My eldest boy burst through the door, waiving a paper and shouting, “Mama! I got the lead! I got the lead in the sixth grade play!”
He flung the script at me as he passed, bulldozing downstairs to start his homework. I put down my coffee, picked up the paper, and sat down to read this play in which my son had been given the lead.
My head immediately started to hurt. The play his teacher assigned was religious. And not mildly or gently religious. We are talking over the top, beyond the pale, going the distance, insert your cliché of choice here religious. Still harboring disbelief? Allow me to extrapolate and share a choice tidbit—Character: “Wow, thanks for the shoes, Conrad!” Conrad: “All is done in the name of Jesus.”
Guess who’d been given the part of Conrad?
We live in a tiny, Stars Hollow-esque town in the upper Midwest. The population is about 1,200 people and my sons and I are the only Jews. A Hindu family recently moved to town, but that is our only claim to religious diversity. Our area is solidly Christian. We have six churches in a town of one square mile. The closest synagogues to us are 90 miles away, and due to our residing in an area best described as the Siberian steppes with a dash of internet, they don’t hold regular services nor do they employ a regular rabbi. So, I was going this one alone.
I called my ex-husband, Ira, who lives in Florida. As the phone rang, I mentally weighed my options. Being re-married to a non-Jewish man, we consider ourselves open minded and liberal about religion. And my son was so excited about being the lead. It would be good for him to memorize lines, stand on stage, learn a little about acting. It would be good for his Mama to have a recording of it, for bragging and ultimately blackmail purposes. I flipped through the play again while I waited for Ira. Now Conrad was discussing the “Savior of the World.” Oy.
When he finally answered, I started on a long rant about the play, about our son, enthusiastically peppering the conversation with Conrad’s dialogue. In the midst of this spiel, we were disconnected. When Ira called back, I said, “Now, where was I?” and Ira said, “Oh, you were telling me about the unconstitutionality of this play that was assigned.” (Ira is an attorney.)
I laughed and we ended the conversation on other topics. I knew Ira was right. This wasn’t about it being a Christian play or a Baha’i play or even a Secular Humanist play. It was about a religious play being assigned for grade at a public school.
I spent the evening in tears, wondering if the lesson of religious tolerance and the separation of church and state were worth seeing the disappointment on my son’s face when I explained that his mother was the Jewish Grinch and he wouldn’t be known as Conrad unless he changed his name.
Being a truly minority Jew in an already minority religion isn’t easy. Keeping the flame of Judaism alive in my children when they are invited almost weekly to youth group, Awana (a children’s ministry organization), or church is a struggle. My eldest son doesn’t want to be different. He just wanted to be Conrad.
When I thought more carefully about it, it suddenly became clear why they selected him for the part. He is tall, handsome, articulate, kind, modest, hardworking, silly, and rare. He was perfect for the lead. And he was also being carefully maneuvered by his teacher, a passionate evangelical Christian, into saying things he didn’t believe. Because he was the Jewish kid. Because maybe this play would “save” him. And because, as a graded assignment, it would be hard to say “no.”
If this seems like cynicism, I am told on occasion that my friends “have higher hopes for me” than Judaism. Point/Counterpoint. It is absolutely the culture of our town.
I spoke with my son about the constitution and the need to stand up for people being oppressed, no matter how subtly. I spoke to the principal at the school and asked him to look into it. The next day they scrapped the play.
My boy has the part of The Innkeeper in the new play. He has permission to suggest dialogue changes to his teacher if he feels his character would say something differently. He is really enjoying that, regaling us all with outlandishly crafted sentences and suggesting he submit them. We all laugh together. And no one misses Conrad.