I was in the third grade when I first thought I might be the Messiah.
This was back in the fifties and I was attending one of those elementary schools in Queens, New York that had no name, only a number, PS 46 or 192 or 238. It was the usual type of building, red brick with bars on the windows.
The thought came to me soon after an incident in the morning assembly. The principal, like usual, had walked onto the stage at eighty thirty a. m., flanked by two of the oldest teachers in the school, and told us all to bow our heads as he got ready to read us a prayer. This was before the Supreme Court had outlawed this sort of bowing in schools.
Seated in the audience, I remembered being told in Hebrew School that Jewish people do not bow their heads, at all, to anyone, except in G-d’s own house and to Him only. Bowing outside of G-d’s house would be to acknowledge a god other than the Almighty.
Back then I thought of Him in a very spatial way. He was The Man Upstairs, looking down on us all. And even though I had never met Him, at least not face-to-face, I clearly wanted no trouble with Him.
Sure, I was very curious. I mean, He was quite a celebrity and I wanted to know all the details about Him, like what He looked like and if He held a grudge.
But none of the answers I was given made any sense. The adults that I talked with obviously knew no more about Him than I did. So, I wouldn’t bow my head. My unbowed head attracted attention.
I was taken to the principal’s office and my parents were called.
I remember sitting outside his office. The halls were empty, as everyone else was still in the assembly. Despite the isolation, I felt safe, because wasn’t G-d who inhabits the heavens and created the universe larger than a principal who inhabits a dusty eight by ten office?
The principal was physical, someone I could touch and see, but who could touch G-d? Who could see eternity? My math teacher couldn’t even define ‘eternity.’ And especially to the limited view of an eight-year-old, this principal could be defined quite easily.
As students and teachers began to crash through the halls to their classrooms, his secretary rushed me into his office. The move was so abrupt as to be almost violent, and I began to wonder what it was about my action that had brought this on.
For a moment I faced doubt. My knees began to shake. I felt I was walking a tightrope of mind, stretched between what I assumed to be Heaven and what I feared to be Hell.
Then the principal entered. He tried to look angry and severe but it was too difficult a job for him. Confusion seemed more appropriate.
“How could this eight-year-old boy,” he must have been thinking, “defy my authority, defy my whole idea of what should be happening, defy my whole notion of God?” He didn’t realize that we were talking of two different deities, his and mine. His, I could defy quite easily. But not mine, not the Almighty, Blessed Be He.
He was Christian and I was Jewish and I would not let my religion be placed second to any other.
I must admit that the whole incident might have arisen from my looking around for something to act up about. You know how life is; it just goes by, day by day, and we read about exciting and courageous deeds that other people do but we don’t see them, not often, not first hand. And to live one?
To live a heroic moment, to live as the Hero of G-d—how could I give up the opportunity?
That was what I thought I was doing—I was acting like the Hero of G-d. The principal had said, “Bow your head,” and I thought, “This prayer is not a Jewish prayer, so why bow my head?” And I realized, “This is it.” This is my chance to stand up next to my G-d, who had been wronged throughout much of history. The G-d who was mistakenly blamed for the death of Christ and who the Nazis had attempted to exterminate.
This G-d I would not abandon.
So, I proudly kept my head up and one of the teachers—all I can remember is that it was a female teacher—told me to lower my head and I said, “No,” and she said, “Come with me,” and I went.
When my parents entered the office I didn’t know what to expect.
Of course, they, too, were Jewish. The principal, seated behind his desk with us facing him, had my father and me sit in children’s chairs. There was only one other adult-sized chair and my mother got that one. And the principal asked me why I wouldn’t bow my head, and I told him of G-d’s commandment. I told him I was Jewish and the prayer he had used was not a Jewish prayer.
He said that the prayer was non-denominational, whatever that meant.
And my parents—I wasn’t sure of their response. I feared they’d feel ashamed or afraid. My father had been called all the way from work and he hadn’t even been told on the phone what had gone on. All he knew was that I had supposedly committed some awful act. The principal then gave his side of the story and I waited anxiously for my parent’s response.
