next to East New York because it appeared that Jews were the common source of derision, among all ethnic groups including the Irish, Italians, Poles, African-Americans and even the new influx of Latinos in the neighborhood. You heard anti-Semitic comments walking back and forth from school — both parochial and public. You heard anti-Semitic slurs in the subways, on buses, in ice cream parlors and even outside banks. Oy vey! You would think Jews were literally sticking everybody up for their life savings with these vicious and unfair diatribes!

However, religious and cultural discrimination against the Jewish people was strictly forbidden in my family household. Why? My maternal grandparents lived with us in a two-story home on Nichols Avenue and shared their experiences with us. They were married in 1915 and lived in an apartment on South Fourth Street in Williamsburg in what was then and still is a mostly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.

For more than 40 years, this Irish Catholic couple was the clear minority but they felt so welcome and at home with their Jewish neighbors that they decided to stay and raise four children, among them my late mother Eileen.

They shared meals. They shared Prohibition, including some homemade bathtub gin. They shared the Great Depression as well as agony and hope during World War II. They shared their great affection for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They shared social times together, including the introduction of many Orthodox Jews to the hallowed Catholic practice called bingo. Grandma even convinced the local Catholic pastor to change the time of bingo from Friday nights to Thursday so the Orthodox Jews could attend in great numbers and not miss the sacred Sabbath.

Back in Cypress Hills, my parents taught us as children to respect Jewish people because the original Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph were born and raised Jewish. In fact, when my mother married my father in 1948, my mother invited numerous Orthodox Jewish families to her wedding and wedding reception. My maternal grandfather carefully arranged that an equal amount of schnapps and matzoh ball soup to be served along with the Irish staples of cold beer corned beef and cabbage.

My father provided his own personal testimony against anti-Semitism. After World War II, he became a Teamster Local 550 truck driver. On his bread route, the clear majority of his customers were Jewish merchants with whom he sustained a great relationship for years. Later on, when he joined the management side of the bread business, it was his Jewish employers who arranged for his promotions that helped to provide for his wife and seven children. As a result, my parents constantly challenged the buffoons who made irresponsible and irreverent anti-Semitic remarks. They both had moxie and constantly asked these bigots to look inside themselves for expiation of their sinful prejudices.

During the years 1965-1967, there was a great turnaround of attitude towards Jews in my neighborhood. Interestingly enough, it just happened to be around the time of Yom Kippur. First in 1965, I vividly recall Catholic, Protestant and Jewish residents in Cypress Hills all chiming in with great respect and tremendous awe for Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitching standout. Koufax refused to pitch in a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year of the Jewish liturgical calendar.

Second, in 1966, my father became the first Irish American Catholic to receive the coveted B’nai B’rith award from the Jewish food merchants who comprised the influential Harvest Lodge of greater New York. This was formally announced on the day before Yom Kippur. A month later, shock waves went through our neighborhood when a rabbi and members of Harvest Lodge came to our home and personally escorted my entire family to the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan for this monumental occasion.

Finally, in 1967, near the eve of Yom Kippur, my father took myself, one of my brothers and some of the local bigots’ sons to a synagogue near Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn to show solidarity with his beloved friend, David Karin of Waldbaum’s Supermarkets. We prayed with our Jewish sisters and brothers to give thanks to God that Israeli defense forces led by Moshe Dayan, were victorious in the Six Day War.

Years later, when I decided to become a priest, it came as no surprise that 90 percent of the New Testament had roots in the Jewish Old Testament. Also, a substantial part of Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine of the priesthood had many influences in Jewish religious tradition.

When I was ordained in 1983, one of my ordination gifts was a huge coffee cup given to me by a Jewish friend. The inscription on the coffee cup read “Jesus saves but Moses invests!” I still cherish that cup after all these years. Jews and Catholics in this country have more in common than we care to admit.

Father Brian Jordan, OFM, is the chaplain at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights.

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