Excuse me, Are you…?

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September 16, 2010

As I’m exiting the subway station at Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, I pass a bearded Hassidic man and overhear him saying to a secular-looking young man, “Do you need help putting on tefillin?” Around the Jewish holidays in New York City, you see this often. Usually, I assume, it’s a member of Chabad, because it’s Chabad’s mission to reach out to their fellow Jews, and offer them the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvot, the positive commandments. They will stop those whom they believe to be Jewish and ask men if they want to put on tefillin–prayer phylacteries–or women if they want to light candles. Personally, they’ve never stopped me because, unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses who ask anyone and everyone if they know about Jehovah, Jews don’t target those whom they believe to be non-Jews.

I walk past this Hassidic man only to encounter another one who catches my glance. He says to me, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

I’m practically ready to make a shehechyanu, the prayer you recite for first-time events! “Yes, I am!” I smile happily.

“Oh, you are?” Does he seem slightly surprised? “Well, shana tovah.”

“Thank you. Shana tovah to you, too.” I wish him a happy new year in return.

When he asks me where I’m from and I say Manhattan, he says, “Well, you probably know Chabad there, then,” and I agree, yes, I do, and there’s another round of shana tovahs, and then I climb the stairs and exit the subway station, tickled pink about my encounter.

I walk a few blocks to the restaurant where there will be a surprise 40th birthday party for my friend, David, a fellow writer. Over the course of the evening, I meet his best friend, Laura, who knew him in college back when David was an aspiring actor. I meet people he works with in the corporate world that he is in today, who remark about how conscientious and trustworthy David is. “If you give it to him, he gets it done.”

David introduces me to another writer, a guy who, years ago, was in a group with David that told “Queer Stories.” He recalls the first story that David shared – something about a broken window and a church. David doesn’t remember it at all. At one table are two gay couples, one of whom hasn’t seen David in four years but is happy to have a reason to reconnect. Seated across from me at dinner are a couple who live in his apartment building in Brooklyn. When I say I know David through writing, they are surprised. They hadn’t realized that David is a writer, has a blog, and is working on a memoir. Like most of us, David has a number of separate worlds which tend not to collide except when there’s a big event like tonight, when the inhabitants of his separate orbits are brought together and we see him in a larger context.

Before the birthday cake is brought out, I feel compelled to offer a birthday toast, something simple, like, “Thanks, Mark, for putting together this birthday party. David, we love you and happy birthday.” However, maybe because my encounter in the subway station with the Hassid has sparked some deeper reflection about how one appears to others, or how one thinks one appears to others, I find myself extemporaneously philosophizing that even though we all know David in various ways, and although many of us are completely unaware of lots of aspects of David’s life, we all know the same David.

What I hope is understood by this is that David’s qualities – his sense of humor, his decency, his intelligence, his respect for others, his commitment to friends, old and new, his code of ethics, and much more – are consistent, whether he’s in a writing group or at work or telling queer stories.

On Yom Kippur, when I stand in synagogue for hours and recite the prayers, striking my fist against my chest to atone for my sins, and as I become more and more tired with the lack of food, water and more importantly, caffeine, it’s then that I feel a kind of certainty that God sees and loves each one of us in all of our totality, even the parts that we hide from one another and from ourselves. Wherever we are, whoever we’re with, God recognizes us and never needs to ask, on Yom Kippur or any other day, “Excuse me, are you Angela?”

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