You’re Not Even Jewish – Fred Owens

You’re Not Even Jewish
or How I came to Study Torah in the First Place

They asked me why. Why are you learning Hebrew? Why are you going to Torah class at a synagogue? You’re not even Jewish. But why is a dumb question. There is only one important question – Is it good? If it’s a good thing, then “why” doesn’t matter. If it’s a bad thing, then stop doing it. I learned that ethical questions matter most of all. That’s the heart of Jewish teaching.

It was the summer of 1992. I was living on Blakeslee Street in West Cambridge and working as a landscaper. I was totally miserable. I had just broken up with Louise. Her last words were, “Never call me again.” Heartbroken, tormented, losing sleep, drinking too much, phoning friends late at night –– I didn’t know what to do.

I had recently joined the Tikkun group, and we met on Sunday mornings for discussion. I had new Jewish friends: –Daniel Gewertz, a film critic; Harvey Blume, a writer; Lois Isenman, a biologist; Diana Lobel, a PhD student in Jewish Studies; Debbie Osnowitz, with porcelain skin and a brilliant mind; Helene Benjamin, who had an impressive collection of Teddy Bears in her Brookline apartment; Ted Pietras, in real estate in Boston’s South End; and Marty Federman, who was director of Hillel at Northeastern University.

Living in Boston was an ethnic opportunity for me. There were Irish gangs, Italian neighborhoods, and Armenian restaurants. I should have gone Irish, but that would have been too easy. Instead I picked the hardest one – Jewish. I was going to learn it and figure it out.

Tikkun is a Jewish spiritual/political magazine founded by Michael Lerner who coined the phrase “politics of meaning.” Hillary Clinton invited Lerner to the White House shortly after Bill Clinton became President. Lerner seemed likely to become a spiritual adviser for the Clintons –– possibly like Bill Graham had been for previous Presidents. But Lerner’s presence at the White House caused a storm of controversy, and I still don’t know why. He was a little hippy-dippy and lefty-lefty, but not very extreme. His views were not that unusual.

Anyway, in 1992, living in Cambridge, and wandering around town looking for something to do, I happened to notice that Michael Lerner was giving a talk at Temple Beth Shalom –– the famed “Tremont Street Shul” near Central Square. Never having entered a synagogue in my life, I dropped in that evening, I liked what I heard, and I liked the people I met, so I joined the group. They never said you had to be Jewish and I wasn’t.

We met on Sunday mornings at people’s houses and apartments, maybe 12-15 people, and we discussed topics based on articles in Tikkun magazine. It was very interesting. The people in the Tikkun group were impressively articulate –– I mean, this was Boston. I never said much at the meetings, but listened in wide-eyed wonder and they called me, behind my back but kindly, “the space-case from Seattle,” because I was newly arrived from the West Coast. That seemed apt. I was relatively in-articulate compared to my new intellectual companions. I felt just as smart and just as well read, but I have never had the ability to “hold forth” at meetings like this.

I went to the Tikkun meetings and listened. I liked the rhythm of it. I wore clean clothes, but my shirt was always wrinkled – I didn’t have an iron. It’s not that people were dressed for the occasion, but I felt conspicuous with my wrinkled shirt. The meetings kept me from suffering, obsessively reviewing the very wrong things I said to Louise. She wouldn’t talk to me, not then, not ever. The Tikkun meetings kept me from self-flagellating for three hours on Sunday morning. That wasn’t enough, but it helped.

One day –– I was not really looking for a solution, but more or less on a dare – I found the Judaica section at the Cambridge Public Library. I picked out the books in Hebrew. It was very bold of me to even look at these Hebrew books. Loud booming voices were shouting from thunderous clouds, “Thou Shalt Not” – you don’t look at these books, they’re not for you – go back to being a landscaper, pick up your trowel and rake, LEAVE THESE LETTERS ALONE.

I heard the voices, but I didn’t care. I was in too much pain. Kill me, so what!

