Jewish evangelists, chalk artists & Pittsburgh…REALLY???

coffee conversation in pittsburgh

By Kenneth Justice

What do you mean by ‘maybe’?” he asked with an intense look on his face

~ Earlier this afternoon I arrived to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the current wing of my Drinking in the Culture Tour. I’ve never been here before and all the sights and sounds of this city that sits along the epicenter of the Three Rivers (The Allegheny River and Monongahela River join to form the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) are altogether unique and interesting to me.

The downtown itself is extremely small. Within minutes I’d walked around most of the city and had a good feel for my bearings. As I came across the main central square of the city and paused for a moment to find a place to hang out, an early twentyish young man with the familiar looking Orthodox Jewish hat and black jacket walked right up to me (for those who don’t know what Orthodox Jew’s look like; they are the spitting image of Amish people or pictures of Quakers that you’ve seen in history books about the Pilgrims)

Excuse me, are you Jewish” he asked

Who’s asking” I said

I’m a Jewish evangelist looking for Jews, are you Jewish” he asked again

Maybe” I said

What do you mean by maybe” he asked

My father was Jewish….” I said

But your mother isn’t?” he asked

And as I nodded in the affirmative, before I could even say anything more he immediately turned and walked away; no goodbye, no ‘thanks for letting me quiz you on your ethnicity’, and he didn’t even bother to offer me a Matzo cracker for the 60 seconds of my time he wasted.

I wasn’t offended though. One of the café’s I frequent back home has a ton of Orthodox Jews who hang out there and I’ve become fairly used to their; ‘if you aren’t the byproduct of two full blooded Jewish parents than we don’t give a sh*t about you’ attitude.

Once I settled upon a little café that hosted free WiFi I sat down to check my emails when almost immediately a young woman sat down at the table next to me,

Am in the main downtown area?” I asked, and with that simple six word question the young woman (who was killing time waiting for her boyfriend to show up) began telling me about life in Pittsburgh, her studies here at a local Art University and the year she spent living in Orlando and working at Disney World.

I went down to Disney to be a photographer but my manager said I was pretty enough to be one of the characters, so for the better part of a year I dressed up as Tinker Bell every morning and took photos with children, and occasionally got to sit on a float in the Disney Parade” she said

The young woman is majoring in Journalism at the Art College, “Well it’s kind of like an Art slash Dance slash Journalism school” she explained, “What I really want to be is a full time chalk artist; that’s where I would get paid by businesses to come to events and decorate the sidewalks with chalk

I’d never heard of someone who got paid to do chalk work on sidewalks but I figure it would probably be a nice career if someone could actually get paid to do it, “I’d really like to live in Orlando, Florida the rest of my life” she said, “So I’m majoring in Journalism in case I can’t get the chalk-art job off the ground, and hopefully I can get work in Orlando in broadcast journalism

Sitting there listening to the young woman I was reminded of how so many of us start out with all sorts of plans and ideas….but none of us really know where our path will eventually lead us. Will the young woman end up living in Orlando? Will she get paid to draw on sidewalks with chalk? Will she work in broadcast journalism? Who knows………but I guess that’s the beauty of life; none of us know what the future holds for us.

Yet some people don’t view the future in such an abstract way; there’s a lot of people who believe the future is entirely what we make it to be. William Shakespeare wrote,

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves

And so I find myself wondering, is the future really up to us? Or are we merely cogs in a bigger machine. I’m sure all of the people who are out of work and unemployed around the Western World probably don’t agree with Mr. Shakespeare, “It’s not my fault that there aren’t any decent jobs” they would say to the great writer.

Or perhaps our future hinges upon a compromise between fate and our free will choices; a paradox between fate and destiny that we will never truly comprehend until we leave this life and discover the deeper meanings of the universe in the life of the world to come.

Just a few thoughts as I sipped my coffee here in downtown Pittsburgh. I’ll be at Commonplace Coffee in Squirrel Hill this morning, I’d love for you to join me!


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49 replies

  1. Squirrel Hill! What a quaint eastern name. My father’s family were cultural Jews. That means they were not religious, but they upholded the traditions. I was raised with no religion. There have always been people that fixate on my father’s ethnicity. “You’re a Jew”, they say. “I am not”, I say, “I have no religion. My mother is goy anyway.”
    I wanted so badly to believe there “was a fated plan for my life”. I love the idea that good things are set out for my life. I always say “Thank You”, just to keep the inkling of that “faith” going. Liking blowing on an ember in a campfire.

  2. Holding on to dreams and ideas makes us not go for a lesser option. We stare blind on what we want to achieve. But forget there are more ways to achieve a goal it isn’t always as straight forward.
    I had dreams and one day I may still make them come true for now I plough making a dream for today come true. To have a day that fulfilled my needs and made me smile.

