New York is the crucible of coexistence. It’s where Lady Liberty holds her huddled masses’ feet to the torch.
My gray beard makes me a natural target. I often get people calling me “Rabbi.” I tell them, “Rabbi is my brother’s name.” At Hamodia, some colleagues call me “Rabbi Schiller’s brother.” That reached its crowning touch in an email telling me about a magazine story on my brother Rabbi Nota Schiller, Rosh Yeshivah of Ohr Somayach:
“Did you see the article about Mr. Schiller’s brother?”
I am visibly Jewish. In some countries, that alone could be hazardous. But, as Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, writes, America is a “malchus shel chessed — a kingdom of kindness.” I am a subject of that kingdom.
Some 30 years ago, my wife and I took the family to a roller-skating rink in Lynbrook, Long Island. As I watched the kids making the rounds of the rink, I took note of the array of nationalities. Suddenly, I saw my son — with his yarmulke and peyos — bump into a Chinese fellow and fall down. The other guy stopped, smiled and helped my son to his feet.
I felt a surge of gratitude — not just for the helping hand, but also to the country where that could happen. In another time and another place, that would have been enough to set off a pogrom.
By contrast, passing through Amsterdam, we stopped to ask directions. The driver in the next car glared at me … and closed his window. Then I stopped to ask a police officer, who replied, “You can’t get there.” Later, when we walked around, people stepped aside and avoided us.
But in Manhattan, when we went to the Intrepid Museum, a young black staffer waved to me and said, “Mah nishmah?”
In Brooklyn, a black man stopped to smile and say, “Shalom, sir.”
A Puerto Rican handyman who does repairs in my building greeted me, “Cómo estás — how are you?”
I answered, “Bien, gracias a Dios — Good, thank G-d.” Then I added, “Uste? — and you?”
He replied, “Baruch Hashem!”
In a laundromat in Boro Park, I stepped where the Hispanic manager had just mopped. He shook his head and, with perfectly inflected dripping sarcasm, he said, “Yasher koyekh!”
The night of the great blizzard of 2010, my wife and I went to a chasunah in Williamsburg. We couldn’t drive, but the family provided buses. (Even with the bus, it took six hours to get back to Flatbush!)
Knowing I wasn’t driving, I ordered a margarita at the bar. But the mix tasted like a tincture of toxic chemicals. So I switched to straight tequila, much to the amusement of the Hispanic bartender. When I went for a refill, he asked if I was ever in Mexico. … Then he told me that he was from Cuba.
In response, I made a politically inept toast. I lifted my glass and said, “Venceremos!” That means “we shall overcome.” But the Spanish slogan is most closely associated with Che Guevera — hardly a hero to Cuban émigrés.
Mi amigo just flashed a toothy smile and answered, “L’chaim!”
But my ultimate New York moment came in Connecticut.
Actually, it came from on high.
About seven feet high.
One day, my wife and I drove to the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. After the tour, I went into a shop for coffee. As I stood on line, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around — only to find myself eye to chest with a massive black man in his 20s.
Instantly, my reflexes went on full inert. I slowly looked up and made eye contact.
He stared at me wide-eyed, nodded, then solemnly said …
Please send smiles, sticks and stones to firstname.lastname@example.org.