I took the books home – a Hebrew grammar, a Hebrew-English dictionary and a text of the Torah in Hebrew and in English – home to my furnished apartment on 42 Blakeslee Street in West Cambridge. I opened the books on the kitchen table and began to learn the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In a way, it was easy, 22 letters in 22 shapes representing 22 sounds. How hard is that? I learned the letters in a day. By late afternoon I was picking out words in the text. And I was drawing the letters on a big sheet of paper. I really liked their shape and the way they flowed.

It was love. It was infatuation. I was so absorbed. Hours passed in delightful study, and I never thought of Louise. I was almost happy. Relief! I could fill up my day. Although it was a little weird because, like I said, I’m not Jewish, and what if the Jewish cops find out and come over to my apartment and pummel me with sticks.

Oh, the Jewish cops wouldn’t do that. They don’t even care. Well, they do care. Of course, they want you to study the text in a respectful manner, but otherwise you’re welcome to it.

Except they don’t say that. They don’t say anything – there are no Jewish cops.

But what about the booming voices from the thunderous clouds? Well, yes, those are completely real. The voices of divine spirits can put you in a world of hurt or shower you with blessings and diamond lights. The divine spirits are real. I found that out after the day when I learned the 22 letters. I had the most incredible dream. I dreamed of black letters in a sea of golden flames. I never had such a dream in my life, but that night I saw the letters in my dream, living, breathing and on fire. The letters were alive! Shining black in a sea of gold-red flames!

When I woke up the next morning, I was astonished and full of wonder. And there was no one to tell. I wasn’t going to waste this vision in casual talk. I never told anyone about this dream. There are some things you just know, but if you talk you just waste it. I kept this dream to myself. The letters kept me warm, and I did not feel so lonely.

One Sunday at the Tikkun meeting, Diana Lobel was reading a Hebrew text, and I looked over her shoulder and began saying the words aloud. She said, “You know Hebrew?” I said, “I’ve been studying.” She asked “With who?” I said, “By myself.”

She said, “Come to my class. We meet on Sunday night at 7 pm at Beth Shalom.”

I was going off the deep end, going to Tikkun meetings and then Torah class, and I was doing it because it filled my heart and mind in a good way. That was the ethical teaching – it wasn’t wrong to do this. I got strong. I didn’t need to explain this, or apologize, or ask permission. I loved to learn and there was no limit. So I began learning with her group – not such a big group, only three students, me, a very strange, very thin young woman who seemed to have wandered in off the street, and Bobby Vilinsky. Someday I will write a book about Bobby Vilinsky. We became great friends, and we often discussed his disastrous experiences with women or his latest digestive issues. He was an artist of great intensity and poverty.

Diana Lobel was a PhD student in Jewish Studies at Harvard. She had the pale look of a scholar, but she had bright, black curly hair. Diana had a way of seeming so unworldly, as if she did nothing but study and pray – but that was not true, she was very worldly at the same time, if she was paying attention. She often surprised me in that way.

We spent several weeks on the first verse, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” She said the whole of the Torah was contained in the first verse – or she may have said that, I’m not sure. But it sounds like something a Jewish scholar would say – that the whole of the Torah, and all of the Law, and a vivid description of all time and all creation are contained in the first verse – so we studied it, from every angle, and believe me, there are many angles – more than you can imagine. The depth was incredible.

In the fall of 1993, after I had been in the Tikkun group for more than a year, Lois Isenmen invited the group to her house in the suburbs for a Shabbat dinner, the traditional Friday night meal. I had been doing her yard work, so I called her that week.

“Lois, do you want me to come and rake the leaves?” I asked her and she agreed.

The leaves fell from towering oaks in her backyard. The yard sloped downward steeply from her red brick home. I raked up all the leaves and determined to build her a leaf-mulch pile down in the corner by the back fence. “If I drag all those leaves up the hill, into the truck and then off to the landfill that would cost you too much money. What do you say if I make you a leaf pile and leave them here?”

Lois was wary. I could see her struggling with the notion. Sure, she could save money, but it would seem unfinished – a pile of leaves left in the yard, when leaves are supposed to go away, leaving the grass bare to freeze and go brown in the winter. “Look,” I said, “I will make an attractive and tidy pile of leaves, it will look organic……way down in the corner, by the fence.”