  3. “Sitting there listening to the young woman I was reminded of how so many of us start out with all sorts of plans and ideas….but none of us really know where our path will eventually lead us. Will the young woman end up living in Orlando? Will she get paid to draw on sidewalks with chalk? Will she work in broadcast journalism? Who knows………but I guess that’s the beauty of life; none of us know what the future holds for us.”

    That is exactly the beauty of life that I want to protect. Our future is not written for us. I see that as a good thing.

  4. I once went to a sidewalk chalk art fair, I think 3 years ago, and it was amazing! I have so many pictures of it because I was blown away by the talent. Have a great visit to Pittsburgh, Kenneth.

    Oh, and wow, to the Jewish man. Ouch. I had no real idea of this sort of treatment within the community.

  5. It’s not TWO Jewish parents that counts, its if your MOM was Jewish. Judaism is matrilineal, and if your mom is Jewish then you are Jewish even if your father comes from Mars. Don’t ask me why, I didn’t make the rules!
    BTW am enjoying your trip and travelling vicariously with you.

    • Yup….i used to try and argue with the Orthodox explaining to them that back-in-the-day it was actually your father being Jewish that determined whether or not you are Jewish but that in the Medieval Ages they changed the rules making it all about who your mom is…. but they would always give me blank stares so I don’t even bother trying to tell them that anymore; besides, half the time the instant they find out my mother isn’t Jewish I usually get the type of reaction that I got from the dude yesterday lol and its not like I care whether or not I’m Jewish or not, I’m a simple dude who is simply happy with a nice cup of coffee to drink

  6. I love 3-D sidewalk art. It is a challenge to the senses and perception of reality. I hope she makes it to her dream.

    I was fortunate to begin my career in teaching. Being a science teacher meant I was always employable if I ever wanted to move. I did so 4 times. The last time was from suburban Chicago to Iowa City. I took a pay cut. But, other non-monetary things far outweighed the $$ losses. Best move of all of them.

    Young people, and those established in a career, can’t do that easily today. There are too many uncertainties and changes with moves. I would not want to be starting over today.

    • WOW! I just looked at all those photos…. incredible. I’ve never seen anything like that before…. NOW I understand what the girl at that coffee shop was talking about….. and here I had pictures in my mind of hopscotch squares 😉

    • Aren’t they great? Point of view is crucial, as with most things in life.

      You said you wandered around to find a coffee shop. Is that right? I figured you would check that out before you got there in order to find a popular spot.

      Have a good time on your tour stop.

    • I always set up coffee houses that I’m gonna visit before I get to the city; but that is for Saturdays; on Friday when I arrive I make sure to have no plans and just show up with no reservations to get a totally off-the-cuff feel for each area; that’s how I did Costa Rica, Atlanta, and now Pittsburgh (I was born in Chicago and I know the city like the back of my hand). I intentionally don’t research the city before I go…. although I do take suggestions from people who live in each city :=)

    • By ‘set up’, do you contact the shop to see if it is ok? Do shops ever object?

    • Nope; none say no….. people who are in the coffee shop business are all about writers, artists, etc. hanging out at their places 😀

  7. My girlfriends gathered at my house last night and for a few hours we sat outside, refreshment of choice in our hand and just caught up with each other. My heart filled as I listened to all of them talking and the dreams that still come out of their mouths. I think that it’s the joy of community, there is always someone to listen to your dream and offer encouragement!

  8. Dreams and plans…yeah. But when your hands become empty…when you lose everything you thought you wanted…your real life sometimes begins.

    I laughed when you described the Orthodox Jewish response of indifference. That’s how the evangelical Christians across the street responded to us when we first moved here and then didn’t accept their invitation to their church. Now they are visibly uncomfortable with us as we give them veg from the garden every year, etc. it’s clear they think they SHOULD not have anything to do with us, but they have five kids and need the fresh veg and sometimes tools. Funny. Sad, too.

  9. As a young child, I knew that I wanted to be a musician when I grew up, and I pursued it. Meanwhile, my (divorced) parents encouraged my music while at the same time saying, “Don’t you think you should learn another skill, in case that doesn’t work out?”

    Can you imagine the parents of a medical student asking their child to learn how to build a deck in case their doctor’s degree doesn’t work out? It would distract, delay, derail and mess up the kid’s progress, much like it did with my efforts, yet, I am still playing music, and making a living doing so, despite the resistance.

    Sure, I get it – learn other skills. I have plenty, and am amazed at some of my musical friend’s inability to do almost anything other than play their instument – I mean, come on…. it’s a paintbrush….

    So I support this woman’s vision to become whatever she wants – that’s how a self employed and creative person gets work – by imagining the ideal job, and then going about ways to make it a reality. I truly believe there is the perfect job for everyone – but it does take work and imagination.

