Many people who keep kosher have had the experience of having a special meal graciously laid out for them at a dinner party while the rest of the guests eat the non-kosher meal. But then there are the times, rare to be sure, when the whole dinner is prepared kosher, just because of one guest.
I thought of a dinner like that this week when news came that John Cardinal O’Connor, the charismatic archbishop of New York, was technically Jewish. According to an article in Catholic New York, the weekly newspaper of the archdiocese, O’Connor was born of a Jewish mother who converted to Catholicism before he was born.
The article was based on genealogical research done by the Cardinal’s sister, Mary O’Connor Ward, who said that it was unclear whether her brother was aware of his Jewish lineage. “I have no way of knowing that,” she said, adding later: “I think he would have been very proud of it.”
The kosher meal in question goes back 30 years ago when I was a young reporter at The New York Times assigned to cover O’Connor, who had just been appointed archbishop by Pope John Paul II to succeed Terence Cardinal Cooke. It was a different time in journalism, a time when reporters were more behind-the-scenes than front-and-center the way that they often are today. Still, I got away with the following paragraph in what was then called a “reporter’s notebook.” It appeared in the Times on April 7, 1984.
“Unlike Cardinal Cooke, who was often wary of the press and rarely held news conferences, Archbishop O’Connor has established a rapport with reporters, remembering names and pointing reporters out to audiences. When one reporter who keeps kosher was invited to the chancery for lunch, the Archbishop served a strictly kosher meal on paper plates, complete with matzoh crackers and pareve margarine. To be sure the visitor would be comfortable, the Archbishop and his aides also ate kosher.”
That lunch came early in his term as archbishop. Over the next 16 years, until his death in 2000, O’Connor proved to have a special sensitivity for the Jewish community. As Claudia McDonnell wrote in Catholic New York last week: “To many Jews in New York, he was more than a leader in the field of interfaith affairs. He was a friend.”
Examples abound. O’Connor often told Catholic audiences that Jews were “our elder brothers” and he embraced many Jewish causes. In 1987, he joined a rally for Soviet Jews outside the United Nations, put on a yarmulke and declared: “I am proud to be this day, with you, a Jew.”
A year later, at a synagogue service commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, O’Connor told the congregation that he had placed a special candle in the window of his residence on Madison Avenue. “Herein,” he said, “lives a spiritual Semite.”
O’Connor was one of the key movers behind the Vatican recognition of the State of Israel, which began with a “fundamental agreement” in 1993 and was formalized with the opening in 1994 of a Vatican embassy in Tel Aviv and an Israeli embassy in Rome.
Among his close friends were Edward I. Koch, the proudly Jewish mayor of New York, with whom he wrote a book, “His Eminence and Hizzoner,” and Cardinal Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, who was born to a Jewish family and was later baptized a Catholic. O’Connor often hosted Lustiger at events in New York.
It was clear to me in the years that I covered him that O’Connor was keenly aware that he was the archbishop of the largest Jewish city outside of Israel and that he had a special responsibility to share Jewish concerns with the Vatican.
Is it possible that he knew on some level that he had Jewish lineage?
The cardinal’s sister told Catholic New York that she and her brother never discussed their mother’s religious background, but that she had an inkling of it. “I just drew my own conclusion that my mother was a convert,” she said. “The only way I knew [was that] she had a sister who didn’t go to church.”
I put the question to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the widely popular “Freakonomics” books who is also the author of a memoir about his Catholic-Jewish journey called “Turbulent Souls.” In the memoir, Dubner writes about his own fascinating encounter with O’Connor, who he went to see after he embraced Judaism, much to his Jewish-born mother’s dismay. O’Connor helped put Mrs. Dubner’s mind at ease about her son’s faith journey.
“Given the era in which he grew up, if he did know, it might well have been something that he (or his family) suppressed,” Dubner wrote to me in an email. If O’Connor knew, Dubner reasoned, he would have spoken about it. He concluded: “The likelihood is somewhat greater that he didn’t know.”
Still, I think back to that kosher lunch we shared in 1984. The special lunch came after an awkward earlier invitation where my wife Shira and I sat at O’Connor’s table without touching our food. He noticed and exclaimed: “I should have known you are kosher!” Looking back, I should have responded, “I should have know you are Jewish!”