Friday, May 09, 2008

Sh'ma, He's Making Eyes At Me!

In recent months, the synagogue that we belong to has been vandalized.

There was spray-painted graffiti and a fire that later proved to be arson.

It’s difficult for me to believe that these kinds of things still happen, let alone where I live. I was suddenly reminded of a moment in the ceremony that ended in my official conversion. The rabbi asked me if I was willing to commit myself to the lot of the Jewish people, whatever that might mean at any given time.

In other words, if I accepted whatever came along with identifying myself as a Jew.

And I remember feeling a little shiver at that moment, because I knew what it meant. This was no longer playtime. There could be unwanted consequences that came along with this, depending on the place and the moment.

And, although these attacks were not personally directed at me, they were, in a way. Someone had made a judgment about me without ever having met me, decided that they hated me for reasons that had nothing to do with who I was.

And I thought: this conversion thing has always been bashert.

Because how inevitable was it that, when the time came to declare my allegiance to a particular faith, I would pick the one that would result in more people hating me?

I could see the two Lubavitchers waiting to pounce on me at the end of the block, the remaining gateway between us and the television studio. If we could navigate these waters briskly and quickly, we would soon be joining the select audience who’d managed to flatter their way into Studio 8-H, the home of Saturday Night Live and occasional renegade productions such as this.

As we arrived at the busy corner, carried along with the human undertow that only New York provides, I could hear a voice ask me, “Are you Jewish?”

Now I understood that for all intents and purposes, this confrontation was going to be no different than a hundred other hectorings by fundamentalists. They believed that the only genuine way to be Jewish was the Orthodox way, just as the fundamentalist Christian believed I would go to Hell, or the committed Catholic condemn me for not genuflecting.

And normally I would not listen to any of them for very long.

But I had made this commitment, you see, to identify myself as a Jew, regardless of the consequences.

And so I said, “Yes.”

I was immediately asked if I would be interested in putting on tefillin, the small boxes containing scripture that you bound to your arm and head with leather straps. It was a Jewish ritual I had never performed before, meant to focus the mind on holy things.

And I was here, at this time, in this place.

I looked to the wife for guidance. She shot me a pleasant look that nevertheless read, “You’re on your own, kid.”

I honestly didn’t know what would happen next, what I would say next.

I looked at the wife again. This time we tried to read each other’s faces, looking for evidence of what the other one thought. We had places to go, people to see.

I glanced again at the Passover! pamphlet:

Would the world be any different if any one of us had not been born?

There had been so many times I’d wished I hadn’t been.

And then suddenly, wordlessly, we’d decided.

“OK,” I said.

But we were born.

And there I was, smack in the middle of the New York Metro Area, suddenly face to face with these leather straps.

Well, it was New York.

Next: Stairway To Unleavened


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