Spending my early childhood years in the tiny Jewish community of San Jose, California (think: one Orthodox synagogue) ensured that every observant Jew we saw was someone we personally knew, along with their entire family and personal past. When we eventually moved to a large Jewish community, I remember driving down the street and how excited we were when we actually saw a Jewish person we didn’t know. “Look, a Jew!” we shouted.
How my parents came to settle in San Jose is a long story, but settle they did. They moved into a small, nondescript apartment complex with four young children. We were the only religious Jews in that building and we played with the all other neighborhood kids – whether they were illegal immigrants living in a garage or other families who knew nothing about Jews and Judaism.
In the apartment upstairs from us lived Ben and Karen, a middle-aged couple with no children. Karen was as sweet as neighbors come; I remember her giving costume jewelry to my sister and I as a gift one Chanukah. She was a very quiet, gentle woman. Heaven must have created her so because her husband, Ben, loomed large at the polar opposite end of the “temperament” spectrum. He was constantly losing his temper, especially at us children, in a very intimidating way.
He must have weighed over 350 pounds. All that came at you when he lost his temper.
A Vietnam War veteran, Ben made bullets in his garage. He had a metal plate inserted in his skull as a result of war injuries. He owned several guns and three motorcycles. He had a leather-sketching machine that he would use when he was feeling creative. He must have weighed over 350 pounds. All that came at you when he lost his temper.
Did I mention Ben and Karen were Jewish?
I remember as a four-year-old lying in bed at night, crying for whatever reason. Suddenly I heard loud banging on the ceiling and Ben shouting, “Someone make that kid be quiet!” (except he didn’t use such nice words). He yelled when we cried, he screamed when we played too loudly, he grumbled when he saw us outside. I don’t know how his wife felt about all this, but she remained pleasant through it all.
The last straw for my mother came when she returned from the store one day with my younger brother, then 18 months old. His finger got stuck in the slammed car door. Naturally, he started to scream. While my mother was trying to calm him down, Ben was apparently bothered by the crying. He opened the door to his apartment, stood behind the screen door, and screamed, “Make that kid shut up!”
My mother is a petite woman, about five foot two. She felt such anger and shock that somebody could be so heartless toward a crying baby that it completely overtook all realms of logic. Her “mom on adrenaline” mode kicked in. She couldn’t see Ben; he was standing just out of sight in the darkness of his home, but his door was open, and he was listening. My mother started to shout at him, knowing he owned guns, knowing he made bullets, knowing he could easily use them both.
“How dare you shout at a hurt baby to be quiet?! Do you have no sensitivity?! How dare you scream at my children whenever you feel like it, when they’re just being kids?! If you have a problem right now, come out here and say it to my face!!”
She was met with silence. Ben didn’t say a word; he just closed the door.
But something happened. From the next day forward Ben was a nice as could be to us “Jewish kids,” as he called us. He stopped screaming at us and couldn’t say enough nice things about us. He let us just sit and talk with him when he was outside. Somebody had finally stood up to him, and he had apparently gotten the message.
When I, as a child of maybe six or seven, would sit and talk with him, he opened up about his past. He told me what it was like for him growing up Jewish in what sounded like a somewhat observant home. He told me about his Bar Mitzvah; he asked me if I felt restricted by my religious observance. Being so young, I don’t think I had much knowledge to offer him on the subject, but I do remember telling him that the way he grew up seemed a whole lot worse than the way my family did things.
Perhaps we left an indelible, positive imprint on them of what other Jews are like.
Maybe the fact that we were fellow Jews to him helped, or maybe he had just needed somebody to put him in his place. Whatever the reason, something in him had softened. A local rabbi even managed to get Ben to accept a menorah one Chanukah.
A couple years later, we moved to the east coast. We lost touch with Ben and Karen but did receive a notice when years later they each passed away. I like to think that maybe we had to live in that little apartment complex just to touch this Jewish couple, who had no connection to other Jews. Perhaps we left an indelible, positive imprint on them of what other Jews are like. We showed them the innocence of Jewish children and the strength of a Jewish mother. And that’s something that no amount of guns and anger can dissipate.