Father Brian Jordan is a Roman Catholic priest, a Franciscan formerly of St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City, where everybody, just everybody, knows him. He does most of his work in labor, particularly with immigrants. He is now a resident of Capitol City.
While growing up in Brooklyn during the late 50’s and 60’s, my siblings and I were taught at a young age to be never anti-Semitic. It was tough to do so while growing up in the Cypress Hills section near East New York, Brooklyn.
It seemed that the Jews were the common source of derision among the Irish, the Italian, the Polish, the African American and 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 comments in the subways, in the ice cream parlors and mostly heard these atrocious comments by people walking in and outside banks. You would think the Jewish people were literally holding everybody up and their life savings with these vicious diatribes!
However, religious discrimination against the Jewish people was forbidden in my family household. Why? My maternal grandparents lived with us in a two story home on Nichols Avenue. They were married in 1915 and lived in an apartment on South 4th St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
For over 40 years, this Irish Catholic couple were the clear minority among the predominantly Orthodox Jewish residents. They felt so welcome and at home with their neighbors that they decided to stay and raise four children, among them my late mother Eileen. They shared meals together. They shared the Prohibition together (including some bathtub gin). They shared the Great Depression together. They shared the agony and the 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 a hallowed Catholic practice called bingo due to the persistence of my grandmother.
My Irish grandmother convinced the local Catholic pastor to change Friday night bingo to Thursday night bingo. Why? So Grandma’s numerous Jewish neighbors can enjoy both bingo one night and then attend Holy Services such as Yom Kippur on Friday sundown to Saturday afternoon. Grandmother Murphy was way ahead of her time when it came to interfaith dialogue and the Vatican II document where Christians and Jews were called to be spiritual brethren and Catholics to be spiritual semites.
Back in Cypress Hills, our parents taught us to respect Jewish people because the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph were born and raised Jewish. My mother recounted from her own upbringing that the Jewish people always shared with her family especially during the hard time of the Great Depression. She thanked them many times including inviting many from her old neighborhood for her wedding reception in 1948 which Grandfather guaranteed an equal amount of schnapps, matzo ball soup along with beer plus corned beef and cabbage.
My father recounted that after the war, it was the Jewish merchants who helped him the most while he was a Teamster truck driver on his bread route so he could provide for his wife and children. Later on, when he joined management, he was promoted due to his great rapport with his Jewish employers. Therefore, my mother and father did not submit to the constant anti-Semitic religious prejudice we heard as children. Rather, they challenged the buffoons who constantly harangued the Jews and asked them to look inside themselves for expiation.
During the years 1965-67, there was a great turnaround of antipathy towards Jews in my neighborhood. First in 1965, I vividly recall Catholic, Protestant and Jewish residents in Cypress Hills all chimed in with great respect and awe for Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodger pitching standout, who refused to pitch in a World Series game that year because it fell on the holiest day of the year on the Jewish liturgical calendar, Yom Kippur. My father opined that although the Dodgers left Brooklyn, Koufax never left his faith! Grandfather Murphy countered “That ain’t nothing!” he proudly smiled, “Hank Greenberg did the same thing in 1947 and he never got the praise Koufax is getting!”
In 1966, my father became the first Irish 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. Shock waves went though our neighborhood when a rabbi and members of Harvest Lodge came to our home and personally escorted my entire family to the then Statler Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan for this monumental occasion.
Finally in 1967, on the eve of Yom Kippur, my father took me and one of my brothers to a synagogue near Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, to show solidarity with his beloved friend, David Karin of Waldbaum Supermarkets. We prayed with the Jewish community to give thanks to God that Israel led by Moshe Dayan, was victorious in the famous Six Day War.
Years later when I decided to become a Roman Catholic priest, it came at no surprise that 90 percent of the New Testament had roots in the Jewish Old Testament and that the Roman Catholic liturgy and priesthood has had many influences from the Jewish tradition. In fact, when I was ordained in 1983, one of my ordination gifts came from a dear Jewish friend. It was a coffee cup engraved with the saying “Jesus saves but Moses invests!” I still cherish that cup after all these years. From personal experience, I cannot emphasize enough that Jews and Catholics in New York have more in common that we care to admit.
Each year, I normally give up drinking alcohol for the season of Lent for reasons of abstinence and sacrifice. This year, I decided to give up alcohol during the high holydays from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur for two reasons. First, for personal expiation of my past and present sins. Second, as a sign of solidarity with my Jewish sisters and brothers that the world will expiate itself of the social sin of anti-Semitism both here and abroad. Jesus Christ taught us to love both God and our neighbor. He was definitely influenced by the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. The sobering reality is that this Day of Atonement is not only for Jews. Rather it is for all people to expiate their sins of hatred and prejudice!
Father Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.