Friday, March 19, 1999 was the last day of tennis lessons for Ilona Scheter and Peter Berini before their mid-term holidays. They were two nine-year-olds in the tennis development programme at the Fila Sports Club, Long Island City. The club complex is located across the eastern shore of the East River, with a view of the United Nations Building and Nigeria House amidst sky scrapers of midtown Manhattan. I asked Ilona where she was going for her holidays. Her answer generated a dialogue.
“Jacob, if you’re not Jewish, you may not understand. I am going for a Passover accord. Are you a Jew?” she asked me.
“I am not a Jew. I am black. One cannot change the race into which one was born. It is biological.”
“Yes, you can be a Jew. I know a boy who is black, and he is Jewish. His father is black, and his mother is a Jew.”
“Oh you-see, he is of mixed race. The race is one thing, the religion is another.”
“Jacob, this boy goes through-the Jewish religion with his mother, I have never met his father who doesn’t come to our school or to our Synagogue.”
“Now, you see, there is the race and there is the religion. There are Jews who are not religious. One example is Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel. My first girlfriend in life, here in America, though born to Jewish parents, her family did not take part in Jewish religious practice. When she got married, her husband insisted that she learned the Jewish religion so they could bring up their son in Judaism. I know what Passover is, because I was brought up in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. What about you, Peter?
“I am a Christian. The Jews don’t believe in Jesus Christ.”
At this point in the dialogue, Ilona scrawled the Star of David on the clay tennis court, saying: “This is our symbol”. She also scrawled a cross of equal arms, and said: “This is the symbol of the Christians. The way to remember it is that it is like the addition sign in mathematics. We Jews don’t believe in the cross.”
“Really? One day, either here in this world or in the hereafter, you will come to know that the cross you sketched on the clay-court is the sign of truth in all Creation, which is what you know as heaven and earth”. Whether we know about it or not does not alter what it is.”
“No, Jacob, the cross is for Christians. We are taught that its four points represent the four points of Christ’s nailing to the crucifix, when they killed him.”
“Yes they did. Some Romans and some Jews. I note that you make a distinction between the cross of equal arms and the wooden structure to which Jesus was nailed, and on which he passed away from the body.”
“We Jews do not celebrate Christmas.”
“But Jesus was a Jew. He attended classes for instruction by Rabbis in the Temple. Some of the Rabbis recognized the wisdom that flowed from the young Jesus. Some others, however, wanted the children to recite only the given verses.”
“Jacob, did you say that Jesus was a Jew? That’s not what we’re taught.”
“Yes. He was. Go home and ask your parents.” He worshipped in the Temple like other devotional Jews.” Now Peter cut in, saying:
“He started Christianity.’
“Are you sure?”
“I am not sure. That’s what we’re taught in Sunday school. How did Christianity start?” Peter asked.
“You can find out when you’re old enough. From the earliest times, God sent prophets to reveal the truths of life to all mankind. But we human beings, especially the leaders of existing religious tradition, always oppose extensions to knowledge. This strange human habit is lamented in the Qur’an in which the question is posed: ‘Why is it that whenever a message comes from Allah (the Arabic word for God), you behave arrogantly and reject it, even slaying the prophets?’ This fault is still with us today. Most of us are not open to new knowledge revealed, through the Grace of God; by chosen ones we call teachers and prophets.”
“If it is true that Jesus attended the Jewish Temple, then who started Christianity, the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, and all the many others?”
“Prophets taught the basic truths of existence to mankind. The truths are the same. Human beings who accept the enlightenment from the particular prophet then endeavour to live their lives accordingly and to worship God. It is the practice of the truths of life in the culture of a people. Culture and tradition are made up of the peculiar experiences of the group or race. When Jesus lived and taught among the Jews, the few people who listened endeavoured to live according to the additional enlightenment he gave to all mankind.
Other people labeled them followers of Jesus. They, however, considered themselves to be Jews who had merely extended their knowledge of God by adding the message given by Jesus. That was how ‘another’ religion emerged. Jesus himself said that he came to fulfill the laws. Prophets and teachers from God do not come to start new religions but to extend knowledge of life’s truths. In America, today, you have a group called ‘Jews for Jesus Christ’. I don’t know what they do but the very concept is good.”
“Jacob, you are of the black African race. How do you know these things? How do you have a Jewish name?”
“I was brought up in Christianity which also includes Jewish religious tradition. Everyone in my family has both a Biblical name given at baptism and a Yoruba (African) name given at birth. My departed mother’s name was Alice, my father Josiah, brothers Abraham, Samuel, Emmanuel, Timothy and two sisters, Felicia and Comfort.”
“Wow,” exclaimed Ilona, “you are a family of Jews. Those are all Jewish names.”
“No. We cannot be Jews. I have explained this to you. There is the race, and there is the religion. Race is a biological matter, concerning the body. I also told you that the basic truths of life are the same. We embrace the truths of life contained in the Torah, and the truths revealed by Jesus. We also accept the truths revealed through Mohammed, and by many other teachers appointed by God. I know a leading figure in my country and in Africa.
He was once President of Nigerian Tennis, and later President of the Nigerian Olympic, Committee. His wife is a Christian while he is a devout Muslim. He knows that the truths of life are the same, and he accepts truths wherever they may be found. A truly great man, he taught me many lessons of life. We have Muslims in my ‘extended’ family and join them in celebrating the festivals of their Islamic religion.”
“No, Jacob, you cannot be in all religions.”
“You are right. I am not in all religions. 1 embrace all truths.”
“We pray in Hebrew language. Do you know Hebrew?”
“I know a few words. My name is Hebrew, in which it is pronounce Yakof. Hebrew is a great language. But you can also pray in English. God understands all languages.”
“How can God understand all languages?”
“Simple. It is said in the Torah, the Bible, the Qur’an, and other sacred books that God knows what is in our hearts. Our spoken word is preceded by a thought which is preceded by a feeling. Feeling is the expression of the spirit. You, I and all human beings are each a living spirit, now in the body of this earth. One day, each one of us will be out of this body at the transition called death. Remember, the truth is not a matter of either or, this or that, but valid this and valid that, here and there, up and down!”
“Thank you, Jacob,” said the two young ones.
“I thank you, too.”
It was time to go, and for me to buy Sprite for Peter, and something else for Ilona. The three of us went to the lounge. My companions met Wanda who is really called “This is mine” in the language of her birth. She was one of the few black-skinned ones in this tennis club. The two children liked her. She also liked the two wonderful “kids”. They ran out to catch the special club bus that would convey them to their homes in Manhattan.
This article was first published in The Guardian on March 23, 1999.