I recently found myself carefully explaining a church revival to our Jewish kids, and in the process, reflecting on Jewish renewal and conversion.
My dad’s side of the family is Christian, and when I was a teen, I attended a Foursquare church with my aunt’s family for a couple of years. That was about the same time that Ray Stevens released the song Mississippi Squirrel Revival. So about two weeks ago, I was tickled by the story out of Vestavia Hills in which a squirrel interrupted a church service.
The story was a must-share, but our kids needed to hear Mississippi Squirrel Revival to appreciate the pastor’s delightful commentary, caught on video. For them to understand the song, I first had to explain the concepts of an offering plate, rededication and revival. Stevens, of course, has the right to joke about his own faith, but as a non-Christian, I want to take extra care and cultivate our children’s respect and appreciation of other religions.
The offering plate was easy to explain, being loosely like our High Holy Days appeal, but weekly. Yet other elements Stevens mentions are more foreign to Jewish experience. We have a staid, liturgical service that lends itself more readily to comparisons with liturgical Christian denominations. Judaism has ample room for faith and connection to G-d, but also plenty of room for Jews who seek instead human connections and ethical and scholarly insights. We are, after all, an action-oriented religion (good deeds are more the focus than personal belief) as well as a group of closely related ethnicities and cultures.
Most people can appreciate someone’s rededication to commitment or renewal of inspiration, but the tenor is far more sedate in Judaism. For me, renewal was my return to Judaism in the '90s, and it came with a steep learning curve. My mother had taught me almost nothing about the faith.
For others, it’s a reinvigoration and recommitment, as with my vocalist friend who is now studying to be a cantor, an intensive process that will conclude with her earning an additional graduate degree and becoming ordained.
Revival was the hardest concept for me to explain to the kids. At my aunt’s church, it included conversion. Conversion in Judaism, like services, is staid. People convert, but ours is non-proselytizing religion, probably in part because we don’t associate holding different beliefs with a punishment.
An older tradition even suggests a rabbi turn away a prospective convert three times before allowing a conversion. The persistent person was considered sincere, jumping that hurdle then immersing themselves in study.
Today, the process still involves extended study. The person, regardless of their ethnicity, becomes just as much a Jew as anyone born into Judaism, having willingly adopted Judaism’s responsibilities and, at times, burdens.
I was careful in explaining: I want the kids to respect others deeply but also appreciate Stevens’ humor. In the end, they learned enough to laugh at the pastor’s witty, well-timed jokes. They might have even developed a taste for Ray Stevens.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English.