A Jew Walks Into a Catholic School

Teaching in an all-boys classroom turned out to be pretty great until I went to my first student mass

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"What's a Jewish guy doing teaching in a Catholic school?" My mother wasn't the first one to be puzzled by my current employment, though perhaps the frankest. Others massaged the point, as in, "So what's it like for you at that place?" or "Don't you feel uncomfortable there?"

I answered all with a noncommittal shrug. "It's no big deal," I said. Which is what I believed—at first.

I had needed a job after a series of budget cuts at the public high school where I taught put my position, as one of the newer teachers, in jeopardy. So, when I heard about the opening for an English teacher at Ignatius High School I didn't hesitate to send in my résumé.

No one mentioned Catholicism at the interview. Nor did anyone broach the subject of my Jewishness; though there was a line on the application that asked about religious preference. I had printed, in all-caps, "JEWISH." No sense in messing around.

But even the Jesuit priest who was part of the interview panel wanted only to know how I would teach "Moby Dick" to a classroom full of antsy boys. "I'll take them out on the ocean," I answered. "Step by step, so they don't get seasick." The priest looked at me quizzically, but I thought I saw the beginning of a grin.

There were lots of questions about classroom discipline. They seemed to be most interested in my ability to keep order. Apparently, in an all-boys school this could be a major issue. I guess my answers or my experience must have satisfied them because at the end of the interview the school principal turned to me and said, "Okay, the job is yours if you want it."

"Absolutely," I told him, and shook hands all around. It was only as I was leaving the building and passed under the gilded plaster statue of Jesus Christ nailed on the cross that I stopped, looked up and muttered, "Man, what the hell are you doing?"

They were right about the classroom discipline thing. Turns out there is something in an all-boys classroom that moves it toward both rowdiness and testing. They will push you as far and as hard as you allow yourself to be moved. On the other hand, once you stand up to their pretend thuggishness, stare them down, and lay out the consequences for boorish behavior, those same boys will become your best pals.

The boys at Ignatius were not a bad lot. Far from it. They were all college bound, many to the top schools in the country. Accustomed to public school classrooms in Philadelphia and Seattle, I was startled when I gave my first homework assignment and watched all 25 students take out their notebooks and copy down my instructions, even asking questions for clarification. I was even more flabbergasted on the following day when every one of those young men presented me with a completed assignment, most of them typed. Yes, indeed, I thought. I'm going to like it here.

And I did. I was able to teach at a higher level than I had previously, and I no longer had to worry about keeping the material accessible to that imagined lowest common denominator. They liked both "Moby Dick" and "The Great Gatsby," though after a grueling three month line-by-line explication of the former, my senior honors class had a ritual burning of their paper back copies of Ahab and the white whale. They told me all about it, grinning like fools. And I too laughed at their literary desecration. "At least you'll never forget old Melville," I said. "Or old Mr. Freedman," one of the boys responded.

My first comeuppance occurred during the student mass held every Friday morning. Attendance was mandatory, Catholic or not. I'd never been to a mass before and felt a nervous knot building in my gut as I walked with my neatly dressed boys to the school chapel. Everyone was on his best behavior. I was struck by the absence of all the usual joking, gabbing and roughhousing. Father Robins, the most fearsome of the Jesuits, stood at the entrance with his bare arms crossed, his expression a mask of Christian hostility. I had already heard stories of Father Robins taking misbehaving students into the restroom and delivering some Old Testament paddling.

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The service itself was not so bad. I followed along with the readings and listened to the sermon. It was a lot like synagogue services: well-intentioned, moral and a bit boring. I noticed no comments about killers of Christ, though I was bracing for them. Things only went awry when it was time for communion. I had a vague idea of what this ritual entailed. It had always struck me a bit weird. Drinking the blood of the savior? But here now in its presence, I was more curious than put off.

Indeed, as each row of boys rose to move to the front of the chapel, I felt more and more drawn to the drama of it all: the angelic smiles on the faces of the boys as they opened their mouths like baby birds and waited for that opaque disc, the way complete silence prevailed except for the muttering of the priests, the strangely fussy way the rim of the wine cup was wiped with a cloth after each communicant took his sip. When it came time for our row to stand and move to the front, I felt like I could do little else except go with them.

Father Olive was dispensing the wafers for our line. He was a fat, red-cheeked man of indeterminate age. The boys, I knew, sarcastically called him Jolly Ollie. When I reached the front of the line, I held my hands cupped in front of me, mimicking those who preferred receiving the wafer in their hands. No way I wanted the priest's pudgy fingers in my mouth. But Father Olive seemed stuck, looking at me like he'd bitten into a rotten peach. I nodded at him and smiled. There was another long moment of hesitation. Then he frowned and placed the wafer in my palms. I popped it in my mouth and chewed. It was fairly tasteless, like matzo that has gone soft. "Yum," I said. Father Ollie looked horrified. I felt slightly puzzled as I went and received my wine and returned to my seat.

