“So, am I really going to Hell?” I asked, with the nonchalance of a person inquiring about the weather. It was a Monday, and I was walking back from class with my best friend, Samantha, who was Christian.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I don’t know. But Christians would say that you are, unless you accept Jesus as the messiah.”
“If you go to Hell, you’ll be in good company,” my other friend chimed in. “For starters, I’ll be there.”
“What do Jews believe?” Samantha asked suddenly. “About the afterlife, I mean.”
“Hell,” I said carefully, “is not really a Jewish concept. Many Jews believe in a ‘world to come’, and that people’s souls are rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad ones.”
Here are some of the other Jewish topics that non-Jewish people may have questions about, and short answers for each of them.
Bar/Bat Mitzvahs: adulting since age 13
A lady from the bus was showing pictures of her grandchildren. Among them was a photograph of a girl decked out in a fancy quinceanera dress. “Did you have a similar party in your culture?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “We have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. It’s a coming of age ceremony for 13 year-old boys and 12 year-old girls.”
This ceremony involves a speech, a party, and, for boys, a reading from the honoree’s birthday Torah portion. After this ceremony, the teenagers are held accountable for their actions according to Jewish law.
Kosher: to eat or not to eat?
My friends eyed my plate dubiously, which was piled high with what could only be described as rabbit food. “Where is the meat?” they asked.
My sister and I came up with an explanation: “We can only eat animals that were killed painlessly. The animals also have to be checked to ensure that they are clean of all blood.”
When done properly, keeping Kosher minimizes the animal’s suffering. It also involves waiting 3-6 hours between eating dairy and meat, as well as checking labels of packaged foods for Kosher symbols.
Shabbat: because even God thinks you need to take a break
I once had to explain Shabbat to a professor who scheduled a final exam on a Saturday. Uttering the word ‘Sabbath’ and explaining that I would be happy to take the exam on an earlier date was sufficient. Even so, here’s a more detailed explanation:
“The whole point of Shabbat is to rest, like God did on the 7th day. We don’t create anything new, and we don’t do the 39 things that were used in building the first temple in Israel.”
Jesus: aka, we’re innocent
“The Jews killed Jesus,” is an alarmingly common claim.
Ironically, Samantha rose up as my loyal defender. “Nah, those were the Romans.”
Crucifixion, after all, is a Roman method of execution, not a Jewish one. According to many Christian sources, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor was to blame.
Hanukkah: not the Jewish Christmas
“So, you get 8 presents instead of one?”
The explanation for Hanukkah, though, is a bit deeper than the amount of presents received.
“Hanukkah is when we celebrate the historical defeat of the Greeks, and the miracle that a single jar of oil lasted 8 days in the temple.”
Kippah: a contributor to both height and Jewish tradition.
My younger brother wears a kippah so that he is tall enough to go on some of the crazier rollercoasters in Disneyland.
But what is it really? “A kippah is a way to remind Jewish men that there is a God above.”
Describing Jewish concepts can spur interesting discussions about different religious obligations. While we can look at religion as a thing that divides us, it is more something that can unite us. Answer questions about Judaism in a way that helps others see the similarities in their religion; we aren’t that different afterall.