Jew Like Me
For three years after college I worked with an organization that collected used Yiddish books. A few times a month we’d leave our warehouse in Western Massachusetts and drive north, to Montreal, or south, often to New Jersey, mainly to New York: Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Co-op City. Wherever Jews grew old, they were afraid of leaving their books as orphans.
So they called us, and we came. Most of the books we collected were saved only to die among their own; destined not to be distributed to a university, but to crumble on our bookshelves.
But the books’ owners always seemed gladdened by our efforts. At least once every trip I heard the same grateful sentiment: The very fact that we cared enough to come for the books proved that Hitler hadn’t won; that young Jews came for the memories of the old and the lonely guaranteed the future of the Jewish people.
Trouble was, I’m not Jewish. I had studied religion as an undergrad, picked up some Hebrew, read Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, and generally developed a Judaic literacy totally alien to my French-Irish-American upbringing. Without thinking too much about it, I ended up a Catholic moving through a Yiddish-speaking world.
Early on I made no effort to conceal myself. One old man laughed when I told him my name, “S’iz a modne yidishe nomen…” Peter is a strange name for a Jew, he told me — to which I shrugged and answered, “Ober bin ikh nisht keyn yid.” Well, I’m not a Jew, I said, which is so unlikely a sentence to hear in Yiddish that he stared at me, blinking for a full minute, before he switched to English and told me which books to take and which to leave behind.
At best I was seen as a curiosity. More often I was greeted with suspicion, sometimes hostility. Once, while picking up books in a Montreal elementary school, I was accused of being a missionary, sent to convert the children of Canada’s hasidic community.
What to do in the face of such a bizarre, xenophobic accusation? What else could I do? Following the time-honored assimilationist tradition, I learned to pass.
Just as in my high school French class I was not Peter but Pierre, in the Yiddish class I was then taking I was known as Pesach. It didn’t take much to begin using this name on all my book collecting trips. “Vi heystu?” they’d ask. “Ikh heys Pesach,” I’d answer. Beyond that I said very little. It was assumed I was a Jew and so, in a way, I was.
During one collection trip to Crown Heights I happened to be invited to a Lubavitcher wedding on Eastern Parkway. Not a scene for Catholic eyes: concentric circles of black-clad hasidim, dancing madly, a mosh pit of piety. Each man’s hands on another’s shoulders. Even Pesach joined in, circling with the rest, drinking a l’chaim of schnapps when offered.
“Mazel tov! Mazel tov!” the hasidim shouted to no one in particular. They, we, were Jews at a Jewish wedding, another victory over death; everyone was to be congratulated.
As the dancing continued, its fervor increased–then exploded. Fists pumped in the air. Grown men locked arms, hands to wrists, and spun each other round and round the way girls did at junior high dances. The well-wishing shouts grew louder and louder until they seemed a collective battle cry.
“We want the Rebbe!” the hasidim shouted, “we want the Rebbe now! We want moshiach”- the messiah – “we want moshiach now!” Lubavitch Hasidim believe that their late Rebbe, or leader, Menachem Mendl Schneerson, was and is in fact the messiah, and they await his return.
Pesach collapsed onto a folding chair next to the dance floor. There is no belonging, Pesach thought, like the belonging of the spent.
From the crowd two hasidim he had never imagined approached the table. One was about four feet tall, dressed like all the rest but in miniature. The other, also dressed in full hasidic regalia, seemed to have Downs’ Syndrome. The midget hasid took off his fedora and swatted at a chair.
“Have a seat right there, rabbi,” he said, and the Downs’ Syndrome hasid sat down beside me.
Pesach knew to keep silent but Peter was baffled and had had a bit too much to drink.
“Excuse me,” I said “He’s a rabbi?”
“Of course he’s a rabbi,” the midget hasid said. “Isn’t that right?”
The Downs’ Syndrome hasid said nothing, staring still into the circling crowd, which danced closer and closer to the tables now, threatening to swallow us.
“And you know what else?” the midget hasid said. “I think he’s more than a rabbi.” His voice dropped to a drunken whisper. “I think he’s the Rebbe. I think moshiach is chained up inside him and we’ve got to get him out.” He stared at me hard, as if he could see just as clearly inside me. “Wouldn’t that be just like Hashem?” he asked. “Hiding in silence, seeing what we’ll do?”
Just then the hasidim engulfed us. Rather than ask us to move they simply surrounded and lifted us into the dance. Chairs and all, the three of us floated over the sea of black, as if we all had been married that day.
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.