I was killing some time in the Milwaukee airport today, and I broke a couple personal rules. Well not really rules, but general guidelines.
1. I enjoyed eating airport food.
There’s this little cafe there called Alterra Coffee, that has a phenomenal menu of decent food and great coffees. And the guy working there didn’t look like he wanted to kill himself. I would actually go back there even if it wasn’t in an airport. Highly recommended if you’re passing through MKE.
2. I answered “yes” when asked by a stranger, “Are you Jewish?”
When the big, burly, clearly Midwesterner sitting next to me on the concourse leaned over and asked me this – having seen my kippah – it wasn’t as though I could lie, so I answered “yes.” Not really frightened, but certainly hesitant for what was about to transpire, I engaged in a conversation with Random Christian Dude (RCD).
Random Christian Dude laid the heavy one on me right away, asking me “Are you devout?”
Now devout isn’t really a word most Jews would use to describe their observance or beliefs, but I kind of knew where he was going, so I answered “Sure.” When Jews see my kippah, they often ask “Are you really religious?” Now I know the Christian equivalent is “Are you devout?”
(As an aside – I’ve never been asked this question by an Orthodox Jew, though I imagine most would make their own assumptions about my beliefs and practices. But it’s such a loaded and specious question to begin with anyways).
RCD – who turned out to be a pretty nice, if not awkward, guy – said that he considered himself to be a devout Christian, and assured me that he had the utmost respect for Jews, Judaism, and Israel (three distinct things that, while clearly intimately related, are not one and the same), and that “of course, as you know, Jesus himself was Jewish.” Pretty standard fare for an encounter between a Midwestern Christian and a Canadian-cum-New Yorker Jew.
Then things got interesting.
Random Christian Dude asked me if I was familiar with Genesis 6. Not being able to quote chapter and verse, but being pretty familiar with the beginning of the Torah, I answered “sort of.” RCD then launched into a series of questions about my perception of the nephilim, the story of Noah, why people destroy the earth, and what God’s intentions are for humanity.
I honestly had no idea what to say. I stumbled through some words about humanity’s responsibility for one another, and that Judaism places a huge emphasis on interpersonal ethical living, but pretty much I had no idea where RCD wanted the conversation to go. Plus, I was trying to enjoy my really delicious hummus wrap from Alterra.
Sensing I was a little overwhelmed, RCD backed off as I ate and checked my email. And then he walked away. I sat on the relatively comfortable airport lounge chair for a few minutes, trying to digest what just happened. And also my hummus sandwich.
And that’s when I overheard Hebrew being spoken, and saw the Israeli businessman talking on his cell phone who had watched the entire interaction, a coy smile on his face.