As a child, I was brought up in a family-oriented Jewish neighborhood in New York. As such, I was always a friend of the Jews, and a fan of their cultural practices. Despite the fact that I went to public schools, the great majority of my teachers were Jewish in both Elementary and Junior High. Heck, I grew up assuming only Jews were allowed to be teachers, because that was all I saw. And it was awesome. They beautifully instilled their loving values onto the mixed groups of students. Aside from family gatherings, the only place where I wasn’t surrounded by Jews was at the mosque.
My Idea of Jewish Holidays
Through my Jewish neighbors, friends, teachers, and acquaintances, I learned a great deal about the many Jewish holidays. I found the holidays fascinating, because of the stories, symbolic practices, songs, and of course the feasts. My family only celebrated the two Eids, and those celebrations weren’t all that different from typical family gatherings. I can’t say I found either one of the Eids to be special, though I heard it is always special in Muslim countries.
Anyway, I memorized the significance of Jewish holidays by associating one word with each of them. Purim = costumes; Pesach = matzah; Sukkot = sukkah.
Yom Kippur — that’s the “Sorry” holiday. “Atonement” was too complicated of a word when I was younger. Anyway, I quickly picked up on how everyone asked me (and each other) for forgiveness, in their own special ways. The practice itself helped rekindle, strengthen, and even start friendships.
Did I Need a Yom Kippur?
I never had to observe a holiday like Yom Kippur, which meant I never had to ask anyone for forgiveness. Then again, I didn’t really feel the need to, because I was always a goody-two-shoes. I felt that whenever I did tell anyone off they totally deserved it, because it typically came after a series of offenses that I previously let slide.
Although I respected the holiday, I figured I didn’t need a Yom Kippur. That changed after I unknowingly broke the heart of an angelic Jewish woman. For the sake of this post, I will call her “Shoshanna.”
Shoshanna was a teacher in my elementary school. She happened to be Orthodox. Everything about her mannerisms, voice, and the way she spoke was literally like a Disney princess. Although she wasn’t one of my teachers, we quickly became friends, and would talk about life before classes started, and during lunch. I looked forward to the heart-to-hearts each day.
The Turning Point
One Friday, after school (I was probably 9 at the time), my father took me to the mosque. Please note: It was a great mosque that never taught to hate. Anyway, I was chatting with a bunch of friends after prayers were done, right outside of the mosque. I was telling them something about my Jewish friends. At one point, I heard a man’s voice behind me saying something very bizarre.
Don’t talk to Jewish people. They steal land.”
I turned around, and wasn’t able to make out who said it, but the words stuck. And it scared me.
I was scared the whole weekend. My mind was all over the place. Jews steal land? I go to a school that’s full of Jews! Do they know my father owns a house? The school knows my address! Does that mean they will steal my parents’ house?! Maybe I should warn my parents! But I don’t want to scare them…
I kept the burning secret inside, and waited till Monday. I figured I had to talk about it with an actual Jew, to just find out what the heck that was about.
Shoshanna would be perfect! We talk about everything!
The Dreadful Monday
Shoshanna walked over to me, and asked me about my weekend. She looked exceptionally adorable that day, and she probably even knew it because she was glowing more than usual. I remember — her eyes looked extra bright. I decided to tell her what happened, and hear what her thoughts were on why that man said that.
“Someone said I am not supposed to talk to Jewish people because they steal land.”
Her glow instantly vanished.
Her face turned red, and her eyes began to water.
“Oh,” she said. She took a step back. Her eyes watered even more.
“Oh,” she said again. She took many more steps back, then just turned and walked away.
She never looked at me again. Never spoke to me again. She did her best to avoid me, so I didn’t feel threatened. I didn’t understand why.
I decided to not talk about what the man said with anyone else ever again. It somehow made my friend sad — no way was I about to bring it up with anyone else. I only learned why it made her sad late in my teens. Yes, I was very sheltered. And yes, that goes to show how I really was never taught to hate.
