STRANGERS AND NEIGHBORS: What I Have Learned about Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews
Maria Poggi Johnson
W Publishing Group
Maria Poggi Johnson grew up in Scotland and studied at Oxford University and the University of Virginia. But when she moved with her family to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she currently works as a professor of Theology at the University of Scranton, she entered a new world. She and her family found themselves living two blocks from an Orthodox synagogue, three blocks from the Hebrew day school and four blocks from another synagogue. Since moving into a neighborhood of predominantly Jewish people, she has learned more about Jewish belief, custom and herself than she ever imagined.
In STRANGERS AND NEIGHBORS, Johnson takes a look at her own faith through the lessons learned from her Orthodox Jewish friends next door. In this rich memoir, Johnson talks about the subtle and remarkable differences between her beliefs and life compared to neighbors. She explores the power of the law as a source of hope and order rather than mere rule-making.
She writes, "Most of what enables our Orthodox friends and us to get on smoothly around our differences is just a matter of common courtesy and common sense. It's common courtesy to shut up and listen while other people tell you who they are, rather than deciding that you already know. It's common sense that sometimes being around people who see things very differently can be uncomfortable and that you need to tolerate a bit of discomfort and not take yourself too seriously. We feel comfortable around the very different world our neighbors inhabit because nobody pretends that the worlds aren't different."
Throughout the book, she offers memorable stories of interacting with her neighbors --- including those of her kids. She recounts the time her son demanded to wear a yarmulke as a badge of masculinity and her struggles to figure out how to make a birthday party kosher. She describes one holiday season coming into her living room to discover a Jewish boy running round the coffee table holding the baby Jesus and the angel over his yarmulke-clad head pursued by her own son, Adam, who was carrying a tyrannosaurus. Adam was yelling, "I will eat the baby all up!" While the neighbor boy defended, "No, I will save the baby!"
"I contemplated the scene, briefly," Johnson writes, "then backed into the kitchen and let them get on with it."
One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is that Johnson is able to live among her neighbors and learn from them without trying to convert them. As a result, her work is a reflection of how to understand instead of how to be understood. And the reader gains lots of insights along the way.
The greatest weakness of the book is its brevity. Readers undoubtedly will wonder why the stories and insights ended so soon. Nonetheless, STRANGERS AND NEIGHBORS is a well-written book that will enrich many a reader --- no matter what their faith.
--- Reviewed by Margaret Oines
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