My Jewish Life in Taboo

From my experience as a Jew, saying “G-d damn” was not taking the Lord’s name in vain, but to say “Jesus” was anathema and a rejection of Judaism. Growing up in a conservative Jewish home[1] while living in a majority Christian town, my religious community sheltered me from the Christian world. I grew up with a paranoia I couldn’t quite name that translated itself into a fear of saying “Jesus.” To say his name would give power to the Christian world over me and bring Christianity into my life, usurping Judaism. My taboos are religious taboos, but have become self proscribed taboos that reveal a fear of Christianity I am trying to overcome.

No one ever told me not to say “Jesus.” Within my Jewish family, no one had to. It seemed that only Christians talked about Jesus because, it seemed, only Christians cared about Jesus. But I’ve begun to understand that I’ve refused to talk about him precisely because I had to care as a religious minority living in a Christian community. Jesus had to always be a part of my consciousness because as Jews, we were defined (and defined ourselves in the process) by what we were not and we were not believers in Jesus. Jewish vocabulary, and a lack of Christian vocabulary, became a marker of difference. And to be a good Jew, was to reject Jesus not just as a savior, but as a person or a concept for discussion. To say Jesus’ name was to give him legitimacy as the son of G-d and reject Judaism in the process.

I didn’t know it was possible to talk about Jesus outside of the Christian context of “Jesus-as-savior” (words I am hesitant to even type because I am still bound by my own fear of this taboo). During a world history class my freshman year of high school, I struggled when we learned about Jesus; it was my first time learning about him. Studying for a history exam with my mother, I found that, lacking a euphemism, I called him “Jesus of Nazareth” and opted for historical accuracy with none of the religious potency of naming him as “Christ”. Even so, I feared I would emerge from studying somehow less Jewish than before for having said Jesus’ name. And if I wasn’t Jewish then what was I?

It has only been in college, surrounded by irreverent (and mostly atheist or agnostic) friends that I’ve begun to say “Jesus.” But saying Jesus remains a rejection of Christianity for me, and remains a loaded word I need to think about before, during and after I’ve said it. With my friends, talking about Jesus is a joke, a means of insulting Christians who do believe. I can be part of this conversation because I’ve never believed. A few weeks ago, my friends discovered the website AnswerMeJesus, a Jesus-inspired magic 8 ball. You ask questions and receive answers such as “Hallelujah” or “Pray harder” or “No chance in Hell.” And while my friends asked questions about the anti-Christ and “What would Jesus really do?” I didn’t know what to ask. I couldn’t think of anything other than to ask if I was going to Hell, or other questions that would reveal my insecurities about Judaism, and my continued reluctance to call Jesus by name or speak about him. Against my wishes, his name limits my speech and I continue to view Judaism as not-Christianity. My friends can joke about Jesus because they were raised Christian, but “Jesus” continues to hold power over me, my speech, and my understanding of myself as a Jew.

I am far more comfortable speaking about Islam and Muhammad or any religion except Christianity. I work at an organization dedicated to interfaith dialogue but rejecting Christianity remains a primary concern of my identity and my language. Even though my mother will now occasionally refer to Jesus as “Christ” without meaning any harm and my brother has used “Jesus Christ!” as a curse word for years, I am barely comfortable saying “Jesus” with my friends. For me, he will never be “Christ.” Long after the taboo disappeared in my family, it remains as a self proscribed taboo of my own prejudice and fear of Christianity taking over Judaism in my life. I’m attempting to overcome this fear by separating Jesus, the historical person, from Christianity and the historical bad blood between Christians and Jews that fuels my fear. I hope to eventually feel free to speak about Jesus as a historical figure of significance, who holds no further bearing on my life.

I wrote this for an English class at my university. I assumed that the professor would understand that it was personal, but he did not. He called on me during class to explain what I wrote because he found it an interesting point of discussion. And because of the power-dynamic between teachers and students I felt obligated to share. When a professor asks, “Cheryl, do you want to explain what you wrote?” there isn’t the option to decline.

After I explained, the professor said he found it interesting how much Jesus still holds power of me. He laughed saying, it was as if “Saying his name would be taking Christ into your heart.” He laughed.

I felt attacked and ridiculed for my faith because I am not Christian. Until power dynamics shift away from Christian hegemony, of course “Jesus” will continue to be a taboo in my life because even progressive places like academia are not always accepting of minority religions. If anyone else ever feels targeted in the classroom for their faith or lack of faith, this post is for you.

[1] Conservative as a Jewish movement or denomination, not conservative as a political leaning.