Can't Always Tell A Priest By His Collar
Copyright 2021 by Frank Stern
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
lights illuminated the concrete walkway, lending a festive air to the
quiet suburban neighborhood. Cameras snapped and whirled as community
leaders, church dignitaries, parishioner families and invited guests
in animated conversation trekked their way through the open maple
doors. The minister said “Welcome” to each person who
entered – as did the President of the Board and the President
of the Women’s Auxiliary. The local Methodist church was
dedicating its new sanctuary.
congregation of mostly thirty- to fifty-year-olds, the Board of
Directors and the minister decided to use this occasion to emphasize
their commitment to interfaith understanding and cooperation. As the
rabbi of a small Reform Jewish synagogue of seventy-five families, I
was invited to offer a benediction after dinner. The guest speaker –
constantly quoted in the press for his ecumenical and interfaith
endeavors – was the only Greek Orthodox priest for miles
around. We sat next to one another at the head table.
was struck by
the differences between us.
priest wore a
solid black suit, a black clerical shirt, dark shoes and white socks.
A white collar ringed his neck. Upon his head sat a high black cap. I
wore a navy-blue gabardine suit, a solid azure-blue linen shirt, a
diagonally-striped tie, black shoes and blue-and-grey argyle socks.
My head was bare.
appeared to be
an older man. His beard was speckled with grey. Thick bushy eyebrows,
a furrowed brow and hair in his ears highlighted his face. He spoke
with a pronounced foreign accent. I was in my twenties, just three
years out of the seminary. The synagogue was my first full-time job
after my ordination. My hair was close-cropped. I sported no facial
hair. No hair graced my ears. I played basketball in college and
stood a head taller than Father Constantine.
when he said he also enjoyed sports and played football in college.
Then I realized he meant soccer.
Apparently, he played
very well. By the time he graduated, he was team captain and had
scored 27 goals.
one time, both
of us lived in modern Israel. Eager to explore the Holy Land, the
good father joined an Egyptian tour right after his college
graduation. At the time, he spoke neither English nor Hebrew. He
shared the following malapropism: He was invited to share a meal with
a Greek Orthodox family in Jerusalem. He knew the man was
his host and his wife his hostess.
he left at the end of the meal, he said to the man and woman in all
sincerity, “Thank you for your hostility.”
the same embarrassment when I was learning conversational Hebrew. I
asked a pretty Israeli coed to join me for drinks at an outdoor café
in Jerusalem. She had blue eyes, wore an open-collar white silk
blouse, and combed her blond hair into on long braid she tossed over
her right shoulder. The Hebrew word for eye-glasses is mishkefayeem,
and the Hebrew word for slacks is michnesayeem.
she’d look better without eye-glasses, and I told her so.
“You’re very attractive,” I said, “but I
think you’d look prettier with your michnesayeem off.”
I never saw her again.
shared a few
more Holy Land incidents while the catering staff prepared our tables
for dinner. The women dressed in white blouses and black skirts and
the men in long-sleeved white shirts and black pants placed
cloth-covered baskets of fresh bread, small bowls of peanuts and
M&Ms, small containers of butter and cream, and several salt
pepper shakers on each table. Realizing the meal would begin soon,
guests began moving to their assigned seating.
most memorable experiences in Israel,” I shared, “was
attending the candlelighting service at the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre on Christmas morning. The Greek Orthodox service started
around 10:00 AM. Everyone in the church extinguished his candle. For
a while, we all stood quietly in the utter darkness. Then a priest
inside the tomb lit the first candle. From that candle, he lit a
second. Within moments, the flame leaped from candle to candle until
the entire crypt was filled with flickering fires. It was
notice the catering service?” asked the President’s wife,
taking her seat on the dais next to me.
yes. Their trucks were parked outside when I first entered the
sanctuary. Have you used them before?” I asked.
is the first time. I tasted all the dishes myself before we hired
them. And they come with a wonderful reputation. My husband and I are
encouraging them to open a facility here in Johnson City.”
President joined the conversation. “It’s so great having
you with us, rabbi.”
picked up a
copy of the printed menu at each diner’s place and handed it to
me. “I know you have certain dietary restrictions. Are you okay
with the food we’re providing you?”
I’m quite pleased, Mr. Howard. A woman from the Women’s
Auxiliary contacted me over a month ago to get my meal selection. I
thought that was very sensitive.”
offered an entrée choice of roast beef, pork chops, shrimp
salad or vegetarian lasagna. In order the maintain some of the
dietary laws, I chose lasagna. The priest chose pork.
welcomed everyone and talked a bit about what a historic occasion was
tonight’s community gathering in the new sanctuary. Then
Congressman Leonard Davis spoke, followed by Mayor Dalemore. The
minister shared his own deep-felt gratitude for the support and
encouragement the church had received from “many, many”
members of the community at large, offered his thanks to God and
blessed the food we were about to eat.
women, special assistants to the caterer, were assigned to bring food
to our table and to care for our needs. First, they offered a
non-alcoholic faux-champagne to the minister and any dignitary who
wanted it, then they took drink orders for sodas, juices and water.
Next, they served salad and asked each diner to select his salad
dressing. While the main dish was being delivered to all the other
guests, our two attendants were engaged in a heated conversation. I
noticed them looking over at Father Constantine and me. At the time,
I thought nothing of it. Serving food can be very complicated.
came to a conclusion. One carried my entrée selection; the
other the father’s selection. They set the plates before us and
removed the silver covers. The pork was steaming hot and smelled
delicious. The lasagna was seven layers high and surrounded by
broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus. Unfortunately, they delivered
the pork to me and the lasagna to the Greek Orthodox priest.
sometimes, people can’t identify a Greek Orthodox priest even
when he sports a beard, dons a high black cap and wears a collar.
at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, Rabbi Stern served
for twenty years as Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana,
California. As Executive Director of the Board of Rabbis of Greater
Philadelphia, he headed an agency that provided chaplains to nursing
homes, hospitals and prisons in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Still
actively involved in the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi
Stern served as President of the Orange County Board of Rabbis and
President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis (seven western
states). Until his retirement, Dr. Stern taught in the Department of
Sociology and the Department of Comparative Religion at Cal State
University Fullerton. He still teaches at Orange Coast College. Rabbi
Stern is the author of the book A Rabbi Looks at
Parables. He lectures extensively throughout
Rabbi Stern is a Founder and Past-President of the Orange County
Interfaith Network (OCIN), Founder of the Council of Religious
Leaders of Orange County and Founding President of the Orange County
Jewish Genealogical Society.
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