Identity | Jesus, Moses & Mohammed walk into a 1-hour photo…

I grew up in an insular Jewish community in Montreal, Canada.  It’s not as though I had a particularly religious upbringing, but our neighborhood was 99.5% Jewish. The one Black child on the block was improbably named Irwin Mandelbaum. I never interpreted my family’s requisite Sunday night Chinese food as Judaic ritual – it was just the way things were. Although the one church in our little shtetl was a massive edifice, it stuck out like a sore thumb and I have no recollection of anyone ever entering or leaving. Whenever somebody mentioned going to “the Mosc [sic]” they were referring the Samuel Moscovitch Skating Rink and Community Center.

Sure I had heard of Jesus and Mohammed. They were occasionally disparaged by our Orthodox Hebrew school teachers, most of whom were former commandos in the Israeli Defense Forces now in Canada on a hallowed mission to transform apathetic diaspora Jews into frummer Yids and Zionist patriots. Much of their message fell on deaf ears, including their recurrent diatribes against the deities, false messiahs, and desert infidels of bygone years. Jesus had little meaning in a universe devoid of Gentiles.

Moses, on the other hand, was dear to my heart, not for theological reasons, but because every Pesach I could count on four glorious hours of Charleton Heston parting the Red Sea, outwitting Yul Brynner, shtupping Ann Baxter the hottest and most sought after shiksa west of the Sinai, and then unleashing the wrathful fires of Hashem upon debaucherous revelers and their unfortunate calf of gold. Moishe Heston Rabbeinu was a mighty Israelite and a righteous dude.

But I now live in Dixie, where Southern Baptism reigns supreme. Much like the Second Amendment, the ubiquity of Jesus is a fact of life. And my children have begun to notice. Jesus and his disciples are everywhere disseminating their “good news”: on the street, on the radio, and, I fear, even in the classroom. Further complicating matters is my daughter’s best friend: she is the child of devout converts to Islam, a little girl who at six is already clad in the hijab and has been prohibited from engaging in “satanic” festivities such as Halloween. Being Jewish is not a given in these parts, and I’ve watched with both fascination and horror as my daughter has tried to wrap her 5 year old brain around the Bible Belt’s pervasive piety. We made it through the holidays nearly unscathed. The Christmas tree did manage to sneak its way into my home, but as we all know (yes I am rolling my eyes) it is a pagan symbol. But Joseph and Mary, boruch Hashem, kept their manger and its messianic contents out of my embattled Jewish shtibl.

And then recently the unexpected happened.

While I was working at my computer, I heard the patter of tiny feet from behind. I glanced over my shoulder and saw my daughter, who should have been in bed sleeping, eagerly awaiting my attention.

My daughter: “Daddy can you Google Jesus and show me his picture on your computer?”

Me: [breaking out into a sweat] “Uh no … I’m running Windows Vista Pagan Edition”

My daughter: “Please…”
Me: “Honey, who do you think Jesus is?”

My daughter: “Oh he’s an old Jewish man”

Me: “OK. Close enough.”

So I figure what the heck, and I bring up a picture of the “old Jew” from Bethlehem.

My daughter: “Oh that’s not what I thought he looked like!”

Me: “I know, I know, not ‘Jewy’ enough, too goyish looking. But, honey, the iPhone didn’t have a camera in biblical times.”

Studies have shown that scriptural exegesis is most effective on children when deployed in conjunction with cartoons, nursery rhymes, and candy. We can now add Apple products to the list. Satisfied, my daughter sauntered off to bed, filled with visions of Googled prophets, patriarchs, and other old Jewish men.

The Next Evening

While I was working at my computer, I heard the patter of tiny feet from behind. Once again, I glanced over my shoulder and saw my daughter, who should have been in bed sleeping, eagerly awaiting my attention:

My daughter: “Daddy can you print a picture of Jesus for me? I want to draw and color him in.”

Me: [breaking out into a sweat] “Uh no … I can’t.”

My daughter: “Why not?”

Me: “Because I’m running Adobe Photoshop Non-Crucifixion Edition”

My daughter: “Huh?” [A confused and distraught 5 year old]

Me: “Well I have an idea, how about I print you a picture of Moses?”

My daughter:”Sure! … Who’s Moses?”

Me: “Another old Jewish man. A savior to his people. … But no coloring Jesus. And no drawing Mohammed either.”

My daughter: “Why not?”

Me: “Well the Facebook ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed’ contest was cancelled.”

My daughter: “Huh?” [A confused and distraught 5 year old]

Me: “When you’re older I’ll explain it to you over a hookah and a Cat Stevens record.”

Twenty Minutes Later

Me: “Ok honey here’s your picture of Moses.”

My daughter: “Wow! What’s he holding in his hands?”

Me: “Those are the two tablets. The Ten Commandments. The Word of God etched in stone at Mt. Sinai and now hanging over some court house in Tennessee.”

My daughter: “Why are the letters ‘N R A.’ written on them?” [A confused and distraught 5 year old]

Me: “When you’re older I’ll explain it to you over a six-pack while we’re out hunting squirrel with our neighbors.”

The Next Day

I am pleased to report that Moses now hangs in all his Hebraic glory on my daughter’s wall, right next to her pinup of Barbie Fairytopia. The holiest Jew in history seems to have chosen the hottest shiksa west of the Sinai after all. Of course, the irony is lost on her five year old little brain. I will just have to explain it to her when she’s older, perhaps over some Chinese food and a Woody Allen film.


Jarrod Tanny is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina WilmingtonHis book, City of Rogues and Schnorrers examines how the city of Odessa was mythologized as a Jewish city of sin, celebrated and vilified for its Jewish gangsters, pimps, bawdy musicians, and comedians.