“All right,” she said.

It was November in New England, and I was “raking leaves for liberals” as I liked to put it. Making a few dollars, enjoying the fresh air, working in Cambridge and neighboring towns, raking leaves and resenting the affluence that surrounded me.

Lois lived in Newton, a Boston suburb, in the home where she grew up. I knew Lois from the Tikkun group. We shared our tarnished ideals on Sunday, and this week in November, instead of the Sunday meeting, Lois invited us to a Shabbat dinner at her house on Friday night. She was a biologist at Harvard at some institute – I can’t remember the name, but she was a Fellow – what a lovely title, I thought. I told her, “I work on a big scale, in the garden growing flowers, you work on a small scale growing bacteria in a dish, but we’re in the same line of work when you get down to it.”

Lois didn’t buy that comparison. She liked me, but she was wary.

Shabbat dinner in Lois’s dining room was formal, with a nice table cloth, but very relaxed. We were seven of us, all friends, seemingly unpartnered. Marty Federman was married, but even when we met at his house his wife did not appear. Lois had a relationship with another scientist, but she did not share any details. We were all single, as far as the group was concerned, but this week we would share a blessing and a meal together as a family.

We were all in our forties, except Gladys Damon who was probably past seventy.

Every Shabbat is special and it felt special that evening, as if our parents were there, because we had grown up by now, being past forty, and become our own parents, and because we struggled through a week of six days, fighting and lying, trying to make a living, and it was time for some good food and good company, no matter how the week had gone.

As we gathered at the table, Marty Federman, the most rabbinical of our group, deferred to Diana Lobel, the most devout. She said the blessing and lit the candles, and we began to pass the chicken, the broccoli, the rice, and the salad. After we had filled our plates Diana said, “I would like everyone to take a turn in speech. Fred is the newest, if not the youngest member of the group, I would like him to pose a question for the group and then have each one of you answer from your heart.I was embarrassed at being singled out as “new.” But I spoke, “I have been raking leaves all week. I am justified in my labor. See these hands – that’s how I labored. So, my question is, who is a Jew and how are you justified?”


I turned to Marty Federman, well-fed, bearded, warm and deep, not a show-man or a comic, even a little shy. “Marty, who is a Jew, and how is a Jew justified?” I asked him. “How do I justify myself?” he said. “I have studied this week, and searched for the one essential Yiddish word. If you only knew one word in Yiddish …. it would be? ….”

He made a long pause, you could see people wanting to guess – “Heymish…..Heymish, meaning homey and homelike…. That’s all of Yiddish in one word.” Everyone nodded – home and family are the center of Jewish life.

“I am the director of Hillel at Northeastern University,” he said. “Many of my students are questioning their Jewish identity, so this is a good question for me. I’m a Jew because my mother is a Jew. We all know that’s the law. But some people say you’re a Jew if you do Jewish things. That’s a little broad for me, but I like the idea. Tonight we are all Jews,” he said, looking at me directly. “We are all Jews because we are gathered together on Shabbat for a meal and a blessing and the good company. Being Jewish means being part of a family argument that’s been going on for 3,000 years. We talk, we argue, we keep each other warm.”

            Lois got up to fetch something from the kitchen, but the rest of us were listening deeply.

“And how do I justify myself, you asked? I wish I could justify myself. But why should I spoil the evening by telling you how worthless I feel and making a false show of humility. Your question is too hard. I will just say what’s on my mind. Don’t laugh….okay laugh, I can’t help it. This is it – no matter how much I study and how much I pray I still think that Moses looks like Charlton Heston. I can’t shake the image.”

No one laughed. This was very embarrassing, because everybody at the table knew that Moses looked like Charlton Heston. “He’s such a goy!” No one said that, but Charlton Heston was such a goy. And as Moses! Such a mental pollution.

