Profound Moments: Twice Asked “Are You Jewish?”

by Carl Schneider, presented at 09/16/11 Shabbat service

 I have lived comfortably in immediate communities that were significantly or overwhelmingly Jewish. My boyhood home was in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia. It was so Jewish that I remember going to elementary school one day to find that there were no other students. The custodian told me that it was a teacher in-service day because it was a Jewish holiday and no kids were expected. I assure you it was not one of the High Holidays, or one of the other biggies like Passover, when even my non-observant parents knew to keep me home. I think the day in question was something like Lag B’Omer or Tu B’shevat. As a result, I have had very little personal experience with overt anti-Semitism Despite my comfortable surroundings, I have always felt that being Jewish separates me, as part of a small minority, from the larger society.

I have had very moving experiences – profound moments – in our many travles when exposed to Jewish sites around the world. The feeling a Jew has traveling to Israel has been described many times – a sense of being at home in a way a Jew can be nowhere else in the world. I have had a similar sense of Jewish solidarity when visiting synagogues from Russia to Morocco and many cities in between. On the Island of Gibraltar, I noticed the Hebrew lettering of a kosher butcher shop. I discovered a street of Jewish homes and institutions reflecting a community that had existed for centuries, where we were cordially welcomed as long lost relatives. Each such trip reminds me that I am part of a tradition founded millennia ago that persists into the present day. On each Jewish site visit, I think of the many great empires and civilizations that flourished and then disappeared, while our tradition endured miraculously through so many adversities. When visiting Jewish sites the world over, I sense that I am a guardian of a sacred heritage.

Let me tell you about two trips that stand out in my memory. In both, I was asked whether I was Jewish. The answers were different. The results were significant to me. The first was when I was still in elementary school. My walk from home to school took me past a church parochial school. One day while passing that school, I was accosted by a group of older boys who asked: “You are a Jew, aren’t you?” I was, of course, under no compulsion to discuss my religious preference with them. However, I did not feel like being hassled, so I said no, and walked on without serious consequence. This seems like a trivial and very forgettable incident. For me it must have been a profound moment, though not a positive one. I still remember it with bad feelings some 70 years later. I was and still am disappointed in myself for having denied my Jewish identity.

If you are asked describe yourself, what do you say? Many would start with an occupation, such as retired lawyer. Some would refer to family status, a position held, a hobby that occupied much of your time or a political cause. To many, religion would not be on the list of self-identities. To me, being Jewish is one attribute that would be high on my list of self descriptions, both because of how I think of myself and my perception of how others see me. I was disappointed in my own denial of my Jewishness to the neighborhood bullies.

A second trip stands out in my memory. In 1989, our family visited Russia. In Moscow, we went to a farmer’s market that I had read about. It was in a gritty industrial neighborhood, far from the normal tourist attractions. While the rest of the family was still inside, I wandered outside. The market was at the hub of several intersecting streets, and I was trying to figure which street on my city map was the one I was facing. A man nearby asked in heavily accented English if he could help orient me, which he did. That chance encounter became a profound moment for me because of what followed. The man then asked me a question which sounded like “Are you Jewish?” I was rather surprised. Assuming that I misheard, I asked him to repeat the question. I had heard correctly, he asked if I was Jewish. Now Russia was still a fairly repressive state in 1989 and not particularly sympathetic to Jews. The neighborhood did not seem overly welcoming to foreigners. Once again, I had no obligation to discuss my religious preference with a total stranger standing on a Moscow street corner. Perhaps I recalled my grade school incident when I denied my religion. I told him – yes, I am Jewish. The man then introduced himself as Lev. He said that he was also Jewish. In a heavy accent with garbled syntax, he then told me a hard-to-understand story.

As best I could follow his rapid-fire monologue, • he was trained as a flight attendant by Aeroflot (the Russian airline); • he had immigrated to the US and lived in Washington DC for many years working as a banquet waiter; • he became a naturalized US citizen; • he returned to Russia to care for his sick mother who had since died; • he had married her non-Jewish nurse; • the authorities took his passport and would not let him leave Russia; • they made it impossible for him to find work because he was Jewish. He asked for my name, and contact information, which I supplied reluctantly.

Months later, I received a surprise phone call from Lev. He asked for my help in getting him out of Russia. I sent him a lengthy letter asking very specific questions to flesh out his story. When I checked his responses, lo and behold I verified that he had lived for years in the US and he was a naturalized citizen. I became angry that a fellow American Jew was being detained in Russia against his will. I began a communication campaign with congressional representatives, the State Department and various other agencies and officials. Official diplomatic communiqués went to the Russian authorities protesting Lev’s treatment. Eventually Lev and his wife received permission to leave Russia for Israel. I arranged a flight for them. As soon as they were beyond the Russian boarder, they changed their route and the two of them, and their dog, came to Philadelphia. The three of them stayed with us for a few days until we found them an apartment. I arranged a job for him as a waiter at the Locust Club. Lev and his family established themselves in the northeast, where their son was born. He took great pride in his work at the Locust Club. Relying on his Aeroflot training, he sometimes annoyed his fellow waiters by telling them how to could improve their serving techniques.

The family later moved to the Washington DC area, where their daughter was born. They are now a typical American family. Lev still works as a banquet waiter, primarily in the large hotels. He has served some of the country’s leading dignitaries.

It is impossible to walk the Center City streets, to read the newspaper or to look at your mail without becoming aware of many people in desperate need of help. Innumerable very worthy causes appeal for support and assistance. Even the most altruistic and giving person must be selective in where energy and resources are directed. However much anyone is willing to give of time and funds, necessarily the vast majority of the appeals must be ignored. My plate is generally fairly full of communal projects and other activities of a generally charitable nature.

I have questioned myself about why I felt compelled to devote the time and energy I did to Lev’s problem. I would like to think that I am sensitive to the sad plight of all of the world’s oppressed and suffering people. But I am sure I was motivated primarily because Lev was Jewish and was suffering largely because of that fact. There was a kinship connection. Lev’s appeal was more personal to me than the many other appeals I rejected on a regular basis. In a real sense, he was a complete stranger. But in another sense family. I had to help him.