Chili Dogs, Klezmer, and Jesus

Lauren Rhoades

          In high school, I belonged to a co-ed offshoot of Boy Scouts called Venture Crew. We were a group of a dozen nerdy but outdoorsy kids, led by a squadron of over-involved moms who orchestrated our ski trips, hikes, and wilderness survival lessons. My Venture Crew friends loved to ski. Some had season passes and would go every weekend, hiking up into the bowls just to make fresh tracks through waist-deep powder. I didn’t have a season pass, and would only go on the big group trips, though I secretly dreaded them. I would rather have stayed at home, drinking hot chocolate and reading Jane Eyre, waiting for the world to thaw, oblivious to the combined privileges of living close to the mountains and being able to afford a lift ticket. Reluctantly, I would hunt through my family’s basket of mismatched mittens and hats and scarves and ski goggles. I hated the scratchy elastic cuffs of my ski jacket, the clinginess of my woolen long underwear, the stiff plastic ski boots which felt like vice grips on my shins. The day of fun lay before me like a series of unpleasant chores: waking up early, inching through traffic, catching a crowded bus from the tundra-like parking lot to the lifts, alternatively sweating and freezing throughout the day.

          But as much as I dreaded the ski trips, I wasn’t a bad skier. For me, anticipation was—and still is—the worst part of any major outing. Once I was there on the mountain, amidst the pine trees with their snow-heavy branches, breathing in the clear cold air, the sky a blistering blue, I relaxed. I had entered a far-away Narnia world with my friends, away from our parents and teachers. I liked squeezing in next to my crush on the ski lift, zigzagging down blue and black runs with my best friend Sarah. My muscles burned, but in a good way.

          At lunch, we would click out of our skis and clip clop toward the lodge, where the moms would distribute smooshed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, plastic bags of baby carrots, Oreo cookies. A few more hours on the slopes, and then finally, gloriously, the day would be done. In the parking lot, we would unstrap our ski boots, peel the goggles from our wind-burnt faces, and pile into a minivan for the trip back to Denver. But before our descent, we would always stop at the A&W in Frisco, just fifteen minutes down the road. I’m sure we only went there because it was convenient; we were hungry, and it was just off the highway, on a frontage road between a gas station and a Taco Bell.

          Like any other fast food joint, the A&W was outfitted with brown tile floors and hard plastic booths; it smelled of grease and ketchup. But unlike other fast food joints, the outside illuminated sign glowed with the daily special and a Bible verse, like Jesus = Peace with God / Romans 1:16-17 / Chili Dogs & Floats $1.99. As a kid, I spent a lot of time thinking about religion and spirituality, probably to an unhealthy degree, but even I was baffled by this un-ironic blend of consumer capitalism and Bible-speak.

          The discordance didn’t stop with the sign. Inside, the aroma of those $1.99 Chili Dogs mingled with the piped-in, old-timey sounds of klezmer music. Klezmer—the traditional music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. I recognized the musical style immediately, though I had never heard it played in a fast food establishment. Just years earlier, when I had been studying for my bat-mitzvah, my grandfather, the son of Romanian, Yiddish-speaking Jews, sent me thrifted cassette tapes of various klezmer bands. I played them in my stereo at home. I liked the whine of the clarinet, the plucky, minor harmonies of the string instruments. Klezmer is simultaneously mournful and joyous. To me, it sounded like Fiddler on the Roof and every hora I had ever danced to—inescapably Jewish.

          Next to the cash registers where we placed our orders for hamburgers and fries (I don’t think anyone ever ordered the chili dog) were the brochures. Jews for Jesus, they read. We are Jewish people who believe in Jesus, and we want to tell everyone about Jesus the Messiah. Yahweh was spelled out in Hebrew letters, alongside excerpts of scripture and information about attending worship services with the local group of Messianic Jews.

