My Life as a Gentile
My Life as a Gentile
My life as a gentile has been immeasurably enriched and enlarged by Jews.
That thought occurred to me again on a recent Sunday morning during worship (Protestant), during the most inspirational moment in the entire hour, when the soloist sang "Shall We Gather at the River," a 19th Century revival tune arranged in this singing by Aaron Copland, a Brooklyn Jew.
In Mrs. Moore's kindergarten class portrait (ca. 1935-36), Hart School, Stamford, Connecticut, Bobby makes believe he is Tom Mix with a cowboy hat and a six shooter. In the background can be seen Stuart Abrams and Steve Kaplan, later to become, respectively, a dentist and a financier. I celebrate them in another corner of this website, under Personal Matters, "60th and 72nd School Reunions." At the Stamford High School Class of 1949's joint 80th birthday party Steve presented me with a framed copy of a SPORT magazine photo of my team and his, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who finally won a World Series in 1955. At that class gathering I found myself seated at a table with several other Forty-Niners who early on distinguished themselves as academic strivers, and I was the only gentile in the bunch.
Williams College in my moment there was a bastion of the rich and the WASPy. When I went during rush week to the fifteen fraternities, dressed in my fashionable (or so I thought) double-breasted blue suit and bright red tie and black hair cream-oiled into place, I completed the rush season without a bid. Later, much later, I learned that it was generally assumed from my attire and lack of preppy grooming that I was "from the city," a 1950's college euphemism for "Jew." I am pleased to report that the last three Williams College presidents have been and are Jews. Could this reversal of attitudes be an explanation for my alma mater's perennial heading of the list of U. S. News &World Report's best colleges? And, oh yes, the school got rid of fraternities in 1972... and later built a center for Jewish students.
Among my classmates along the academic way from kindergarten to post-graduate seminary, several enduring friendships, the kind that overcome distance and politics, were formed. When it came time for me to retire (reluctantly), the local church put on a big dinner with hundreds in attendance, but only one of those present came from our four years together in the Berkshire purple mountains, classmate Steve Klein, the sole representative of any of the three schools (SHS, Williams, Union Theological) from which I had been graduated. (And he thought I hadn't noticed!)
One might think that among my collection of Gentile-Semite anecdotes there would be plenty from my seventeen plus years in Brooklyn, cheek by jowl to the most populous Jewish community this side of Jerusalem, Borough Park. We lived just off Seventh Avenue. Eighth Avenue acted as something of a great wall of Zion for the lack of communication between those on one side with those on the other in Borough Park. Our girls were schooled at P.S. 169, by teachers with Jewish or Irish surnames. On Jewish holidays fathers in fur hats could be seen leading wives and children on walks through our neighborhood. In those years, I acquired a blue cashmere coat. When I wore it with a broad-brimmed fedora, the youth fellowship kids laughed and called me "Rabbi Howard." I once offered that name at the desk at New York Hospital, to gain admittance to the ward where the father of my Jewish stationer was recuperating from heart surgery. Alan's dad sometimes referred to me with that honorific.
During a two year stint as the president of the Brooklyn Protestant Council of Churches I met in my official duties (responding to a particularly vicious outbreak of anti-Semitism, leading to my being quoted on WINS) the chief rabbi of a local rabbinical council. I glimpsed during our meeting tattooed numbers on his left forearm, the markings of his incarceration in a concentration camp, and a graphic detail for me I've never forgotten, of the horror of the Holocaust. In my gentile soul I know, and I know deep down, I shall never be able to fully comprehend the evil a Jew sees in a swastika.
In my last thirty years working in the parish in Nassau County just over the line from Queens I found myself in a village with three synagogues. To the south of Valley Stream was Hewlett Bay Harbor, where on a Sunday I might take my Junior High fellowship for a bicycle ride with the enticement, "Let's go count Jaguars." The English auto, not the South American cat. Hewlett had become the home post-World War II to the Jewish nouveau riche, many from the garment district in NYC. On one of these bike rides I treated my gentiles to bagels, though I cannot say any one of them covered theirs with cream cheese and lox, a treat which has become a weekend favorite for the Howards.
I was active in the local Interfaith Council and befriended the longtime rabbi of Temple Gates of Zion, Sy Resnikoff. At his request I was the speaker at an annual meeting of Jewish War Veterans; and was so well received I did three more turns. The rabbi and I were fire department chaplains marching down the boulevard together (with Fr. LeTure, of course) on Memorial Day. When Sy died, I sat shiva with his wife and daughter. When the Jewish husband of a church member died, I arranged with Sy's successor for said successor to preside at the funeral. And I returned to a New York City hospital, Mt. Sinai, for a bedside visit with the wife of the hardware store proprietor, Eli Oppenheimer, a kindness Silva never forgot to mention when I subsequently greeted her at the cash register.
Oh... Honey Knice (how's that for a sweet name!) would scold me for sure were I not to mention the family across the street from the parsonage, her family. Honey's dad, a Jew from Rosedale, never failed to remind me that he played Santa Claus every December at the Methodist Nursery School. Honey babysat the twins when their mom, Betsy, was teaching nursery school. She and her children were and still are often to be seen at Methodist worship, at youth fellowship meetings, working as custodians or teachers in the church's Educational Building.
For the last twelve and a half years we've lived in a corner of West Hartford filled with doctors and lawyers, a trio of clergy, professionals with enough graduate degrees to help make our town the 10th in the United States in educational attainment per capita. Do I need to report that the Bernheimers live on one side of us and the Lufkins on the other? They thank us every December for putting up our Christmas lights because they help dispel winter's darkness. So far Barbara and I have attended two bar mitzvahs and one bat mitzvah. A rabbi I met at the town pool has taught hermeneutics at Yale Divinity School. He confided to me that he thought Karl Barth, whose theology has guided my understanding of the Gospel, had saved Judaism in the last half of the 20th Century (I didn't ask him to explain).
My life as a gentile has been surrounded, undergirded, enlightened, entertained, and humbled by Jews who have done far more than their share in providing me with whatever and whomever it takes to make for a satisfying life... and a fulfilling faith.
Someone has suggested that I, whose web name is Critical Christian, shouldn't shortchange Jews. To which I responded emphatically: "Shortchange Jews?! I've spent most of my life following one." Or trying to. And, it should be quickly noted, that Jesus' Jewishness is not accidental, as Scotch-Irish is for me. Or why insist that the Bible has two sections, the Old and the New? Like the Apostle Paul insists in his Letter to the Galatians, about Jesus (more or less), the right time and the right place. Or like I told the Jewish War Veterans, that Jesus didn't teach anything that wasn't already there with Moses.
My gentile life is in thrall, and happily so, to a Jew.
May the day more quickly arrive when the separation early on at the beginning of the Christian Era, that between Jews and Gentiles, is mended.