You Can't Always Tell A Priest By His Collar

Frank Stern

© Copyright 2021 by Frank Stern

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
                                                   Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
Rented klieg 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.
A youthful 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.
I was struck by the differences between us.
The 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.
He 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.
I was surprised 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.
At 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. When he left at the end of the meal, he said to the man and woman in all sincerity, “Thank you for your hostility.”
I had experienced 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. I thought 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.
We 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 and pepper shakers on each table. Realizing the meal would begin soon, guests began moving to their assigned seating.
One of my 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 breathtaking,”
Did you notice the catering service?” asked the President’s wife, taking her seat on the dais next to me.
I did, yes. Their trucks were parked outside when I first entered the sanctuary. Have you used them before?” I asked.
No. This 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.”
The Board President joined the conversation. “It’s so great having you with us, rabbi.”
He 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?”
Actually, 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.”
The printed menu 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.
The President 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.
Two elderly 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.
Apparently, they 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.
I guess, sometimes, people can’t identify a Greek Orthodox priest even when he sports a beard, dons a high black cap and wears a collar.      

Ordained in 1965 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 Jesus’ Parables. He lectures extensively throughout California. 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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