On Mon­day, Melis­sa Fay Greene shared the sto­ry behind the adop­tion of her daugh­ter, Helen, from Ethiopia. She has been blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Vis­it­ing Scribe.

Twen­ty years ago, as I set out upon my very first book tour, for Pray­ing for Sheetrock—my 1991 work of non­fic­tion about the hey­day of a cor­rupt cour­t­house gang’ on the flow­ery coast of Geor­gia and the belat­ed rise of civ­il rights there — I dis­cov­ered I had a line in my book-talk that only Jews laughed at.

It was unin­ten­tion­al on my part. I thought it was fun­ny; I didn’t real­ize until I criss-crossed the coun­try with it, like a stand-up com­ic, that it wasn’t fun­ny to non-Jews.

The scene: the blaz­ing sum­mer nights of 1975, as dark­ness dropped…” when the rur­al black cit­i­zens of McIn­tosh Coun­ty, enraged by the police shoot­ing of an unarmed man and by the delib­er­ate neglect of the all-black pub­lic school sys­tem by the all-white school board, stormed across the sand park­ing lot, illu­mi­nat­ed by bare light-bulbs dan­gling from wires strung through the live-oak trees, and crowd­ed into the weath­er-beat­en Short­ers Chapel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church.

I read aloud from my book: Every pew in the church was packed; well-dressed peo­ple lined the walls and crowd­ed into the rear of the church; and a choir in roy­al-blue satin robes led the con­gre­ga­tion in rich and heart­felt music. The choir held hym­nals with­out look­ing into them and swayed heav­i­ly back and forth in uni­son, stamp­ing once as they leaned left, stamp­ing again as they leaned right, and the con­gre­ga­tion in full voice joined in.”

Then I told a sto­ry that was not in the book. When­ev­er I attend­ed one of these polit­i­cal prayer meet­ings,” I told my audi­ence, I was always seat­ed up front, an hon­ored guest, the only white per­son in the room. It was a dis­ad­van­tage because I couldn’t real­ly see what was going on, with­out con­stant­ly look­ing over my shoul­der. One night the min­is­ter, to be espe­cial­ly wel­com­ing to me, invit­ed me to come up and lead a hymn. Oh no, I couldn’t,’ I stam­mered, for two rea­sons: first, I can’t sing like THAT, like these incred­i­ble voic­es. And sec­ond­ly, I’m Jew­ish and I don’t know the words.’

’Wel­come to you!’ cried the tall skin­ny per­spir­ing coal-black rev­erend, dressed in a tight-fit­ting coal-black suit like a mor­ti­cian. The black and the white, the Greek and the Jew, we’re all chil­dren of Christ.”

That’s when the Jew­ish peo­ple in my audi­ences laughed. From New York to Seat­tle, from Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, to Austin, Texas, Jews laughed at that line. If I heard one laugh only, I could glance up from my notes and spot him or her instant­ly: Of course, Mrs. Gold­berg, there you are; oh, Dr. Stein, how are things here in Kansas City?

It wasn’t a fun­ny line to Chris­tians, though. It comes from Scrip­ture (I learned, on the road), from the Epis­tle to the Colos­sians (as it was point­ed out to me) where­in it is writ­ten: Where there is nei­ther Greek nor Jew, cir­cum­ci­sion nor uncir­cum­ci­sion, Bar­bar­ian, Scythi­an, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. [Colos­sians, 39]

So I had to help my Chris­t­ian friends see the humor. If I deliv­ered the reverend’s line and no one laughed, I added: I hadn’t ever heard it put like that before.”

I picked up a cou­ple of chuck­les here and there with that anno­ta­tion, but it took anoth­er com­ment — You know, that’s not what our rab­bis tell us” — to real­ly bring them home. Then every­one could laugh, because then they got why Ithought it was fun­ny and it sud­den­ly struck my audi­ences as a fun­ny scene after all.

My high point with that line occurred here in Atlanta, at Cen­tral Pres­by­ter­ian Church locat­ed in the heart of old down­town. I gave my Sheetrock talk and deliv­ered my We’re all chil­dren of Christ’ line and the entire audi­ence explod­ed with laughter.

I was so stunned I couldn’t go on.

I came com­plete­ly out of my author persona.

Wait… what?” I said. Why did you all laugh at that?”

The hearty audi­ence laughed harder.

But… but that’s a line that only Jews laugh at.”

Now they howled.

I looked hard at them, through nar­rowed eyes. Are there a bunch of con­verts from Judaism in this church?”

Now they were shrieking.

I don’t get it,” I said. I stood qui­et­ly, wait­ing for an explanation.

Melis­sa,” said the hip young min­is­ter kind­ly. I think we are laugh­ing because we under­stand why that was fun­ny to you.”


In 1996, I went on book tour again, this time with The Tem­ple Bomb­ing, about mid-20th cen­tu­ry white suprema­cist extrem­ism and the 1958 attack on a Reform tem­ple in Atlanta whose rab­bi, Jacob M. Roth­schild, was a fire-breath­ing advo­cate for racial jus­tice.

Odd­ly, on this book tour, I end­ed up with a line that only Chris­tians laughed at.

It went like this:

We had a hard time com­ing up with a name for this book,” I told my audi­ences. I want­ed to call it When the Wolves of Hate were Loose, based on the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning col­umn, denounc­ing the bomb­ing, writ­ten by Ralph McGill of theAtlanta Con­sti­tu­tion the morn­ing after the attack.

