London gym encounter reassures


LONDON, Sept. 25 (JTA) — A dark-skinned man gave me a funny look in the gym the other day when he noticed my yarmulka.

He could have been an Arab, or a Muslim from Pakistan, and here in London, his political sympathies could easily have been anti-Jewish or anti-American.

After all, only 48 hours after the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington, angry Muslim audience members on a televised BBC current affairs program essentially said the United States deserved what it got.

And last October, an Algerian man stabbed a fervently Orthodox student more than 20 times on a London bus with no apparent provocation.

I looked back at the man in the gym, nervously waiting for him to speak first.

“Happy new year,” he said.

The encounter is one that couldn’t have happened even a week before, because I’ve only been wearing a yarmulka daily since Rosh Hashanah.

Until then, I’d worn it only on holidays, and I’m honestly not sure why I’ve been wearing it every day for the past week.

But the response has been both instructive and occasionally even funny — as when a non-Jewish friend asked why I was wearing my chupah today.

I broke it to her as gently as I could that a chuppah is the canopy a bride and groom stand under at a Jewish wedding, and that I make it a point never to wear one.

Many friends, Jewish and not, have wished me a happy new year, but the greeting from the man in the gym is the one that has mattered to me most.

I assume he wasn’t Jewish; if he had been, he probably would have said shana tovah.

His wishing me a happy new year reminded me that not everyone hates Jews.

It touched me deeply after a year that seemed designed to show otherwise, as disaster piled on disaster.

The future didn’t look so grim just before Rosh Hashanah last year. Yes, the peace talks at Camp David had recently collapsed, but that sort of thing had happened before.

Then the intifada broke out, and each time I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.

Individual exchanges of gunfire not bad enough? What about a Palestinian driving a bus into a group of soldiers and civilians, killing eight?

Can’t imagine anything worse? What about a suicide bomber blowing up 21 young people, fresh out of school, outside a disco on a Saturday night?

Grown accustomed to daily killings? What about an open display of vicious anti-Semitism on the world stage — signed, sealed and delivered by a U.N. conference that was supposed to be against racism?

But there was worse yet to come, of course: The attacks on Washington and New York that I cannot find the words to describe, the single deadliest event in the United States since the Battle of Gettysburg.

“And you know why they targeted New York,” a leading Jewish thinker here said as the number of missing and presumed dead climbed into the thousands. “It’s the most Jewish city in the world.”

But the New Year’s greeting at the gym reminded me that the world isn’t arrayed against us like a line of tanks ready to crush everything in its path.

New York is the most Jewish city in the world, yes, but also the most Irish, the most Italian, the most of many things — and the attacks were an attack on all of us, not only on the Jews.

British Jews rallied in London this week, ostensibly in support of Israel and the United States and against terror.

But as a rabbi pointed out quietly on the sidelines of the event, it was a demonstration born of anxiety. People with no worries do not gather in the thousands — before noon on a Sunday morning — to reassure each other that they are strong and brave.

In times like this, anxiety isn’t just a natural response, but a perfectly rational one.

But the man at the gym reminded me that it is only a partial response.

He was only one person, but Jewish tradition teaches that every person is an entire world.

Yes, we should be concerned for Israel, for America, for Jews wherever they are, but we must not let the bad cancel out the good.

We must remember that, behind the headlines, life in Israel has gone on — not only in active gestures of defiance against terrorism, like the reopening of the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem after a deadly suicide bombing, but with celebrations as well.

A friend wrote from Israel to tell me that her son celebrated his Bar Mitzvah not long ago — and friends and family had come from London for the celebration, despite their anxiety about “the situation,” as Israelis laconically describe it.

Israelis continue to marry and have children, and to receive new immigrants at a rate that should be an embarrassment and a rebuke to much of the West.

They continue to do good works in the world, like sending rescue teams to the Indian state of Gujarat after January’s devastating earthquake.

Though Israel and the Jews are under threat, we are strong, and by remembering the good along with the bad, we are refusing to give in to terrorism.

As for me, I am not sure if I will continue wearing a yarmulka after Yom Kippur.

It has not made me the target of violence, but, I realized at a wine store the other day, it makes me another kind of target.

“We have a range of kosher wines, too,” the salesman said as I browsed. “Just so you know.”

(Richard Allen Greene is JTA’s London correspondent.)

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