In the fall of my sophomore year of college I took a course that was known colloquially as ,”Physics for Poets.” I am no poet, but felt certain that I had a better chance passing that class than “Physics for Physicists.” I don’t remember a lot of what I learned in those lessons, in fact I’m pretty sure I could feel the information leaking out of my brain as I was leaving the exams, if I was lucky to hold it in that long. Suffice it to say, the experience solidified my conviction that I was not going to be the next Albert Einstein.
What stays with me from those sessions is the image of my professor. He was in his mid to late 60’s, with a nondescript accent which he had clearly tried to shake off, and a vaguely European name. He was obviously excited by the subject matter and managed to be engaging, even in a room full of students, who, by virtue of their choice of this course were openly declaring that they would never set foot in a physics classroom again.
As it was autumn, I had to approach him about the fact that I would be missing some classes for the holidays and would like to make up the work. He was pleasant enough about it, which solidified my feeling that he must not be Jewish. Experience had shown me that the least accommodating instructors were Jews, who seemed to take my observance as a personal critique. My (Israeli) Hebrew literature professor told me she didn’t believe me that I was actually missing class to observe the holidays, since I was wearing pants.
When the holidays were over, I (gracefully) broke my foot while running down a long flight of stairs. The physics class was clear on the other side of campus, and the mile long walk took me at least a half an hour as I SUCK at walking with crutches. The Friday lesson ended at a quarter of four, which meant I was returning home perilously close to the beginning of Shabbat as the days were rapidly getting shorter. On a Friday in November, I trudged into the room and collapsed into my chair. , “Ms. Bieler?” intoned the professor – I was surprised that this absent-minded scientist knew my name among the 150 or so students in the room – “Please feel free to leave early on Fridays so that you can make it home in time.”
I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that he might be Jewish. I had never seen him at a Jewish or Israel-related campus event, and I had been at nearly all of them. (I know, I know, pretty cool, eh?) I thanked him, and was able to arrive at Friday night services freshly showered and relaxed, rather than stumbling in at the last second flustered and covered in sweat. His thoughtful gesture had made my Shabbat much more peaceful.
Unfortunately, once I started missing a chunk of the lectures every week, I began to get lost. I made an appointment to meet with the professor during his office hours. He had a lovely gentle way about him, and managed not to make me feel like an idiot when I had difficulty with some of the abstract concepts. He was patient and happy to repeat points until it was clear that I understood. It is a lesson I have used hundreds of times in my role as a teacher, not to make my students feel that they are boring me as they struggle with and rework difficult problems. (I’m still working on it with my own kids, though.)
It was warm in his office, and towards the end of our session, he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. There was a pause in his instruction as he watched me look down at the numbers on his arm. I glanced at him, not wanting to make to much of a fuss. He nodded to me, was silent for a moment, and then went back to the (mostly) lost cause of teaching me physics.
I managed to do well in the class, I’m sure due in large part to those extra study sessions. Once the course was over,I rarely frequented that side of campus where all the math and science classes were taught. I never bumped into my excellent tutor. Then, in the winter, the first Gulf War broke out. The Jewish community on campus organized rallies and events in support of Israel. At one such event, in the bitter Chicago cold, I spotted someone in the back of the crowd. It was him. He smiled at me, waved, looked up at the Israeli flags flying. I turned back to listen to the speaker. When I looked back, the professor was gone. Self-centered 18 year old me should have sought him out to speak with him one more time.
I spent the next year in Jerusalem, and lived off-campus my senior year. I never saw the professor again. Maybe he retired. I think about him often, how his small kindnesses meant so much to a young woman trying to live in two worlds. I wonder if small kindnesses might have lead to his survival. I wish I had thanked him more. I wonder what his life was like before the war. I wonder if he couldn’t bring himself to be a part of an organized Jewish community. I wonder if he felt angry at God. I marvel at his ability to be lighthearted despite his experience. As the granddaughter of someone who was one of only 2 surviving members of his family, I regret that I didn’t ask him these questions. As members of the last generation to have the ability to talk to survivors, to really know them, we should all regret that we were sometimes too shy, or too careful, or too busy to engage the last survivors.
For the sin we have committed by not asking enough questions.
For the sin we have committed by thinking there was always more time to ask.
For the sin we have committed by fearing that our children needed shelter from those stories.
For all these sins, each and every year, I ask for kaparah, atonement.