1 October 2017
We heathens trudged up from the subway’s depths. And there on the sidewalk above, celestially, was a minion of fresh-faced young Hasids backlit by the setting sun, smiling down at us, ready to throw breadcrumbs of righteousness at our feet, so we could find our way back to piety…their piety. (Hasids are members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect opposed to lax ritual.)
“You Jewish?”, a doughy-faced redhead, his face set off in a halo of side-curls, asks with a hint of a smile, knowing he’s being aggressive and making us uncomfortable. It’s the second night of Rosh Hashanah and we’re on the way to Brooklyn friends for dinner. I’m carrying two identifying loaves of challah, but they can’t see that. They’re in an unmarked plastic bag.
“You Jewish?” Why do they think it is okay to be that provocative, that boorish, to a stranger. Are we all…but for them…lost souls, needing redemption? My ethical governor thickens my tongue and prevents me from asking why he’s out on Rosh Hashanah, asking a stranger if he’s Jewish.
“You Jewish?” Here are young guys, settled into their lives, clothed the way they’ll be their whole lives, walking the same streets, denying the outside world, never knowing the agony of rooting for the Mets…Talmudic lives…lives of proscribed experience, telling us they’ve got it right and we don’t. Privacy, of course, in the internet age is as foreign as white-wall tires. Why should we complain about their meddling, when we’re asked to verify almost anything we do with the last four digits of our social security numbers. Shouldn’t everyone, then, be allowed to intrude on anyone else’s privacy? It wasn’t always like this. I remember privacy…and I liked it.
I think back to my father-in-law, giving off unvarnished observations from western Pennsylvania. One day he answered the doorbell. And on the stoop were two Mormon young men, standing there twinkly-eyed and friendly. “Can we come in and pray a while with you?”, they asked. And Joe, who was not terribly accepting of ideas outside his area of practiced thought, said, “sure you can come in and tell me about your more supreme Supreme Being than my Supreme Being. But first you’re going to have to listen to me tell you about my religion. Won’t take long.””Well, thank you, sir”, they said, “maybe another day.” And off they went.
The lesson is that a little verbal dart at the right time gives a lot of satisfaction.