“Can you see the real me?”
Back when I worked for The Sun and covered Baltimore’s Orthodox community — having written about ketubah artists and the dating customs of yeshiva boys, more than 50 stories in all — the phone rang on my desk in the newsroom.
It was yet another Jewish reader, almost all of them women, convinced I was Jewish. They all asked if I’d researched family history to see if any of my forebears were among God’s Chosen.
Since half of my family is from the Galicia region of Spain and the other half from the Galicia region of Austria, it’s possible. If the adolescent Elvis could be a Shabbos goy in a Memphis housing project, anything is possible. But I’d never done the genealogical research to find out.
This particular caller suggested a litmus that appealed to me, something right out of the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer that launched my interest in life within the Baltimore eruv. A kabbalist, or Jewish mystic, from Brooklyn was going to be in the Park Heights shtetl to receive visitors and take questions. Perhaps he could shed light on my emotional connection to six-pointed stars created from the coupling of equilateral triangles.
I took down the time and the place — sometime in the late summer or early autumn of 1995 — and, per the errant reporter’s handbook, did not tell my editors what I was up to. (I’d made that mistake once, sharing with the late editor-in-chief John S. Carroll my desire to stand in line with other believers to receive a dollar from the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I wanted to ask the learned man — with no less sincerity than I would inquire of Pope Francis — if Elvis was a deity. Carroll chuckled and said I might come up with a better question.)
So, off I went to some nondescript Northwest Baltimore apartment complex. I walked up a flight of stairs and found myself in a long line of people in the hallway, each of us waiting our turn. While most of them were Jewish, I wasn’t the only gentile.
I knew that the customary thank-you in these situations was $18, the numerical equivalent of the word “life” in Hebrew. But I only had eight bucks on me. What, I wondered, is life minus 10?
Soon, I was ushered into a nearly empty room, the rabbi sitting on a metal folding chair and stroking his beard, just like the 18th-century mystics in the folk tales of Singer. I quietly said hello and sat across from him in a second folding chair. He spoke first, asking if I was wearing tzitzit, the knotted fringes of string worn at the waist by observant males.
No, I said, pulling a rosary from my pants pocket, a string of beads that, when hanging loose, might mimic the Orthodox tassels he’d asked about. The rabbi didn’t bat an eyelash and, as I put the rosary back in my pocket, got to the point. “Why are you here?”
I told him everything I was feeling as best as I could, leaving out the part that my Judaica obsession — which extended to wearing a Borsalino hat to formal affairs — was causing problems with my Syrian-American girlfriend at the time.
More stroking of the beard while he looked me over. More fidgeting as he took my measure. Finally: “You love the Jewish people?”
“Yes, Rebbe, I do.”
“And you are happy being Catholic?”
“Yes, Rebbe, I am.”
Nodding his head, he turned his palms upward and summed up my dilemma in a bit of schtick straight from the Yiddish stage. “So vats the problem?”
I never again questioned whether I was a Jew somehow thrust into Catholicism centuries before, or a Catholic enamored of make-believe. My soul — my neshamah — is Jewish. I am Catholic. There is no problem.
Rafael Alvarez is a Baltimore-based freelance writer. He can be reached via email@example.com.
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