But once I learned of the ugly side of things, I felt like such a monster. My mind was at it again. Shoshanna must think I am a radical. She must think I am a raging anti-Semite. She must have figured I was a terrorist-in-training. She must have been so afraid and disgusted of me. Shoshanna hates me!
I wanted to set things straight. I started looking for her, but couldn’t find her. I figured maybe she made aliyah. Yes, that must be it. She must be alive and well — happily living in Israel by now.
Each year, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the raging need to ask Shoshanna for forgiveness would hit me HARD. But I didn’t have any way to reach her. It was nearly impossible to find her prior to social media. Even after the rise of social networks, I couldn’t find her anywhere. I jumped whenever I came across anyone with her (very common) last name, but no one knew her.
The fear started kicking in. Was she even alive?
2016 – The Turning Point
Although I lightly dabbled in activities pertaining to peace / coexistence / tolerance / solidarity / etc for many years, 2016 turned out to be my big year. I had several viral Facebook posts, speaking engagements galore, and seized many opportunities. With each step along the way, my heart wanted to tell Shoshanna, “Look at what I’m doing! I’m not a terrorist! I’m not an anti-Semite!”
My best friend, mentor, and boss, Hillel Fuld, encouraged me to try to look for her again. I had more contacts than ever before at that point. It was worth a shot. For the final time, I wrote a (now private) post on Facebook, asking if anyone knew someone by her name. I included her picture from the yearbook from 1995 — the year I graduated elementary school.
There were many shares of that post. Many of my friends, new and old, started looking for her. Close, but no cigar.
My friend Hillel Kuttler of Seeking Kin went above and beyond trying to locate Shoshanna. The one roadblock was the fact that I wasn’t sure of her first name. Only her last name was listed in the yearbook. I had an idea of what her first name could be. I told him — and he ran with it. He made countless calls, searched countless databases, and spent many weeks trying to find her. He was only able to unearth the fact that Shoshanna no longer worked as a teacher. I told him early on that if he were to discover that she passed away, I’d rather not know. At one point, I began to wonder if that was becoming the case. Was he shielding me from the truth?
A few months later, my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Gloria Golden, messaged me, saying she has Shoshanna’s number. Oh my God. Within a matter of minutes, I had Shoshanna’s office number.
She has indeed taken on a new profession. I called the number and a receptionist answered. Shoshanna was not available to speak at the time, but the receptionist was kind enough to give me Shoshanna’s direct line. Oh my God.
I dialed the number and heard Shoshanna’s sweet voice for the first time in over 20 years.
I told Shoshanna that I had been a student at that public elementary school in 1995, and would appreciate a few minutes to speak to her. I asked her if it was a good time. She said, “I’ll call you back in a few minutes, okay?”
Those were the longest few minutes of my life. It was only about half an hour, but it felt like eternity. I wasn’t sure if she actually would call back. But she did. And I poured my heart out.
I told her everything:
- How we used to talk.
- What happened at the mosque.
- The way my mind was working the whole weekend.
- My intentions when I told her what happened years ago.
- Her reaction.
- All my activities since then.
- I told her that I had no idea if she even remembered anything about me or what happened, but I hope she could find it in her heart to forgive me for hurting her feelings.
You know,” she said, “I don’t remember a lot from that time, but I do vaguely remember the incident. I am so proud of you. I am proud of everything you have done, and what you have become. We need more of you. Of course I forgive you. I am so flattered you searched for me…”
Shoshanna went on praising me, and offered many words of encouragement. She made me promise to keep in touch, and insisted we must lunch soon.
That was when I knew I had my friend back.
Yom Kippur — 2016
This Yom Kippur will be the first one in over 20 years that doesn’t hit me hard. I got the forgiveness I needed most, and the world instantly became brighter as my shoulders got lighter.
I’m far from perfect, and I know there are other people that I need to ask for forgiveness. I have every intention of doing so. But nothing will be nearly as monumental, as impactful, or as meaningful as the feeling that came out of hearing Shoshanna telling me that she forgives me.
My heart is at ease. I wish this amazing feeling to one and all.
G’mar Hatima Tova!