I am not Jewish.
“You are not Jewish,” Abba said as I headed off to mom’s car, borrowed for one last goodbye visit to a best friend, his daughter.
I am not Jewish but not for the lack of some trying. I have always been fascinated by religion. It was almost my major as an undergraduate student at Drew University, where I met Deborah, Abba’s daughter. So, when Deborah asked if I wanting to come to temple with her, I jumped at the chance. I came to love Abba during that first service. I do not remember now exactly what he said as he spoke in front of his congregation. I do remember feeling deeply connected to something bigger than myself in the place that he and his family, both then and before, had so clearly built. Simply put, I felt God in the space he filled with his words and thoughts and humor.
Abba had declared me not-a-jew when I asked him if he would please bless me before I headed off to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Federated States of Micronesia. All of those words, I notice now are in capital letters, so big and official looking. Brave. I felt nothing like those words. I had come to Abba’s house in those final days before the Peace Corps to hug Deborah tight. Her embrace made me believe a little in the me I always felt she could see. I had also come on that day to get just a tiny bit of God’s grace and protection from a man I could feel God coming through.
Hard to describe what that last phrase means. A man I could feel God coming through. But, I think it is just right as I reread it now. I have always struggled with religion because I sometimes felt like the people who called themselves religious were so often in word and not in deed. Abba was in deed. He made family. At home. At temple. This man made me feel connected to something larger through him. I wanted, no needed more power if I was going to do this Peace Corps thing.
So, on that day when I asked for his blessing, although Abba hugged my puffed up, totally faking it self as he would one of his own children, he said, “I can not bless you because you are not Jewish.”
That was 22 years ago.
Abba died last night.
Today, I am aching with sadness for his wife, his children, his grandchildren and his congregation. I am so sorry.
But because of and in spite of this sorrow, I need to finish the story … Two days after the hug and the refusal from Abba, I was packing in my childhood bedroom. The packing was very non-methodical. I was scared more than I could ever remember being. A car pulled up outside and a man got out. It was Abba. He strode toward me as I was standing in the front door. He placed his hand on top of my head. I bowed it and he prayed.
I am not Jewish so I did not understand what he said because it was not my language. I still do not understand what he said, the content of his words. I wish I would have asked. In that moment, in my parents’ house, I stood with my head bowed and felt God. I know now that a Rabbi is not a priest or a minister when it comes to blessings. Apparently, rabbis are not felt to have direct connection to God in the same way. But, standing there with my head bowed, my heart stilled and I felt … peace. For my journey.
He just walked away. No words.
You just walked away dear Abba. Hear my words.
I loved you.
I am not Jewish, but Abba’s blessing helped carry me. May all who loved and learned from him be carried by the blessing of Abba too.