“It is awful to contemplate,” Marty said. “God punished the Jews by making them wander forty years in the wilderness. He allowed the Temple to be destroyed twice and his chosen people were put into exile for centuries, subject to persecution and humiliation. He allowed many terrible things to happen to them. But when God made Moses, he made him look Jewish, or look like Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro. Still the image of Charlton Heston as Moses cannot be erased for people of our generation. Such is the power of Hollywood – founded and led by Jews – in creating false images that defy the First Commandment. Sin and sin,” Marty said, and he took a sip of water. He was finished.

“You could write a book,” I said. It was dark outside, the chandelier lights twinkled, we stirred at the table, passing the broccoli and the rice, picking up dinner rolls, taking a sip of wine. I looked up from the chicken on my plate and noticed Diana Lobel, my Hebrew teacher, wreathed in an unworldly halo – there was nothing on her plate. Even her glass of water was untouched. This disturbed me. We’re humans, we’re supposed to eat. But the conversation continued.

Daniel Gewertz, film critic by occupation, was the next to speak. He was younger than the rest of us, closer to thirty. His build was athletic and tall. I picture him wearing a Hawaiian shirt in the summer time, although I don’t know why I say that. He was a handsome fellow, but he seemed so unsure of himself.

“Who is a Jew, you ask. I wonder about myself at this time of year with Hannukah and Christmas coming up,” Daniel said. “I get anxiety. I don’t know what to think. People wish me Merry Christmas. And the music, Silent Night and All Ye Faithful, it’s everywhere, Season Greetings. The whole experience makes me cringe. It’s the way I was brought up. My parents were secular, never at temple, no menorah, nothing in our house that said Jewish. I think they would have skipped the whole thing. At Christmas we had a tree and decorations and a plastic lighted Santa Claus doll and I got presents. It was crazy. I knew we were Jewish. I was seven-years-old playing on the living room rug with a Lionel train, but I didn’t enjoy it that much. My parents laughed and shared drinks with friends and neighbors during the holidays just like everybody else. I mean, why not? We didn’t look different or act different. My Dad had a white-collar job, we lived in a suburban neighborhood. We had BBQs in the summer. We went trick or treating on Halloween, so why not have a Christmas tree too?”

Daniel was calm now. He reached for his glass of water and took a sip.

“I cannot disrespect my parents, they did so many wonderful things for me, they were such good people. But you just know, even when you’re only seven, when something isn’t right, and for me the memory never goes away. Every year in December it’s the same.”

That was Daniel telling his life. I heard this with wonder. For me, growing up a Catholic, Christmas was the most uncomplicated joy and pleasure. I knew that Christmas could be hard for people with bad families—being stuck at home with awful relatives and such. Or a lonely time for lonely people. But I never thought of it as being difficult for Jews. Hearing Daniel say it directly was quite a different experience. “But I’ll go out for Chinese this year like I always do,” he added.

Harvey Blume nodded. He was the most talented conversationalist in our group, but he had been quiet the whole evening. It was November and he was still tan, he had a burnished skin tone. He hadn’t been to Florida, he didn’t work outdoors, but then I remembered – Harvey was on the street. His tan was not a matter of exposure, but an act of will. Harvey lived for the street and the drums. So he and I did this rap thing, which made it kind of fun.

“Harvey, what’s your take?”

“My take? You’re the man with the rake. Figure it out yourself.”

“Well, I don’t want no fake. Are you a Jew?”

“Who’s asking?”

“You got a Brooklyn attitude, my brother,” I said and I smiled.

“Yeah, now you got it. I’m from Bebop Brooklyn. On the street, with a drum, with the people, of the people and by the people – we’re all on the street.”

“And you’re justified with a drum, so is it good to be a Jew?” I challenged him.

“Good, bad, but always interesting,” he said, and he smiled.

Harvey lived in East Cambridge. He had written a book about a pygmy who was captured in Africa and taken to be an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Ota Benga was the name of the pygmy and the title of Harvey’s book.

Now the room was going quiet, like we were coming to the end. Diana began to speak. People relaxed because Diana had sat in the center of the table, as a guiding spirit, and now she would hold forth in a good way.

