On Thursday I met Jimena and together we handed out more food cards and wooden crosses.
“Es Catolica?” asks Jimena of the people who come. Most nod, so I take a wooden cross and put it into the envelope with the $50 food card while Jimena cracks: “One is for your stomach and one is for your soul.”
In addition to $750 in food cards she asked for $300 in cash, $200 of which will be sent down to Honduras to pay for the cremation of the parents of a woman who lives up here, both of whom died of covid. The crematorium won’t release their ashes until they get $500 in cremation costs, otherwise the family won’t get the ashes back.
This isn’t just happening far away. A friend sent an article from The New Yorker about Juan Carlos Ruiz, a pastor helping undocumented families in New York City. Over half a million of them work at all kinds of jobs in the Big Apple, and Covid hit them hard because of the exposure of their jobs and their density in apartments. Four of them often squeeze into one small room. There were horror stories of folks being told that without money, their brothers’ bodies will be thrown into a pauper’s grave. People literally starved in their apartments, or else were turned back from hospitals because of lack of insurance, and even kept corpses of family members or friends in the apartment for several days because they had no idea where to bring them.
I don’t think we have that here. On the street corner where we sit, I see humble, tired, but cheerful faces, grateful to get both their stomach and soul saved together.
Aussie has become a good-will ambassador. I take her out of the car, leashed, and keep her with me when people come, but she greets everyone, licking those who approach, winning them over. With the exception of one little girl who’s afraid of dogs, she’s a hit with the kids while I’m busy converting folks to Catholicism with the wooden crosses I brought from Jerusalem. “Es Catolica?”
Driving home afterwards, I remembered something that happened when I was growing up in my orthodox Jewish home just a few years after we came to this country.
My mother had given birth to my brother, and for about a year we must have had some money (that ended later) so my parents hired a black woman from Alabama to live with us and help out with the baby. Her name was Annette, young and very pretty, with sad eyes. She got a Ph.D. learning program in kosher cooking from my mom, who told her sternly never—but never—to cook ham or bacon in the kitchen.
Since the killing of George Floyd, we’ve had lots of conversations in the Zendo around the racism that people absorbed as part of their upbringing. I don’t relate to it much because my parents knew nothing about African Americans or Latinos. For my Holocaust survivor parents, there was just one thing that mattered: Is the person Jewish, and therefore safe to be around, or is he not? They stuck fiercely to their East European orthodox Jewish ways and inculcated me with terrors of churches, nuns, and priests.
We had a small piano in the living room which I, a Jewish girl blossoming into bourgeoishood, was learning to play with the help of a song book. I easily played one song after another, turning the pages, till I came to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
I stared at it. It was identified as Christmas Carol; I had no idea what Carol was except that it was a girl’s name. But I knew what Christmas was, and I knew it wasn’t my holiday.
I started playing it softly to myself and immediately fell in love with the melody, especially the haunting part in the beginning. Soon I even hummed the words quietly to myself, figuring that my mother, in the kitchen, would have no idea that this was a Christian song as long as I sang the words low:
“Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king.
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
I excused the sin of playing this by remembering that it was written by Felix Mendelsohn, whose grandfather was a famous Jewish rabbi. Too bad his parents had converted to Protestantism.
Everything was good till I reached the words “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Big problem. I was sure that if I sang those words aloud a bolt of lightning would come out of the sky and strike me dead. So I’d sing the other words softly each time I played the song, and when I reached “Christ is born in Bethlehem” I’d go silent, leaving a blank, then pick up the volume again.
I know, I know, it’s hard to understand, but that’s how I was taught, warned off Christmas toys and cards, unable to say “Merry Christmas” to the milkman, and if someone wished me “Merry Christmas” I’d pretend I didn’t hear it or else mumble something back. I had learned very well how to be afraid of the Goyish world.
In the meantime, I grew close to Annette. She had a boyfriend whom she would see on Sundays, when she had off, and I liked to ask her about him and see what clothes and make-up she wore.
One day, during the Christmas season, she sits next to me on the piano bench and says: “Eva, play Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I can’t play it,” I say glumly.
“Come on, it’s my favorite Christmas carol. We sang it at church all the time back home,” says she.
Now I’m really nervous. How could I, a good Jewish girl, play something that they sang in church? Support Christianity! What would God say?
“I can’t play that song.” How can I explain to her that it would be a travesty, a betrayal of Judaism of the worst kind, a betrayal of my parents, their parents who were killed, their parents and their parents, etc., and that I would be horribly punished for it?
“Come on, Eva, I’ve heard you play it,” she says. ”I know you can play it.”
I feel terrible. I like Annette a lot, I know she’s homesick, can see it in her sad eyes, and here is something I can do to help her.
“I can’t play that,” I mewl, “I can’t play that.”
Finally, she left the piano bench and I never played Hark! The Herald Angels Sing again.
But I did on Thursday evening driving home from meeting with the families, I sang it to Aussie in the back seat. And I thought of what God would say if I did one day appear in front of Her just as I had anticipated back when I was 10.
“So what did you do with your life, Eve?”
“Well, I went from being a scared Jewish girl who wouldn’t play a Christmas carol to someone I liked who asked to hear it to becoming a Zen Buddhist teacher and am now proselytizing for the Catholics.”
God: “That’s good.”
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