What a shame
By: Rabbi Dr David Fox
Pullquote: “Was he such a treasure that somehow the Jewish world would be better with him among our ranks?”
People used to say that my Rosh Yeshiva could read into a person’s soul. His warm countenance and glowing smile drew people to open up to him. He was modest and drew no attention to himself, modelling empathy in his interest in all others. As my late father would say, “He was the world’s greatest listener.” The insights which he had into people were astounding and he often sensed things, shared things, which made us feel astonished yet helped us feel deeply understood.
I had a neighbour, not Jewish, whose father was an Egyptologist, familiar with Biblical research and with near-Eastern languages. We would occasionally talk about religion, about the Bible and we developed a nice relationship as two teens from disparate backgrounds. Once, he came to the yeshiva to visit me in the dormitory on a Sunday. I had left home to reside in the yeshiva so as to immerse myself in Torah study. My friend had wanted to understand what a yeshiva was, and to see how I and my high school classmates spent our week. He asked to meet the Rosh Yeshiva, which intrigued me. Knowing that he was a stable, moral, and very bright young man, I knew that he would appreciate time with the rabbi.
Later that week, a few days after my friend had returned home, the Rosh Yeshiva approached me. “Your friend,” he inquired, “He is Jewish?” I answered that no, he in fact was Lutheran and that his father’s father was a minister. The Rosh Yeshiva shook his head, sadly, saying “What a shame. What a shame.” He then smiled at me and went about his way through the halls of the school.
I shared his reaction with some of my classmates and they too were puzzled. It was clear that he had been impressed with the fellow’s high intelligence and composed character. But why was it “a shame” that he was not Jewish? Surely there were plenty of good people, bright people, maybe brighter than my friend, who were Jewish. What made it a shame that he was not one of us? Was he such a treasure that somehow the Jewish world would be better with him among our ranks? Some of the students were very confused by our great mentor’s appraisal of this.
The decades went by, I moved to other places, continued my studies, and eventually never went back to our former neighbourhood where my friend had lived. I married, pursued my career, and had no contact with him.
Then came the internet. One evening, I discovered an email from my former friend. He had seen some webinars I had given online. He read my biographical book on the Rosh Yeshiva, which included the anecdote of his visit. He had decided to locate me and catch up on my life and his own. He was now a science teacher and a philosopher. He shared with me that in university, he had studied the Hebrew language, and had lived for a year in Israel working on a kibbutz. He had wondered what had drawn his father to studying the Old Testament and what had drawn him to befriend me and to know more about Judaism. Taking advantage of some genealogical research tools, he had looked into his ancestry.
“It seems that a number of generations ago, I had ancestors who were German Jews, living in Germany. At some point, one of them had an extramarital affair and conceived a child. By Jewish law, the baby was regarded as a mamzer – illegitimate. The man who fathered the child was sent away from the community. My female ancestor who gave birth was forced to give the child up for Christian adoption. He was adopted by a Lutheran minister and became a minister in his adulthood. He was a great-great-grandfather to my own father. So, I have some illegitimate Jewish blood in me, and I am ashamed to know this. But I know now what sparked my interest and the interest of my father in making contact with Jews and their religion.”
And I myself know now what the Rosh Yeshiva had detected and sensed in that young man’s spirit-genetics when he had said, “What a shame. What a shame.”