          I had never heard of Jews for Jesus before entering the Frisco A&W. The name was like an indecipherable clue in a crossword puzzle, an oxymoron. I had always thought that the indisputable difference between Christians and Jews was that Christians believed Jesus was the son of God and Jews did not. I knew with absolute certainty that my Jewish family did not believe in Jesus. The closest my mom ever got to celebrating Easter was buying the discounted chocolate bunnies the Monday after (she liked to bite their ears off). And I knew that my dad and stepmom—both cradle Catholics—would never in a million years consider themselves Jewish. The blood and the body that the priest sanctified and served to them on Sunday mornings at St. Thomas More Catholic Church seemed light years away from the Shabbat challah and grape juice my mom blessed at our dinner table on Friday evenings. The fact that many Catholic and Christian practices are rooted in Judaism was irrelevant to me; the two traditions operated in completely different spheres of my brain. In my mind, a chasm divided people who did and did not believe in Jesus. My Jewish mother and Catholic father were proof. They had divorced when I was three, unable to bridge whatever differences divided them.

          But I was not pondering religious philosophy while slurping my root beer float. The cultish atmosphere of the A&W became an inside joke between me and my Venture Crew friends—none of whom were Jewish or even particularly religious. It even became part of the appeal. We laughed at the photos of black and white religious figures on the walls, at the strange music. We ate at a large round booth with a view of the parking lot, recently plowed and lined with mounds of dirty snow, as the late afternoon sun sank below darkening peaks. We never stayed long. Ski traffic on I-70 was usually horrendous, and the moms persuaded us to finish our root beer floats in the car.

          I’ve wondered why, all these years later, the meals we ate at A&W are more vivid to me than the ski trips themselves. I know now that the Messianic Jews—including those who call themselves Jews for Jesus—are considered by the Jewish community to be an insidious brand of Evangelical Christians masquerading as religious hybrids. Jews for Jesus was founded in the 1970s by a Jewish man who converted to Christianity and became a Baptist Minister; they target ethnically Jewish people in order to convert them to believe in Christ as savior and messiah. But as an adolescent, those Jews for Jesus pamphlets, as funny as they may have seemed, struck at some deep desire within me for wholeness and unity. In her essay on Jewish identity, Adrienne Rich calls herself “split at the root.” At a time when interfaith marriage was rare, Rich was raised by a Gentile mother and a Jewish father. Internalized anti-Semitism left Rich feeling unmoored, her identity divided. I, too, felt myself to be split at the root, divided by my parents’ bitter divorce, and the custody battles and religious indoctrination that followed. With my mom, I was Jewish. With my dad, I was Catholic. Like Rich, I would often wonder if it was possible to reconcile these two parts of my identity, to “bring them whole,” like the best friend necklaces Sarah and I had bought at Claire’s: two broken halves of a heart which fit together like puzzle pieces.

          Though the Jews for Jesus A&W—with its klezmer meets New Testament meets chili dog ideology—was a joke to me, there was something seductive about the solution it offered. At that point in my life, I was, in a twisted sense, a Jew for Jesus. Bat-mitzvah-ed and attending mass. Fasting for Yom Kippur and giving up candy for Lent. My inherited religions remained neatly compartmentalized, because picking either Catholicism or Judaism would have meant turning my back on one whole side of my family. But the Jews for Jesus had a different message. You can have it all, the pamphlet seemed to say, you don’t have to pick just one. It made an impression.

          These days, I simply say that I’m Jewish, which is the truest answer. But I wonder what would have happened had I picked up one of those pamphlets, tucked it inside my ski jacket, and called the number inside. Would I have believed their faulty promise that I could be a Jew who openly celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, Easter and Pesach, and with equal parts fervor?

          According to the Frisco A&W Yelp page, the restaurant shuttered in 2013 with an average of 1.5 stars out of 5. The dozen or so reviews complained about the mediocre food and the overt religious propaganda. Can I have a burger without Christ, please? one reviewer asked. But I’ll always remember the place with fondness. The fries were hot, if not very crispy; the booths, upholstered in orange vinyl, were cozy. Jews for Jesus A&W was a respite, a purgatory of sorts, in between the ski slopes and my suburban home on the high plains. Here, I didn’t have to choose who I was or where I belonged. I simply existed, surrounded by friends, and one ski trip closer to summer.

Lauren Rhoades is the director of the Eudora Welty House & Garden in Jackson, Mississippi and an MFA candidate at the Mississippi University for Women. She is working on a collection of essays about Judaism, race, and the South.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021