There are those who say they were brought to Torah-observance by a class, or perhaps a seminar. Some say it was the warmth of a certain family, a Shabbat, or a charismatic rabbi or rabbanit.
But for me, and I only realized it some thirty years after it happened, I was brought to Torah-observance by a look.
I was sitting in a London youth hostel, chatting and planning the next move on my backpack-through-Europe itinerary, when he came over to me. About my age at the time (mid 20’s), he asked me if I was Jewish.
The question irked me. After more than six months in about a dozen countries, I’d rubbed elbows with just about every type of (at least European-rooted or roaming) human being. If there was one thing I was sure of it was that the particularities of nationality, race, and (especially) religion were all just artificial designations and hindrances along the path to the great spiritual wellspring that I so thirstily sought.
But it didn’t seem like this portly fellow with the scruffy bush of a beard and cabbie’s cap was going to be able to appreciate that sort of an answer, nor let up his steady, questioning gaze. So what was I going to do, lie?
“Yes,” I answered through the side of my mouth, hoping none of my tablemates had heard neither question nor reply.
“So am I,” he smiled. “Would you like to learn more about Judaism?” he forged on eagerly, apparently encouraged by my answer.
Learn more about Judaism? Hadn’t seven dreary years of Hebrew school already acquainted me with far more on the subject than I’d ever cared to know?
“No, thanks,” I tossed off somewhat haughtily. “I’m not interested in Judaism; I’m interested in finding spirituality.”
That’s when he gave me the look.
It was at once incredulous, astonished, stymied, and pained. And it was totally guileless, just his natural reaction to my apparently outrageous non-sequitur.
As if he’d asked me if I wanted ice cream, and I’d said ‘no thanks; I want something sweet’…
Like he’d offered me a meal and I’d said I prefer something to eat…
Like he’d offered me millions, and I said I’d rather have money…
Or to tell me a joke, and I’d asked instead to hear something funny…
The look fell away as quickly as it had flared and soon he was fake-smiling, trying to talk me into some program or other.
How I got here from there is a long story, which may someday be told. But had I been more self-aware back then, I certainly would have told him on the spot: “Stop working so hard. Can’t you see? You’ve already won me over with … the look.