But my pub­lish­er said it was too long a title; they said I could call it The Wolves of Hate. But I said the book wasn’t about the wolves of hate; it was about a time when the wolves of hate were on the loose. Then the pub­lish­er said there were too many wolves on the book­store shelves already — there were wolf cal­en­dars, wolf address books — so for­get the wolves. Then my moth­er got into the act, because she loved the title. She said, Sweet­ie, why don’t you just find a dif­fer­ent animal?’

’Oh great, Mom,’ I said. You mean like …When the Ger­bils of Hate were Loose?’

That’s when a friend came up with his great idea. Melis­sa,’ he said. Just call the book A Bomb In Gilead.’”

And that turned out to be a line that only Chris­tians laughed at. Why?

Because (I learned) balm inGilead’ is a com­mon phrase in the Chris­t­ian church. There is a pop­u­lar African-Amer­i­can spir­i­tu­al and Chris­t­ian hymn (I learned) that goes like this:

There is a balm inGilead/​To make the wound­ed whole;

There is a balm inGilead/​To heal the sin-sick soul.

If you can’t preach like Peter,/If you can’t pray like Paul,

Just tell the love of Jesus,/And say He died for all.

Mean­while, Gilead has been used by black preach­ers to refer to the Amer­i­can South. So my friend’s pun­ning book title, A Bomb in Gilead, worked.

For Chris­tians.

But it hap­pened, with my Tem­ple Bomb­ing talk, that I had reams of fan­tas­tic mate­r­i­al that was mild­ly amus­ing to Chris­tians, but real­ly fun­ny for Jews, about some of the tra­di­tions that emerged among the Clas­si­cal Reform tem­ples in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry, like blow­ing a trum­pet instead of a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah because a ram’s horn was too Jew­ish; or the High Holy Day Shrimp Fry in a Louisiana con­gre­ga­tion; or the time an Ortho­dox fel­low found him­self in a South­ern town with only one Reform tem­ple in which to dav­en on Yom Kip­pur and when he began knock­ing on his chest dur­ing the Al chet con­fes­sion of sins peo­ple rushed to his aid because they thought he was hav­ing a heart attack.

So, I did this: I clipped togeth­er about six pages of my fun­ni­est sto­ries for Jews and had them ready to go.

If, when I deliv­ered the Bomb in Gilead line, there was wide­spread laugh­ter among my lis­ten­ers, I — while con­tin­u­ing to gaze smil­ing­ly upon my audi­ence — sub­tly removed my paper-clipped pages and pushed them to the side, to be saved for anoth­er day.

But if the Bomb in Gilead line got no reac­tion, I looked out hap­pi­ly across my blank-faced audi­ence, slipped my paper-clipped pages to the top, and pre­pared to give my fel­low Jews a rol­lick­ing ride.

Now I’m tour­ing with my new book, No Bik­ing in the House With­out A Hel­met, my first tru­ly light-heart­ed book, about rais­ing our nine chil­dren: four by birth, one adopt­ed from Bul­gar­ia, and four adopt­ed from Ethiopia.

I got into trou­ble with it my very first night out, the very first time I intro­duced mate­r­i­al not from the book but from fam­i­ly life.

It con­cerned bring­ing five-year-old Helen from her Ethiopi­an orphan­age into our fam­i­ly and into Judaism. She’d lost both her par­ents in the vast HIV/AIDS pan­dem­ic and had land­ed in a evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian orphan­age in Addis Aba­ba, where we found her. At six years of age, she sat between me and my hus­band at Yom Kip­pur ser­vices. I whis­pered to her the impor­tance of this day. Thou­sands of years ago,” I said, it was on this day only that the High Priest stepped into the Holy of Holies inside the Tem­ple and — on this day only — he pro­nounced God’s name. He was the only per­son alive who knew God’s name and these days nobody knows it.”

I know God’s name,” the adorable lit­tle girl whis­pered back happily.

You do?” whis­pered sev­en-year-old Jesse from my oth­er side. What is it?”

And Helen tossed her braids hap­pi­ly and pro­nounced in a voice loud and clear enough for all to hear: Jesus Christ.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly I was 80% of the way into the telling of this sto­ry — I had reached I know God’s name,” whis­pered the lit­tle girl — when I sud­den­ly thought, What on earth am I doing?? this audi­ence is three-quar­ters non-Jew­ish! this is not going to be fun­ny!! I’m going to offend people!!

Fran­ti­cal­ly I tried to invent, on the spot, a dif­fer­ent punch-line.

But once you’ve reached, You do? What is it?” in that sto­ry, it’s too late to invent a new punchline.

There was no way around it; I had to go through it. Jesus Christ,” I said mis­er­ably, now whis­per­ing myself, and then I briskly turned the page and began with reli­gion-neu­tral material.

Now I look for­ward to tour­ing amongst the Jew­ish Book Fes­ti­vals this fall, with the con­fi­dence that — if there’s a sto­ry none of you finds fun­ny — it may play very, very well in New Hampshire.

Melis­sa Fay Greene’s lat­est book, No Bik­ing in the House With­out a Hel­met, is now available.

A two-time Nation­al Book Award final­ist and win­ner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Hadas­sah Myr­tle Wreath Award, the ACLU Nation­al Civ­il Lib­er­ties Award & oth­er hon­ors, Melis­sa Fay Greene is a cur­rent Guggen­heim Fel­low, a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times Mag­a­zine, and a fre­quent guest on NPR.