In college I played with a musician who was also an Orthodox Jew. He was the frontman for our group and was an enthusiastic guitar player. He usually arranged the gigs, although it was just about impossible to get him to practice with the rest of the group. His enthusiasm outweighed his abilities.
It always struck me as strange that someone whose life was so totally tied up in one passion (his religious activities) would make time for a completely different activity that was, in many respects, contrary to his religious beliefs. Jazz and Rock are about passions that religion curtails.
When I was in Prague, in the old Jewish quarter, I was approached by two American Hasids (ultra-orthodox Jews). They first asked if I was Jewish and, without waiting, asked if I wanted to put on Tefillin.
I had just been inside a synagogue that had listed on its walls the names of the 130,000 Jewish people from Prague who were murdered by the Nazis. The names covered the walls of the sanctuary, the side rooms, the upstairs. Families were listed together: father, mother, children, grandchildren, cousins. The walls swam with the invocation of the deceased. I could not breathe. Tourists snapped photos.
The reason that synagogue and five others were spared by the Nazis was that Hitler wanted to make a museum of the extinct people--a museum for the Jews he was trying to eliminate.
My immediate response to these Hasidic Jews was an emphatic "no." I don't have any religious beliefs and really wasn't interested in having my arm bound while reciting these old prayers.
I went into another adjascent synagogue, but on my way out, bypassing the throngs of tourists, I passed these two guys again. I apologized for my previous rudeness, and asked if they wanted me to join them to put on Tefillin so that they would be more comfortable in putting it on. I was willing to try and help them feel comfortable in praying in their own way. It was the least and most I could do.
"No" was their answer. They wanted me to put on the Tefillin as a way to instill their religious beliefs in me. They were trying to use guilt as a hook.
Few things irritate me more than religious proselytization. In this former center for Jewish learning, in the heart of these six buildings that bore witness to murder on an incomprehensible scale, I was being told that I needed to be someone else-- that what I was wasn't acceptable.
My blood boiled.
When I declined their second offer, one of the men told me he sensed some anger and asked if I wanted to talk about it. His tone was a bit condescending and challenging.
How could I explain that respect for others was the one lesson I hoped people would take from that place? Or that trying to coerce belief and practice, no matter what the reason, leaves me cold?
Near these two gentleman was a girl of 19 or 20 sitting at a vendor's booth-- one in a long row of booths -- selling all sorts of tchotchkes. She was studying humanities in the local college, spoke fluent English, had bright clear blue eyes and shoulder length black hair. I had spoken with her twice. Her name was Anya.
Anya had been to the synagogues when she was young but was thinking about going back in as an adult. She was interested in what was going on around her. She wanted to learn about how other people thought and lived.
I wanted to grab these two men and tell them they should learn from this pretty young Czech girl. That passion and tolerance and acceptance and respect start with taking a genuine interest in others, not seeing how you can make others like you.
I never completely understood my guitar-playing friend. But we respected each other. He was a rockstar.