Monday, June 2, 2014

A Second-Class Jew: a short story

There is usually lots of company at our Shabbat table but that Shabbat Jim was the only one present. He was a first-time guest and he had an interesting background. His father was Jewish but not his mother and they belonged to the big Reform Temple. He had had a Bar Mitzvah, and then drifted away from Jewish things until this year, when he went on a post-university birthright program to Israel. Something there lit a spark in him.  Back in America he started coming to our Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi suggested to Moshe that we should invite him for a Shabbat, so we did.

Dinner Friday night had been fine. Actually it was more than fine. Jim had a sweet smile and interacted well with the kids, told interesting stories, and even helped clear the table. Lunch was the exact opposite. As soon as he and Moshe walked in from morning services I knew something was wrong. Moshe was tense and Jim’s smile was non-existent. He spoke only monosyllables so we finished the meal in record time. Jim disappeared into the guest room, our toddler went down for a nap, and the older two settled in the playroom.  Moshe and I sat down on the couch and I looked at him expectantly.

 “Chana, it was horrible,” he told me.

“What was horrible?”

“Jim didn’t know he wasn’t Jewish!”

I stared at my husband in astonishment. “What happened?” I finally asked.

“I shouldn’t have taken him to the new shul.” Moshe sighed.

The new shul was a breakaway shul that was half the distance from our house than the big synagogue. Now that the weather was getting hotter Moshe often went there in the mornings.

“What happened?” I repeated.

“We were only ten men for the first twenty minutes and we couldn’t count Jim for the minyan so we waited until an eleventh showed up.  By the time we got to Torah reading we were twelve and everyone got an honor except for Jim, of course. Everyone was kind and friendly to him and when we started home he asked me why he didn’t get an honor.”

 “What did you tell him?”

“I was sure he knew that according to Jewish law he wasn’t Jewish. So I told him you have to be Jewish to get an honor and he just stared at me in shock. Then he said, ‘but I am Jewish’ and I told him not if your mother isn’t Jewish and he went totally pale so I tried to make a joke. I told him that if I found out out my mother wasn’t Jewish the first thing I would do is go to a treyfe restaurant and order a ham sandwich.”

“You didn’t!” I was aghast.

“Well, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a teacher. I’m not even a counselor.”

He shot me a meaningful look. That’s what I got my degree in, counseling, but about the only counseling I had done lately was settling arguments between the kids. Moshe is an accountant, he learns Torah daily, and he loves hosting all sorts of Shabbat guests. He’s a whiz at dealing with numbers but not with complicated emotions. He should not have been the one to explain to Jim that he wasn’t Jewish. How did the rabbi let it fall between the cracks?

“So how’d he react to your joke?”

“He glared at me. Then he said that the rabbi from the Reform Temple told him that as long as one of his parents was Jewish he was Jewish if he wanted to be. I told him that it’s written in the Talmud that a Jew is someone who has a Jewish mother or goes through a proper conversion. And I said that since he grew up thinking he was Jewish he could probably do a conversion, one, two three.”

“What did he say to that?”

“He snapped back at me, ‘three, two, one’ really sarcastically and then he didn’t say another word the whole way home. He was acting like a sulking kid but I know he is really hurt. I can’t believe the rabbi didn’t explain things to him.”

I felt bad for my husband but I felt worse for Jim. If I had been him I would have taken off as soon as Moshe told me I wasn’t Jewish. What was keeping him at our house? My husband sighed again and headed to our room to take a rest. I stayed on the couch with my new library book. An hour or so later Jim crept out of the guest room.

“Could I bother you for a glass of water?” he asked politely.

“No bother,” I set my book down and he followed me as I went into the kitchen.   He took the water and a plate with cookies, thanked me, and there was an uncomfortable silence.

“Um,” I cleared my throat. “I understand you had an unpleasant conversation with my husband.”

“You could say that.” Jim was obviously tense.

“You know,” I motioned for him to sit down at the table and I slid into the chair across from him, “the conversion process is much easier for someone who grew up thinking he was Jewish.”

“I don’t want to be a second-class Jew!” he exclaimed as he clenched his fists.   

“A second-class Jew!” I was stunned. “Shavuot is next week and we’re going to read Megillat Ruth and you think a convert is second class.”

He gave me a blank stare so I gave him a Reader’s Digest version of the story of Ruth the Moabite. I told him that Ruth was a princess but that didn’t stop her from converting and marrying the son of a prominent Jewish family who came to live in Moab when there was a famine in the Land of Israel. After her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law all died her mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to return to Israel. Nothing could persuade Ruth not to accompany her. She took care of Naomi and went gleaning in the fields so they would have what to eat. Naomi’s noble kinsman, Boaz, noticed her and dealt kindly with her. He married Ruth and they had one child who was the grandfather of King David. The Sages tell us that when King Solomon sat on the throne he had a special chair next to him for Ruth. And she was a convert.”

“So,” I finished my story, “anyone who would treat a convert as a second-class Jew is an ignoramus.  And,” I banged my hand on the kitchen table for emphasis, “anyone who mistreats a convert is a sinner. It is a commandment in the Torah to love the converts.”

Jim raised an eyebrow at my earnestness but I could tell he was digesting my information. He chewed thoughtfully on a brownie, took a final gulp of water, and stood.

“If I’m not Jewish there’s really no reason for me to stay here. Will you be insulted if I leave?” His sweet smile was somewhat forced.

“Whatever you think is best,” I answered, disappointed that my words had not helped him.

A year passed and it was a busy year. I had another baby, thankfully healthy. Moshe’s youngest brother got married. My father had successful open heart surgery.

It was ten days before Shavuot when Moshe told me that someone named Boaz Ben Avraham had called asking if he could come for Shabbat.  We had a crowd and this Boaz was the last to arrive. He had a full beard, long side curls, a large skullcap, and a sweet smile. It was the sweet smile that gave him away.

“Aren’t you Jim?” I asked.

He nodded. “I thought about everything you said and after awhile I went back to Israel to learn in a yeshiva.  Last month I had a proper conversion.  I’m here visiting my parents and then I’m returning home to Jerusalem. I have a job waiting for me in the yeshiva to help counsel boys like me who thought they were Jewish and found out they weren’t.”

“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed.

Moshe clapped Jim, I mean, Boaz on the back and shook his hand, “We’re glad to have you as part of the Jewish people.”

Boaz smiled his sweet smile. “I’m glad to be a part of them. Thank you for helping me get started on the path.”

Minyan: quorum of ten men
Treyfe: not kosher