On our bus rides, my mother struck-up instant in-depth friendships with other moms and little old ladies. Soft-spoken and sympathetic, she was a perfect fellow traveler. Rarely was she asked her name nor did she ask theirs. It may sound odd now in this time of wait-staff cheerily announcing, “hi, I’m Cheryl,” or when a stranger in nurse scrubs introduces himself as Parker while you shiver barefoot in your paper examining room gown.
But, a half-century ago, while it was rude to ask for identification, it was perfectly admissible to inquire one’s faith. Protestant riders tended to come right out with their question, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you dear?” Catholics waited until the bus hugged the curb on Sackman Street in front of Our Lady of Loreto. They’d make the sign of the cross while eyeing mom and ask, “is this your parish?” Jewish ladies questioned in a pronouncement, “you’re such a lovely person. Yiddishkeit, right? Of course right.” Mom evaded answering with the deftness of Mohammad Ali. When I was old enough to ask grown-up questions, I called her to task, “Why didn’t you say no to those bus ladies?”
“I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Their religions were important to them.” She answered sincerely as if it was truthful. The real reason was America and the Soviet Union were head to head in The Cold War. To call yourself atheist was akin to saying you sided with communist Russia. (We didn’t.) Life was easier if we allowed folks to assume we had a religion.
Mom didn’t embrace Atheism as much as Grandma did. Upstairs ocassionally entertained ethical discussions that ended with Grandma’s pontification, “The masses are asses.” But downstairs in our apartment, Mom had a more practical reason for banning Christmas trees: The dead pine needles and falling tinsel littered her parquet tiles. (Looking back, my mom did have an idol to worship—clean floors.)
In the fall, along with my Jewish friends, I placed a palm-full of filberts and walnuts into a worn, but washed handkerchief, tied the corners into a knot and WHAM! We slammed them onto a brick stoop (the Dutch word for step- used exclusively in NYC,) until we could hear their shells shatter. Then we’d open the tattered hankies and gobble up the nutmeats inside. I grew up believing Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish celebration of cracked nuts, Christmas was toy getting day and Easter was the festival of chocolate bunnies. For most of my childhood, nuts, new dolls and chocolate confections were enough. Then one day, they weren’t.
On an autumn afternoon, just as the wind turned sassy enough to offer last rides to the dying leaves, our little group of neighborhood kids grew too noisy in Mrs. Popoff’s opinion. She leaned over her porch railing and gave us our marching orders. “What’s with the screaming? It’s Simchat Torah* for God’s sake! If you got nothing to do, go to schul and get apples.’’ She used her apron hem to wipe her hand prints off the rail, then with the dignity of a reigning queen, returned to her kitchen.
The Popoff twins led the way to a storefront synagogue where none of us were bold enough to enter. Five pairs of hands pressed on the glass window like suctions, followed by five pairs of eyes leaning in. There, I saw a gathered crowd of men and boys dancing down an aisle. The women and girls laughed as they tried to touch the scroll held high by a bearded man in a white shawl.
“No apples yet,” complained Bonnie Popoff as she regrouped us for a game of jacks. For my Jewish and Catholic friends the adventure was over. It was just beginning for me. Free apples weren’t tantalizing, but the joy of that congregation was.
I came from a happy family. Our relatives genuinely loved laughter and fun and yet, I hadn’t witnessed the internal delight shared by the people in that little synagogue. But, I didn’t race home and ask to be Jewish. For a child to openly select a faith was as ridiculous as demanding a different eye color from your parents and besides, chocolate bunnies and toys trumped walnuts any day.
That year, along with Halloween and Thanksgiving, the Popoff’s holidays passed. Winter brought Christmas and a new year. The days of my childhood piled up like fallen leaves gathered for a bonfire; scented by memories and selected like gemstones. Soon, I was a teenager, but the persistent longing for the sustainable happiness I witnessed in the storefront house of worship remained in my heart.
End of Part I
*Simchat Torah (rejoicing with the Torah) the holiday celebrating the law that is contained in the first 5 books of the bible.