Recently, we hired a new administrative staff member. There was something about her face and demeanour that caused me to think she was Jewish. I didn’t ask directly at first, even though I tend to be too forward at even an early stage though it’s none of my business. Somewhere during the daily pleasantries, she slipped in the information that at home her Booba called her Chayale. I was sure my gut feel had been right. I wasn’t yet in a position to state that she was a member of those who were ביישנים, רחמנים and גומלי חסדים as per the גמרא in יבמות, but I wasn’t going to die wondering either. Chayale is very sweet and has a degree of איידלקייט that just sets her apart from the others. As time went by, it became clear she could speak Yiddish. We began conversing in Yiddish, and she didn’t mind if I called her Chayale, even in front of others. Her Yiddish was good, with a litvish/bundist accent. She had learned Yiddish in Sholem Aleichem College, and I figured she was an irreligious girl from a Bundist background. Eventually, we spoke about her parents and it became clear that her father was a Yid while her mother was not. She loves her father, a man of extreme tolerance, who allows his children to explore whatever they wish. Her mother was equally tolerant, but had never had any desire to convert nor did her husband request or secretly wish for this to happen. They had a סדר on פסח and the like, but it sounded like a quasi-romantic cultural experience. Chayale’s Booba had fed her cholent and she was exposed to culinary delights and some traditions.
Each day now, when she passes my office and we exchange pleasantries, I think about what might have been. I become a little despondent. I see elements of a Yiddishe נשמה, but they are distant like a flickering star. She has a non Jewish boyfriend and has never had any intention of converting, despite the bevy of Jewish friends. Chayale explained that her friends were tolerant of her and accepted her as if she was one of them. It should not affect me, but it does. Her face, demeanour, mode of conversation and characteristics seem to have been imbued with elements that are familiar. She is proverbially close, and yet so far.
I ask myself what was achieved by the tolerance and acceptance. On the one hand, perhaps her נשמה was one which was at הר סיני and needs to be re-ignited to a former state. On the other hand, perhaps the scene is one of חיצוניות and of no significant consequence—a purim-like masquerade. Perhaps she was destined to be a בת נח, and maybe I should gradually introduce her to this concept. After all, the רמבם writes that the true בן נח needs to keep the שבעה מצוות because הקב’’ה commanded these. In a work environment, it is not advisable to tread down this path.
My most recent encounter, was a few moments ago. I was greeted by a security guard at RMIT. He is a black African, and I had not met him before. A friendly fellow, with a broad smile through gaping front teeth, he engaged me in a discussion about my background, my parents’ background, whether I kept שבת and so on. Expecting that he might be from Ethiopia, he informed me that he was from Nigeria and that there was a belief that some of them had descended from the tribe of Efraim. Cursory research suggests that this is dubious. Unlike Chayale, though, the security guard was most enthusiastic, and informed me that he had started learning Hebrew in Nigeria and even applied for a scholarship to study in Israel. He seemed genuinely interested in exploring and I provided him with the contact details of the Rabbi on campus at RMIT. He took down my name and office number, and promised to visit me to have further discussions.
An interesting (non embeddable) video is here.
As I sit in my office, about to do some (real) work, I contrast the two encounters. They leave me feeling both sad and yet hopeful. I try to envisage them standing in a יחוס line to see אליהו הנביא just prior to, or perhaps right after, the building of בית המקדש השלישי.
Que Sera Sera. In the meantime, I’ll deal with the here and now, and try to avoid feelings of dismay and/or wonderment.