    As for the indifference and rude behavior of the Orthodox Jewish man you described – well, rude crosses all bounds, I suppose, and we all know that being “religious” doesn’t make up for being an ass.

    • Awesome comments Rhan,

      I think my life reflects similar themes that you’ve touched upon since I’ve always wanted to be a full time writer and I also love coffee… so I’m combining the two 😀

  10. Where does our destiny lie? Now that would be a post worth exploring further. For me, I’ll agree with Shakespeare that it’s not in the stars. But is it all in myself? I’m doubtful of that as well.

  11. “Don’t you have a life plan?”, said the girl. “I don’t think you plan life”, said the man.
    –I watched “My Life in Ruins” once again last night, as my hubby is traveling. I think I’ve seen it four times now in about 2 months. I keep getting awesome quotes from it, and am so intrigued with the differences in outlook between the main character and ‘the simple life’. I love how she progresses from ‘stress, hurry, schedule, so-called ideal for her – to gradually loosening up and starting to ‘see life’ and appreciate others and the simple things. I have a ton of posts just waiting to happen, all because of that movie.

  12. “and he didn’t even bother to offer me a Matzo cracker for the 60 seconds of my time he wasted.”

    HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA!!!!!! Obviously this cracked me up lol…

  13. Squirrel Hill is actually the main Jewish section of town – interesting given your prior encounter! Sorry I can’t make it downtown to meet you. Pgh is a very interesting city. Really hemmed in by the landscape.

  14. As a little girl I dreamed of becoming a ballerina that travels the world; passing through few storms I end up in medical field across the ocean; who’d thought ? I’m still wondering what else I desire in life.
    I realize that life is a ageless dream full of sacrifices that hope and passion keeps me going. 😊

  15. Dear Kenneth,

    Am I the only one who sees the hilarity in the sentence “get the chalk-art job off the ground” ??? That’s awesome.

    I love the question about controlling our futures, so interesting. Maybe it’s because I’m in a good place right now in my life, and I wouldn’t dare guess what it would be like for someone who is looking for a job right now, but I believe that our only “destiny” is the challenge to be our true selves moment by moment in the present. You may not know where it will lead you, but you don’t need to. The best you can do is know where you are right now (Pittsburgh, perhaps). And live it like you mean it 🙂

    Peace ~ Allison

  16. Congratulations, you missed a Jews for Jesus conversion attempt. “Jewish Evangelism” is a movement to attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. I have a friend in Canada who is a convert to Orthodox Judaism who participates in Jews for Judaism.

    As to what happens next? Life. It is what happens while we are making other plans. Believe me, I know. 🙂

  17. The way I look at it is that we’re all in this big interconnected web, kind of like the Internet, but it goes much beyond that. We can choose where we attempt to connect and disconnect from this web of existence, but the web helps determine whether we can ultimately connect or disconnect where we choose. Not to mention that some connections can cause disconnections and some disconnections can allow new connections to become within reach.

  18. Religion drives me crazy, though I’m sure there’s remnants of it left in me. Whether it makes you “act better” or not, it blinds the mind and often corrupts the soul. I feel sorry for that “evangelist.” He’s stuck with a darkened mind, and until he admits his blindness, he will remain alienated from the life of God (you can see my blog “alienated from life” about that, fyi). I think it’s quite easy to follow Jesus and believe this Jesus simply taught men to follow him, meaning His WAY of submission to the Father, not all the rigamarole and foolishness that we have accumulated.

    As for fate, I don’t know! I think things are much more determined and God is much more in control of EVERYTHING than we like to admit. Maybe our choices seem and feel free to us, but have been determined in many instances, already. No way to know that apart from divine revelation.

    • I’m with you (firstthekingdom) on this one. “God is much more in control of EVERYTHING than we like to admit.” And His plans are good in spite of the bad. Only God can turn all things for our good.

    • In all honesty, I think the very definition of “good” is: “whatever God desires or is doing.” Even Jesus himself wouldn’t let people call him good, but instead said ONLY his Father was good (Mark 10:18). And Paul wrote that none are good in themselves (Romans 3:10-12), though surely many act in ways we would call good. God’s not much like the vast majority of Christians think He is…and He doesn’t fit in the boxes we’ve made or conform to the standards we’ve set in our own understanding…

  19. What a surreal conversation with the chalk art girl. Reminds me of my the conversations my fictional character, Knut Pedersen has with various people in my Pedersen’s Last Dream blog.

    Just goes to show there are occasions when fact is stranger than fiction.

  20. This story strikes me as strange for I know definitively that Jews do not proselytize or evangelize. They do however do outreach work for those who are Jewish already but may not have a lot of knowledge or contact with God or their religion.
    One of the problems with the Ultra-Orthodox insular world is that they have a hard time learning social niceties and etiquette. This is probably the reason that many people have negative experiences with them, they are simply poorly educated it certain fields. It is however, almost never malicious.


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