“Here in Genesis it says there was a famine in Palestine and Jacob said to his sons, ‘I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.’ It was a fateful choice. The whole history of the Jews hinges on this one verse. You want to yell from the audience, a hundred generations later – Don’t go – don’t go to Egypt. There’s nothing but trouble down there – slavery, corruption, idolatry, people worshipping monkeys. Don’t go. Stick it out in Palestine. The rain will come back and there will be more crops.

“But Jacob said it is better to live and not die. You can spin that, explain that, write a book on that, or a poem or a song. Fine. Interpret it as you will, and yet the meaning is plain – it is better to live and not die. Jacob said that …”

“But…” I stammered and interrupted her. “Your plate is empty, you haven’t eaten anything.”

Diana looked at me, surprised. The whole table was silent. I couldn’t stand it. I was correcting her and she was my teacher! How could I talk to her like that?          

“You should eat,” I said. I picked a piece of broccoli off my plate and placed it on her plate like a mother would do for a small child. “Food is food, you have to eat,” I said. Some parental instinct in me wanted her to eat, for her own good and for my sake too. Eat, for God’s sake. We don’t just live by the spirit; we need bread too. Except I didn’t say that, I didn’t say anything more.

The dining room was tense. But Diana looked at me again, as if she understood. She smiled. She picked up the piece of broccoli and ate it, and she said “Thank you.”

The tension was over.

Table talk passed on to other things. Marty and Lois were huddling. Harvey got up to clear some plates. We might be moving back to the living room for dessert.

Then Gladys Damon spoke. “I have something to say.” Gladys was close to seventy or past it, from Manhattan’s West Side, but now retired in an apartment tower in Jamaica Plain. She was stylish, wore a tailored skirt, had good legs. She spoke in a honeyed tone with a good-natured irony. For her, the plain meaning was only the beginning. It was better to live and not die and she would say sure, but she reminded me that refinement is what made life better.

“This happened to me during the war in 1944. My parents sent me to Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters. You know – Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Vassar, Radcliffe – all those precious college girls from good families. I could pass, I don’t mean that how you think, but I had nice clothes, good sweaters and shoes. And to find a husband and get married, yes, but they hinted, the faculty suggested, and even said so, that we could be what we chose to be.

“I formed surprising friendships with girls who were very different from me. But it was war time, and we heard the news from Europe. In May of 1944, the Jews in Hungary – up to that time they had been safe – were being transported to Auschwitz to be murdered. More than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were put on the trains. It was hard to find notice of this in the news. We heard news of stirring military action and home front preparedness – that was the story – marching to victory, rumors of the coming invasion of France, profiles of Eisenhower and Patton, the great leaders, but of the slaughter to come in Hungary, it was like a dark whisper. Letters came from Eastern Europe, reliable reports of the real story. We didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it, and yet I knew it was true. I knew it was true because it was far, far worse than anything I could have imagined – this death and horror.

“But what is so hard for me to describe is the silence. We read those letters, but we were silent, we did not ask questions. We just sat there. We did nothing.”

Gladys was speaking without irony.

“We did nothing to save the Jews in Hungary. Roosevelt did nothing, Eisenhower did nothing. My parents, my friends at school, we did nothing. The Hungarian Jews were loaded on the trains. We knew it was their death and we did nothing. It was the most important moment in my life, and I failed.”

*     *     *

Years later, I still remember the silence that followed her remarks. It had been a good dinner and we enjoyed being together. In mid-November the night air was frosty and it began to snow as we said our goodbyes and walked outside to our cars. “Lois, thank you for such a lovely evening, you have such a nice home,” someone said.

I walked outside and noticed her privet hedge and how it badly needed a trimming. But that’s me, a landscaper and gardener, I can’t help noticing things like that.

But I thought about Gladys and how she said she did nothing. Not true. Her life was a triumph. It was better to live and not die.

2 thoughts on “You’re Not Even Jewish – Fred Owens

  1. Sigmund Tobias

    This was a charming, warm, and very well written story, and it was heymish. If Fred works as a landscaper, which I doubt, then he must be an artist at that as well because he is a very fine writer who is able to make you feel the warmth that comes when we touch the lives of others.
    Sigmund Tobias


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