For most of my life, I had no interest in Christianity. It was raised in a comfortable middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore. It was Barry Levinson’s Baltimore—families of Eastern European immigrants who worked in small business, rooted for the Colts, and celebrated Thanksgiving and Passover with equal earnestness. Three days a week, I attended Hebrew school. Though as bored as everyone else, I became quite observant, regularly attending shul and not mixing milk and meat. Soon after my bar mitzvah, the fervor faded, but out of a sense of obligation I continued my Jewish studies, taking courses at a local Hebrew college. The instruction—in Hebrew, the Bible, and Jewish history—was uninspired, hastening my secularization. By the tenth grade, I was plotting my escape, taking as my models Neil Klugman in Goodbye Columbus and Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.
Throughout, I was shielded from all things Christian. American Jewish parents instinctively worry that if their kids are exposed to the nation’s hegemonic faith, they’ll be sucked up into it. As a result, I had never read the New Testament, could not tell Peter from Paul, and had no idea how Christianity had become the West’s dominant religion. This continued through four years of college, a year working as a reporter in Mexico, and a year of graduate school in London. In the late seventies, I arrived in New York, determined to make it as a writer. Early on, I lived in a rundown sixth-floor walkup at Avenue A and 11th Street. The area was dirty, dangerous, and rife with heroin. A few years earlier, however, Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers had come out, and, reading it in my dreary apartment, I became captivated by the story of the migration of Jews from Poland and Ukraine to New York and their wrenching but stirring adaptation to life in lower Manhattan. I learned that the scenes from the movie “Ragtime” that were set on the Lower East Side were shot on the same block on which I lived. Later, I moved to the Upper West Side, and in this district of synagogues and Seinfeld, professors and professionals, Zabar’s and H & H Bagels, I felt I had found the Garden of Eden of secular Judaism.
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