Living among Orthodox Jews
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Living among Orthodox Jews

From theory to friendship

Living among Orthodox Jews has been an eye-opener for Maria Poggi Johnson, professor of theology at the University of Scranton – a Catholic institution in Pennsylvania.

Born in Scotland and educated at Oxford University and the University of Virginia, Johnson had little knowledge of the observant Jewish community until she moved to what she describes as a “yeshivish” community in Scranton some 15 years ago.

Still, she said, timing is everything.

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Maria Poggi Johnson, a professor of theology and a Christian, will talk in Teaneck about living with Orthodox Jews in Scranton, Pa.

“I’m terribly glad I didn’t come into contact [with this community] before because I might have been a complete jerk,” she joked, describing her earlier incarnation as a “hard-line Protestant.”

Now, however, Johnson – the author of “Strangers and Neighbors: What I have learned about Christianity by living among Orthodox Jews” – has come to appreciate the families with whom she now shares a deep friendship.

The scholar, whose research has focused mainly on religion and culture in Victorian England, will speak at Teaneck’s Cong. Bnai Yeshurun on March 5, presenting “on the ground stories” about her experiences and how she grew into her new life in the midst of an Orthodox community.

“I’ll conclude with some particular things I’ve learned,” she said, “for example, coming to understand that people really like the law and what that means for their lives.”

Johnson, the mother of four, moved into her current home “sort of accidentally,” figuring that while the neighborhood could not be described as upscale, with so many religious people living there, “it wouldn’t get too bad.”

Admittedly, she knew about religious Jews “only in theory. All too often, Christians think Judaism is just a thing that prepared the way for Christ,” she said. “But Judaism is alive and kicking.”

“The thing that struck me most was all those laws. Yet I was meeting people who loved it and were excited about the rules they had to keep. It’s profoundly anti-cultural,” she said, pointing out that the norm is to pursue independence at all costs.

The professor said it’s only by getting close to someone’s life that an outsider can truly learn about another’s culture.

“It’s been eye-opening,” she said, noting that she has become close to two families in particular, “and our kids have grown up together.”

While she occasionally has to explain some of the differences to her own children, “My kids don’t really know anything else,” she said, adding that such proximity is probably helpful in fostering tolerance.

“Day-to-day intimacy, that’s the point,” she said. “Tolerance is all very well. But it’s hard to do when it’s just theoretical.”

Johnson said she knows better than to discuss religion with her neighbors. “They’ll shut you down right away,” she said. Nevertheless, she has spoken at numerous synagogues about her book.

In addition, her experiences have influenced her own teaching, she said. Now, when she teaches about the Torah, she brings in her good friend, a religious woman, to demonstrate that “it’s not just ancient history. This stuff is alive.”

Her new life has also changed how she reads the Bible, “understanding the New Testament as being written entirely by Jews.” Now, she said, she has a sense of what that means, “watching the drama” as the early church wrestles with issues such as how much of the law converts should be asked to observe.

For example, “The gentiles want in, but do they get to eat bacon?” she said.

For more information about Johnson’s presentation, which will take place at the synagogue at 8:30 p.m., call the synagogue, (201) 836-8916.

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