Flash Memoir: Are You Jewish?

carney picThe music had caught me. I swayed in time and began to sing along with the musicians, three elderly black men singing in harmony and playing rhythm and blues. The three had propped themselves and their battered instruments against a bench beside the tracks at a midtown stop on the Lexington Avenue subway in Manhattan. My adolescent daughter looked at me with faint embarrassment; I could hear the unspoken “Oh, Dad!”

I was pretty sure Rachel had never heard Stand By Me. I was entirely sure she had never heard her Dad burst into song in a public place.

The opening lines were old favorites of mine and my voice, hesitant at first, turned full-throated:

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light I see
I won’t be afraid … no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

I looked around at the crowd and saw to my right a small group of Hasidic boys, teenagers, dressed in their traditional black suits and black broad-brimmed hats. Temple locks spilled from their ears and knotted fringes hung from their waists. But for their costumes, they could have been any pack of teenage boys: full of fresh male energy, jostling and shoving, their eyes wide and their mouths agape, shouting to each other as they tried to make themselves heard above the noise of the busy station.

The one nearest me, a compact sandy-haired boy with the thick neck of a young wrestler, swayed in time and bobbed his head to the music. I began to snap my fingers in rhythm and the boy smiled and began to snap his fingers as well, rolling his shoulders and swaying his hips. “The kid can move,” I thought, smiling. “Where did he get that from?” And with that, we began to move in harmony as my daughter’s embarrassment changed to frank amazement.

After a moment, the music was drowned out by the rumble of an approaching train, breaking our reverie. The boy moved over beside me and brought his face close to mine, smiling as he mouthed the words of his question so that they could be understood over the din of the inbound train.

“Are you Jewish?”

I hesitated, stricken. I had been asked that one before.

The first time it had come from a pair of emissaries of the Lubavitcher sect as I crossed Washington Square Park on my way to work. The two of them, dressed just like the young Hasid next to me, lost interest and moved on as soon as I said “no.” They were bent on finding other Jews, unobservant by their standards, who could be raised up by the their leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and made real Jews. I had moved on without a thought then, but by the next time the Lubavitchers accosted me, I had married a Jewish woman, started to raise a Jewish daughter and had begun to ask myself that very question: am I Jewish?

For me, it was not the simple yes or no query it sounded like. For my daughter, though, it was a straightforward question with a simple answer. As the daughter of a Jewish woman, she was a Jew—it was just as simple as that. As much as I admired the effort Rachel had put into her preparation for her bat mitzvah and her commitment to her religion and her people, I felt a pang of envy. It would never be that simple for me. I had been poised at the brink of becoming a Jew for a long time now and had grown confused and anxious facing the last steps in the path to conversion.

After a very long pause, I mouthed, “No.”

The train was entering the station now and its rumble on the tracks and screech of its brakes were deafening. I could see that the boy was about to respond and I leaned towards his face, struggling to follow the movement of his lips. The words I thought I saw him form were, “You should be.” Or perhaps he said, “That’s okay.”

No. I looked carefully at the boy again, as if for the first time. He’s a malach, the ancient Hebrew word for messenger—or angel—and he’s delivered his message. I stood for a long time, searching for a response, then stepped back and turned towards my daughter.

Rachel tugged at my sleeve and peered into my face. The train came to a stop and its overpowering noise abated. “Dad,” she said, “What did he want?”

“Boo,” I replied, using her pet name from childhood, “he asked me if I’m Jewish.”

“What did you tell him?”


“I thought you were by now.” She turned to face the young man and smiled. “I’m Jewish.”

-The End-

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