[Editor’s Note] Welcome new contributor Robin Washington–a piece written over the beginning of the High Holidays, and in many ways still relevant as we move out in celebration this evening.

This week, Jews around the world are observing the High Holy Days. “Observing’ is preferred over “celebrating,’ because the period culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s fine to wish Jewish friends a Happy New Year but, unless they’re masochists, not a Happy Yom Kippur, which is a fast day. Happy Yom Kippur is preferable, however, to a question about Passover once posed to me by a co-worker: “Is that the holiday when you Jewish people pig out?’

In my interracial, interreligious family on Chicago’s Near North Side, I did not have a particularly religious childhood. Yet it was a Jewish one. There were few Jews in our immediate area and no synagogues, so on holidays my mother would take us to the end of the line of the El to a synagogue near the high school where she taught. As testament of the city’s deliberate segregation of schools, she was assigned to a predominantly Jewish high school and, when that neighborhood changed, a school in a different Jewish area.

Though she knew the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, I doubt we ever formally joined the congregation. But because we were only going to children’s services, who cared?

We went less frequently as my brother and I approached our teens. Neither of us had a bar mitzvah on our 13th birthdays, and by the time I was in high school, we stopped going altogether. Still, we observed the holidays on our own. At school, I was even the self-appointed Passover Policeman who’d reprimand other Jewish kids for eating a hamburger with a bun during the eight-day holiday when leavened bread isn’t allowed.

So was my Jewish life when, in late summer 1973, I got a job as an usher at the Carnegie Theater on tony Rush Street. The manager, Jose, ran a very tight ship. The fall came and he scheduled me to work on Rosh Hashanah.

“But I’m Jewish,’ I protested.

“Too bad,’ I recall his response.

I don’t know if Jose knew it when he scheduled me, but on Rosh Hashanah, the theater owner had rented out the space to Central Synagogue — South Side Hebrew Congregation. The synagogue needed the theater for its
well-attended High Holy Day services.

Rosh Hashanah came and I stood at the theater entrance to take tickets. The congregation president, a jovial middle-aged man in a blue suit whose name I think was Manny, arrived to give me instructions.

“All we need you to do,’ I recall him explaining, “is to take the tickets and tear them in half, and put them in the box.’ (Pre-paid tickets are traditional at many synagogues because money is forbidden on holy days.)

I looked at him and said nothing. He repeated the instructions, adding, “We need you to do this because we can’t tear paper’ — a form of work also forbidden — “because we’re Jewish.’

“I can’t either,’ I replied.

“Why not?’ he said.

“Because I’m Jewish, too.’

As an African American Jew, you get used to the incredulous looks, or worse, the “how-can-you-be-Jewish?’ question. Even at 16, I knew to pre-empt it with “My mother’s Jewish,’ which is the most universally accepted standard on the who-is-a-Jew issue.

When it sank in, Manny asked, “Why are you working?’ I pointed to Jose, who was sulking in his office.

“Oh,’ Manny said. This was a problem: The congregation needed the tickets collected, but they couldn’t ask another Jew, subject to the same restrictions they were, to collect them. Manny caucused with a few congregation leaders, and me. I was suddenly one of the gang — of 50-year-old Jewish men!

One of the group went off a little ways and came back.

“OK,’ he said. “I just talked to God. He says you can tear the tickets.’

The others didn’t agree and with the congregants beginning to show up, we all took turns taking, and tearing, tickets. It wasn’t ideal but at least we all were sinning together.

Finally, Manny went over to Jose and pleaded with him to call in someone else — who wasn’t Jewish. Jose complied and 15 minutes later Siddiqi arrived.

I was invited to join the services and called my mother to join me. By Yom Kippur the next week, I was practically a senior member of the congregation. I remember Manny greeting me — for services this time, not
work — smiling with his tongue hanging out, like Einstein.

The service was moving but long. I’m sure I dozed a little. As we walked out, the bemusing transition from usher to Jew-distraught-over-ritual to fasting and atonement of Yom Kippur seemed a significant journey — until I noticed the newspaper box on the street. The headline blared that war between Israel and her neighbors had begun.

Our ticket dilemma didn’t seem very important any more.


Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the News Tribune and a commentator on National Public Radio “News & Notes.”