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Wednesday, July 6, 2011


"Really," I've said to my wife on numerous occasions, "we don't need to encumber the twinners with names dripping with Judaism because, coming from us-- they'll have the map of Israel tattooed on their faces anyway. No one will ever mistake them for anything other than Jewish. Trust me."

Honestly? We could name them (both boys) Brentwyck and Victoria, or (1 boy, 1 girl) Ghyll and Emmaline, or (2 girls), Brittania and Glucerna and still nobody would think that they are descended from anything other than the purest of Semitic bloodline. If you've ever seen pictures of my wife and I, or, better yet, the real deal in person: you know.

The elderly, toothless man yesterday knew.

My mother-in-law, my wife and I had just sat ourselves down in a booth at a greasy spoon diner for brunch on Tuesday. After the entire staff (admittedly, it was the waitress and her mom, the short order cook) were informed by my mother-in-law that we were expecting twins and I already wanted to crawl under the table and die, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an elderly, bent-over man with trousers that might have fit him thirty years ago shuffled over to us.

"I just want to ask you," he said, looking directly into my eyes in an unsettling way, "are you a veteran?"

I stared at him. You didn't need to work in the mental health field or have your Cra-Zee-Meter set to "Sensitive" to know that something was... sensitive here.

"Um, no, I am not," I replied, hoping this encounter would be brief and painless. It was neither.

"Well, I'm glad to hear that," the old man said, and I don't mind admitting that I was briefly offended. Like, what-- I couldn't fight in a war? But, then, after a moment's reflection I thought two things: 1.) this guy is crazy and, 2.) frankly, I would imagine that, were I not me, I would be relieved finding out that our nation's safety wasn't entrusted to somebody like me, too.

"I'm a veteran," he contined, "I'm eighty-nine. I was at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Have you ever heard of that?"

"Um, yes, I have heard of that."

"I was hit three times," he said, "twice, in my equipment" (I assume he meant his military equipment, not his male... equipment) "and once in my head," he said, tapping his left temple.

I wish I could say that this was the first time in my life I had ever conducted a conversation with somebody who had been shot in the head, but it wasn't. I try not to make a habit out of it, as it can be unpredictable, but these things have a way of happening to me.

"All I want to say to you is 'Shalom'-- do you know what that means?"

I nodded my head, half in despair.

"You must be Jewish," he said definitively, then, he perhaps thought it would be polite to ask, "you're Jewish, aren't you?"

If I were at work at the psych hospital, I would have responded with my pat rhetorical game that I use whenever I am asked this question by a psych patient-- which I am asked with frequency. I usually come back with, "Why is that important to you?" or "I don't really think that's relevant to your treatment here." Unfortunately, I didn't think I could get away with that, in this little diner. So I told him that, yes, I was. Because, you know, he knew anyway.

"Well, I just want to say that I thank God for the Jewish people, and a lot of gentiles won't say that, but I really do thank God for the Jewish people. And, really, we're all the same. We all come from each other-- there is so much hate. But Shalom to you. I am thankful to God for the Jews."

I thought I would return the compliment, from someone who, had circumstances been very different, might not be alive were it not for soldiers who fought in World War II to say,

"Well, I am thankful for you."

And I thought we could shake hands in mutual... thankfulness and be done with it. But it didn't quite work out like that.

I mean, I did say that, and we did shake hands, but we would shake hands seven times before he finally walked out of the diner.

He asked me if I read the Bible. I said, "Not recently" and I was going to add, "why, has it changed much?" but I didn't think that would have been appreciated, or noticed by our uninvited guest. My wife repeated my response when asked. And my mother-in-law, ever the independent spirit, said, "Yes, I do."

It wouldn't have mattered much what she said, because his eyes were locked on mine.

"You should really read the Bible," he said. He wasn't exactly toothless, I noticed at this point, he had maybe three or four in there-- well, one full tooth, but the shatterings of several others, jagged and rough-- looking like mini polar icecaps. He recommended some passage, but I don't remember which book it was from. The number he cited was "53" and the only reason I remember that is because, of course, that's Herbie's racing number.

I was going to tell him that "53" was my favorite number, but, again, I don't think he would have cared. Nor noticed. Or heard.

I kept trying to end the conversation, using pragmatically-appropriate language and socially-acceptable and universally-recognized lingo and isms, but our elderly warrior was impervious to all of these shrewd techniques, just like, apparently, he could not be felled by Japanese mortars and bullets.

There were more shaloms and thank-yous and handshakes. Paper-thin handshakes.

He left. And, five minutes later, while we were eating-- while this Jew was consuming bacon, sausage, ham, pork-roll, and scrapple, all on one plate-- he placed two pamphlets about the Messiah on our table, thanked us again, and walked out.

The waitress apologized and confiscated the pamphlets.

"I keep those so that, when he comes back, I can give them back to him and say, 'Do you see this? You think people want to talk to you, but they don't.' and I give him the pamphlets back so he understands that you're just being polite, because nobody's going to tell him to go away. Nobody."

And, of course, she's right. And, also of course, she's doing a far better thing for him by serving him up a plate-full of reality rather than suffering through his diatribe with forced grins and false handshakes.

We do what we do because it makes us feel better, not him.

"Look," I said to my mother-in-law and my wife as we were driving home, "for a guy who's been shot in the head, he's not doing so bad."

Shalom, indeed.

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