My favorite teacher at the old Jesuit college I attended in Baltimore was a Jewish Shakespeare scholar named Thomas E. Scheye, Ph.D.
I never got around to studying “The Merchant of Venice” with him, but of Shylock he said, “What makes Shakespeare so remarkable is he was able to invest this monstrous character with great humanity.”
Our friendship began when he gave me an “F” on an essay I wrote in a freshman English. The topic was “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and I scrawled seven pages about Paul McCartney, having seen Wings the weekend before at the Capital Centre.
Silly love songs, indeed. I was invited to discuss the paper in his office and granted a do-over, for which I received a B-minus. In this first meeting, a kid who only ever wanted to be a writer (without a clue how one went about it) had stumbled upon a true mentor.
It was Scheye who told me there are reasons for going to college besides preparing for a career (an alien concept to my working-class parents); taught me the trick of excusing yourself from an off-the-record conversation to jot notes in the bathroom; and challenged me to get published in the morning paper over summer break, which I did in 1978 after driving to Chicago to interview Studs Terkel.
But he never told me he was the child of Holocaust survivors, the son of German physicians named Henry and Elsie (nee Schaefer) Scheye who escaped the Nazis in 1938 through the sponsorship of a hospital in Savannah, Ga.
(Because his parents were “real doctors” — and despite his doctoral degree — Scheye instructed us to call him “Mister.” Once I felt comfortable around him (after about 10 minutes), I began calling him “Tommy Gun,” which made him laugh his great laugh.)
It wasn’t until Scheye’s 75th birthday party in June that I learned about his mother and father, residents of Ten Hills who never talked about their experiences in Europe — “Not one word” — never spoke German in the house and afforded Tom a Catholic education from grade school through Georgetown University.
When I found out about this lineage, I pressed Scheye to let me document it. He insisted there was nothing to tell. I persisted, arguing that what little remained was worth preserving. Because of our long friendship (I am now nearly 30 years older than he was when we met) Scheye indulged me.
“There was no Friday night candlelighting,” he said over coffee. “My parents identified as American. What Jew names their son Thomas Edward? They strove for complete assimilation. When my mom had an opportunity to apply for reparations from Germany, she didn’t.”
Unlike his parents, who slipped past the greatest anti-Semitic moment in modern history, young Tom never experienced religious bigotry, which was part of his family’s New World triumph.
At St. William of York grade school just off of Route 40 West near his childhood home, Scheye said he was the first and only Jew his classmates had ever met. “I was not subject to prejudice against a group because there was no group. Just me.”
Yet for all of that labored-for assimilation, when the nuns would give a lesson about a particular Catholic feast day, young Tom would ask if he could make a presentation about a Jewish holiday. But it was just culture, not faith.
“I might be agnostic,” he said, implying that he doesn’t give the subject much thought. “Maybe a deist.”
Scheye’s Catholic education and his devotion to the Jesuits served him well. Though he never left the classroom completely and still teaches Shakespeare at Loyola, he rose to academic vice president at the North Charles Street campus, then provost and, for a time, acting president upon the death of his friend and mentor, the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger (S.J.).
And along the way, he pulled off a moment that seems more powerful to me — at least symbolically in the theater that is religion — than a Jew serving as acting president of a Jesuit college.
Before I met Tom Scheye, he had fallen for a young teacher at a girls’ Catholic high school on Edison Highway. Already good friends with Joe Sellinger, this agnostic son of forget-the-past Jews wanted to marry in the Loyola chapel. Not such a big deal by the 1970s and a nice gesture to his bride and the school that had been so good to him.
What was a big deal was getting Sellinger to let him put a chuppah inside the chapel to honor his Jewish ancestry while professing for-better-and-for-worse to his Catholic bride.
Now that, mein freund, is chutzpah.
Rafael Alvarez is the author of “Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown.” He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
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