Would they be angry with me? Would they be meek before this thief of G-d?
Then my father, I will never forget his response because for some reason I never expected it—my father said that I was right. I had done the right thing. He agreed with me against the authority. It was one of those moments that you want to live over and over.
I jumped up, laughing, and what could the principal do in the face of this family unity but let us all go?
In the aftermath, I guess I expected that my parents would then share with me their own stories of being picked out for being Jewish. However, despite my new heroic status, this did not occur. Sure, I could feel something of what they felt.
For some reason they wanted to hide their religion. It wasn’t until almost fifteen years later that my mother told me that all through my early school years, whenever she rode the local bus, she had been forced by the stares and comments of our Catholic neighbors to ride at the back of the bus, where none of them would sit. She told me about disturbing phone calls and there were other things she would never verbalize. She hardly felt like a hero before anybody.
To tell the truth, I didn’t feel like a hero for very long. I didn’t want to feel different because of my religion or any reason.
One day, soon after the incident in the morning assembly, I was lying on my bed at home, staring up at the eggshell-colored ceiling. And I began to ask myself all these questions. In the past, when I thought of my Jewishness, I thought of Passover and the miraculous escape from Egypt. But on this day, I thought of the none-escape, of Nazis Germany and the Holocaust, and a gigantic hole opened up in me, a tremendous longing.
How could this be?
I had trouble understanding any injustice; my brother getting away with hitting me, the bullies in the schoolyard, homeless people on the street—but this? Maybe this explains my nightmares about those years. If G-d could save the ancient Hebrews from the Egyptians, then where was He when the Nazis tried to exterminate the Chosen People?
Had they, we, sinned so awfully, so disastrously, that G-d was punishing us? I had heard that He could be vengeful, but wasn’t this taking vengeance a bit too far? And to allow hatred to win over good for so long, I couldn’t accept that.
What did you do, Oh Lord? Have You seen too much? Have You run away and left us to correct the mistakes that You yourself had made? Are we now ugly before Thee?
How could I possibly think of myself as a hero before G-d? How could my act or any act correct this hurt that is so deep even the earth itself must have felt it?
And then I knew—someone had to come and save the world. I mean, it was clear to even my eight-year-old eyes that the world needed help. Someone had to do it.
The fact that all of us had a hand in the problems of the world was not something I could then grasp. One person was needed, and if not me, who? Was not this the only way to be a hero, to be the Messiah?
Was this what I had to be?
Then I thought about my dog. You know how the mind can jump around and make unusual juxtapositions? This idea just came out of nowhere—or so it seemed. I remembered that when I was walking my dog, a beautiful Irish setter, I felt closest to G-d.
That might sound funny, but truth is like that; it’s funny sometimes.
Anyway, I usually walked my dog in the woods that bordered the golf course that was only a block from my home. At some point in the walk, the dog and I would take off and run as fast as we could. As we ran together I would feel this sense of freedom, joy, and companionship.
The wind, the pull of the leash, the letting go, was all that I felt.
When we stopped, with nothing on my mind but finding a nice place for my dog to shit, a sense of quiet would settle over me. The world would stop.
Any tension that I carried, especially on my face, would melt away like butter left out of the refrigerator on a hot day, and a new face, one that I hardly knew, would take its place. I’d have what could only be described as a sense of gratitude. And in that gratitude, I thought, was a communion with the G-d of the Chosen People.
In that moment I was not forsaken.
As I lay in my bed, an eight-year-old boy lying in bed staring up at an eggshell colored ceiling, I wondered if that communion that I had felt signified that I was the one. That I, sometime in my life, would unconditionally and without doubt be touched by G-d’s hand. And the weight of the world would be mine.
Of course, my shoulders have been slumped ever since. And even now, over sixty years later—even though it’s clear to me that no one could ever be the hero I once expected myself to be—I still wonder if G-d, in that unconditional way, would (or did) ever touch me.