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The following Monday, I received a message that the president of the school wanted to see me in his office. Though I have a lifelong antipathy toward authority figures, I wasn't overly concerned. Father William Nehri was in charge of both the religious order and the school. I had yet to meet the man. Maybe he simply wanted to welcome me to the community.

We shook hands and Father Nehri indicated I should take a seat in the heavy wood chair opposite his wide desk. He was a serious looking fellow, thin lipped with gray hair cut close to the scalp, military style. "So, how are you settling into life here at Ignatius?" He smiled crookedly.

"So far, so good."

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"Somewhat different from the public schools, isn't it?"

"Kids are kids," I said.

"Indeed." Father Nehri sat forward and clasped his hands. Apparently I was expected to continue.

"Well, I will admit that having all boys in the classroom is a big change."

"We find that our students learn best in a single gender environment."

"Could be," I said, but wondered how they tested that theory.

"Our parents expect very positive results when they entrust their boys to us."

"That makes sense," I said, not knowing quite where we were headed.

Without further preliminaries, the priest said, "I understand you practice Judaism." He stared at me like he expected a Star of David to appear on my forehead.

"Well, I don't need to practice that much," I said. "I'm already pretty good at it."

Father Nehri didn't laugh. "You do understand how important providing a strong Catholic faith is to our educational process?"

Now it was my turn to sit forward. "Are you asking me whether being Jewish gets in the way of my teaching?"

"No. We have had to accommodate ourselves to having a number of secular teachers here." His voice became stern. "What I cannot and will not accept is any mockery of the sacred."

"I would never do that. I don't go around mocking anyone's religion and I expect them not to mock mine."

"Mr. Freedman, do you understand the significance of Holy Communion?"

I slumped back. So that was it. "Not entirely," I said. "I know what it represents."

"It is our most sacred ritual, a portrayal of the ultimate sacrifice of our Lord, and it is not, I repeat, not, for those who have yet to accept Jesus Christ as their savior."

"This is about my getting the wafer then," I said quietly. "I thought it would be appreciated."

"You put Father Olive in a very difficult position. Only practicing Catholics may receive the Eucharist."

"No body and blood for me, huh?"

"This is nothing to joke about."

I felt a flush of heat rising into my cheeks. I didn't like being lectured to and I did not like being told I could not do something because I was Jewish. "The whole business seems a bit barbaric to me anyway," I blurted out.

"What?" Father William was clearly astonished.

"I mean, I get that Jesus was a great guy and all, but why pretend to eat his body and drink his blood? It seems strange."

Nehri stood up quickly, so I did too. "I do not care one whit about your opinions," he fumed. "You are never to take communion again. Is that understood?"

"Does that mean I don't have to go to mass anymore?"

"You have to do what every other teacher does." His hands were clenched at his sides, the skin of his neck was mottled red above his tight white collar.

"So what do I do when everybody goes up to get their wine and bread?"

"You stay in your seat, or else you may walk up and cross your hands one over the other. Like this." He demonstrated the position. "Then we can bless you as an outsider, without your receiving the holy wafer."

"I guess I'll stay on the bench then. Every team needs a benchwarmer, huh?"

"I think we're finished here." He looked at his watch, a heavy gold one. "I hope you will take our little talk to heart and that we will not have a need for further meetings."

I remembered that I wanted to keep this job and that I had a family that enjoyed eating regularly, so I said, "I'll try to be more respectful of the, uh, situation here."

"Good," he said. "That's all I ask."

I reached out my hand and we shook, though neither of our grips was particularly firm.

As I walked back to my classroom, a sense of despair perched on my shoulders. I thought, man, you screwed up again. I remembered the line from an old Bob Dylan song, something about how, "One should never go where one does not belong." It hit me like a punch in the gut. I took a deep breath, even thought about walking out the front door and never coming back, but then I stopped. Screw it, I told myself, just go back to your classroom and teach. That's all you're supposed to do.

Which is exactly what I did. Stayed at that school for many years and nobody ever bothered me again about being Jewish. I was even invited into some of the religion classes to talk about Judaism. I made close friends with one of the Jesuit Brothers and even would drink coffee and talk baseball with Father Robins.

So, I don't know if Dylan was right or wrong about that belonging thing. What I would say if I was writing the song is: sometimes one can go where one does not belong, and one can learn to like it there, as long as they respect the rules. But I guess that would make for a lousy lyric. Wouldn't sound good with a harmonica at all.