I used to wonder why I wasn’t Jewish, almost everyone in the building was. I asked my mother why we didn’t go to temple and why we didn’t have a menorah in the house and why our neighbors laughed at Santa Clause and why we called Chanukah, Christmas. I thought that maybe we came from a different country where Chanukah was called Christmas. I tried to imagine one word morphing linguistically into the other.
My mother explained that Jesus was a Jew and that in some places they thought he was the son of God and in other places they thought he was a pretty good prophet and in other places they thought he was just an overly reformed Jewish rabbi. All that sounded important so I sat there nodding, it was a lot for a four year old to think about.
Our neighbor was named Sophie. She spoke mostly Yiddish and what English she knew my mother had taught her in our Kitchen. On the Sabbath, Shabbos – which I figured must have come from our word Saturday, or the other way around – Sophie would have me fetch the newspaper and her mail from the doorman and follow her around her apartment following her orders, issued mostly in Yiddish. Working for Sophie was fun, turning on lights, turning off lights, picking this or that up and placing it here or there and even turning the oven on just before I went home for supper. The final thrill of Shabbos was watching the blue flame of the gas stove explode just inches from my nose when I set her teapot on the stove and turned it on. I was her Shabbos goy and a real mensch she said patting me on the head. I took it as a complement and told my mother with pride that I was a mensch because Sophie said so. My mother would laugh and say, “You are indeed my little mensch.” I told the doorman that I was a mensch, he laughed, shook his head and said, “Oy, look at him kvelling so much.”
When I was in High School in a town known for its WASP occupants, it suddenly became fashionable to be “ethnic” and some of my school friends suddenly discovered their Jewish heritage. We formed the Yiddish Club and since I was the only one who could speak any Yiddish I was elected president. “Oy, Got in Himmel,” was the only thing Sammy Silverberg at the cigar store could say when I told him. Sammy’s wife, also named Sophie, rolled her eyes heavenward and gave me another token for the pinball machine.