Moving from religious tolerance to acceptance

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Two Sundays ago, as I drove down Eagle Rock Boulevard to my house in Cypress Park, I was met with barricades and flashing lights. But it was not for a double homicide, which had last shut down this stretch of road. Instead, as I pulled over and got out of my car, I was met with the sound of hundreds of people singing hymns in Spanish. I had completely forgotten that it was Easter Sunday.

Unlike most Occidental students, I live about four miles from campus, where Eagle Rock turns into Cypress Boulevard and artisan coffee shops and craft beer bars are replaced with decrepit convenience stores and taco stands. Here, bougainvillea spills from cracked stucco fences, which hide homes with bars on the windows. Mutts roam the streets as rampantly as the fleet of ice cream trucks which run from noon until 9 p.m. It is a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and it is the first place where, I as a white Jew, have been a minority.

That day, I was returning from a family Passover Seder in the San Fernando Valley. I had spent the weekend in the kitchen with my mom, rolling matzo balls and crying over chopped onions as we sang along to Otis Redding. Despite being an atheistic family, Jewish culture has defined much of who we are and how we operate. We may not keep Kosher and cannot remember a single Sabbath prayer, but we always celebrate Passover. It is a time when we pull out our prayer books (albeit rewritten by my dad’s communist, leftist Berkeley family who replaced most prayers with folk songs) and reflect on the meanings of peace and compassion. It is a time when we ask difficult questions, when we argue, when we sing together and laugh together and hide the wine from Grandpa. As I drove down Eagle Rock Boulevard and heard the sounds of Spanish hymns, I realized that I had little awareness or understanding of the celebrations of other religion.

Though I come from an open and compassionate home, I was raised to distrust organized religion, to in some way judge those who put their faith in God or follow an ancient doctrine. While that informed much of who I am, it caused me to disavow religious tradition.

On that Sunday, however, I pulled over my car to watch the Easter parade. Hundreds of people followed behind a priest in white and red cassock, who read prayers into a microphone. His words were echoed by a congregation who held large wooden crosses. The procession was led by an old, Toyota pickup in whose bed sat an older woman playing guitar and singing, her voice projected through speakers. For miles, the community was filled with her voice, with his prayers. I watched from the corner. Next to me sat a homeless woman, face bronzed by sunlight, black trash bags at her feet filled with her possessions. She raised her face and arm to the sun as she sang, closing her eyes in reverence. In that moment, she was with her God, joy and peace on her face. Her warmth spilled over onto me.

A religious holiday brought my extended family together, to hold each other with words and comfort. It was a religious holiday that gave me a moment on a street corner, talking to a homeless woman who smiled at me warmly and engaged me in conversation — a woman I would have easily driven by on any other day. And it was a religious holiday that brought hundreds of people from a community still suffering from gang violence, poverty and poor nutrition out into the street to sing together.

I cannot say that I believe in God, and I cannot say that I always understand religion. But I can say that it is our job to actively learn about the cultures and faiths of others and to appreciate the ways in which tradition and moments of difference can, in fact, nurture love and understanding. We learn so much more when we turn to our friends and ask about their backgrounds, when we open ourselves to the things that, however different, comfort others. Perhaps it is not tolerance that Occidental needs, but genuine curiosity about and respect for difference.

Ari Laub is a senior English and Comparative Literary Studies Major. She can be reached at alaub@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyALaub.

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