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The Yo-Yo In the Window

The Yo-Yo In the Window

When I was 20, I spent my junior year in college in France to run away from Judaism. But God had other plans for me.


I decided to spend my junior year in college abroad in France for two reasons: to have a great time and to get away from Judaism. And I'm not sure which was the more motivating factor.

I was raised, for lack of a better term, as an "ultra-Reform" Jew. I grew up in the 1970's in a WASPy suburb of San Francisco called Walnut Creek and my parents affiliated with a Reform temple. This meant that I was subjected to "going to temple" at least twice a year and in a rare instance I was dragged there on a Saturday.

Judaism always interfered with my "real life."

To say that I did not grow up with a positive Jewish identity is an understatement. The East Bay of San Francisco in the 1970's was not exactly a bastion of Jewish life. To put it into context, in my public high school of 1400 kids, there were six Jews -- and my sister and I were two of them. Judaism was something that occasionally occurred, but when it did it always interfered with my "real life." My experiences left me cold, uninterested and with a general dislike of Judaism and all things Jewish.

So, when I boarded the plane bound for Paris at age 20, I was leaving behind no Jewish heritage that I knew anything about, no Jewish connection and no Jewish life. One of the chief benefits, as I saw it then, of actually going so far away was that I could ditch High Holy Day services, come back home at the end of the year, lie and say that I did go. And no one could ever prove me wrong. "What were they going to do?" I flippantly asked my friends at UCLA. "Call the synagogue in Bordeaux and ask if Ross was there?" I thought I had it made. But when I got to Bordeaux, where I would be living for the year, all of that changed. God had other plans for me.

One day I was exploring the city and passed an American Goods store. As I glanced at the window display, something unbelievable caught my eye. It was a California Golden Seals hockey puck yo-yo. I couldn't believe it! You see, the California Golden Seals were the Bay Area's professional hockey team for a brief time. My father and I used to go to Seals games together when I was a kid. They were great times that we shared together. At that moment, I decided that I had to have that yo-yo.

I went inside and was greeted by Sammi who turned out to be the owner of the store. He was a small man with dark hair, a dark complexion and one of the warmest smiles I had ever seen. We ended up talking for about two hours about everything: UCLA, California, how I liked France etc. I was impressed with how genuinely nice he was. And then, out of the blue, he said to me, "Well, you're Jewish of course, right?"

I was flabbergasted. Being six feet tall with blond hair and blue eyes, strangers had called me a lot of things in my life, but "Jewish" was never one of them! In fact, I often had a problem convincing people that I was Jewish!

"Uh, yes," I replied. "But how did you know?"

"I just knew," Sammi said, with that same warm smile. "Why don't you come for Shabbat dinner on Friday and meet the rest of my family?"

For some reason, I found myself accepting the offer, even though I was in full flight from Judaism.

The Friday night was beautiful -- warm, inviting and accepting. I kept waiting for something negative to happen to bolster my argument that Judaism had nothing to offer me. But nothing bad happened. I left feeling wonderful, connected to something that went beyond myself.

Sammi kept inviting me for Shabbat and then, for all of the holidays. I found myself accepting all of his invitations -- even looking forward to them. At Passover time, seven of my Jewish, American friends were upset that they had no Seder to go. Imagine -- Jews who actually wanted to go to a Seder, I marveled to myself at the time.

What was I doing going to Shabbats and Seders that I traveled 8,000 miles to specifically avoid?

I called Sammi to ask if maybe they could come too. Before I could finish my sentence he said, "Bring them. Bring them all." I reminded him that it was the day before Passover and this meant bringing seven extra people. "Bring them, Ross. And anyone else you know who doesn't have a Seder to go to." Although Passover meant nothing to me then, I was moved to tears by Sammi's kindness. Kindness for people he had never met before. Kindness that was borne from the sole fact that we were fellow Jews in need.

Now I was really confused! What was I doing going to Shabbats and Seders that I traveled 8,000 miles to specifically avoid? How could this be happening?

I determined that the two experiences I had to date with Judaism -- one very negative (my growing up) and one very warm and loving (with Sammi and his family) -- were like matter and anti-matter in Star Trek. They both could not exist in the same universe. I had to find out which one was the real Judaism. I had a feeling it was the warm, loving experience, but I had no evidence to back up that claim. So, I started searching for the truth about Judaism and where I belonged in my religion.

It took a journey of ten years, but I found out that my hunch was right: Judaism is a warm, embracing, relevant religion with a loving God. I began to slowly and fundamentally change my life. Now my wife, our two beautiful daughters and I live in a Jewish neighborhood and lead an observant Jewish life.

After college, Sammi and I lost touch. I never got a chance to fully thank him for all that he did for me. I don't know if he really knows the profound impact he had on my life -- how he changed my life by the way he lived his, how his kindness to a fellow Jew, albeit a non-religious Jew, was the impetus behind me reconsidering 20 years of rejection of Judaism. My search for God and Judaism began with him and that yo-yo in the window. A yo-yo that I still have and treasure to this day.

August 3, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 31

(31) Mollie, November 25, 2007 10:09 AM

Finding Sammi

We had only a day and a half in Bordeaux (city of 630,000 people)while on a "Vineyards of Europe" tour, but made it our "mitzvah" to try and find Sammi and give him the articles (that we found while researching the city)by Ross Hirschmann from the time we arrived there.(We believed in our hearts that this was possible, when tour members said we were "wasting our time"). We found the Orthodox Jewish Temple and walked around until almost dark asking everyone if they knew someone named "Sammi" (hoping he was still living and not knowing his last name)and literally ran about seven blocks to the store owned by "Ricky" (grandson) before it closed at seven. Ricky invited us to Sukkot services the next evening to meet Sammi(we spoke no French or Hebrew) and walked over a mile there since no cabs were available. Sammi was "not feeling well" and was not there as we were told. (He supposedly read English, but did not speak it well.) \We believe that G-d works through people and found a way for Sammi to know that he had influenced a young man's life many years ago. Perhaps some feel this effort was not necessary, but hopefully it was appreciated. It's never too late to say "Thank You" for a kindness. We also make it a point to find and visit the major Jewish temples in cities we visit - which isn't easy in cities like Tangiers or Guatemala City!

(30) JAKE, May 15, 2006 12:00 AM



(29) Esther, July 13, 2005 12:00 AM

The right way to follow up

Those people who are so insistent about Mr. Hirschmann contacting Sammi as a way to follow up are missing the real way that we follow up such a kindness - by doing the same for someone else, as I am sure Mr. Hirschmann does. Those of us moved by this story could do the same.

(28) ROSS HIRSCHMANN, July 6, 2005 12:00 AM


Thanks to all of you who read and enjoyed my article. Thanks, too, to all of you for your nice comments.

I want to address the several comments submitted urging me to track down Sammi.

First of all, I was a college student when this all happend. Although at the moments the positive Jewish events occured they were nice, I was frankly far more concerned with meeting girls. I really did not fully put into perspective nor fully understand the impact of my experience with Sammi and his family until over a dozen years later when I started becoming religious. By then, a long time had passed and to be honest, I did not think that Sammi would remember me. I was one Jewish, American college kid that he befriended for a brief period of time a long time ago. It simply never occurred to me to track him down after so long.

Everyone is different. We need to understand and accept that of each other. I believe that sometimes people come into your life, people like Sammi, for a brief, but significant time to fulfill some role the Almighty has for them vis-a-vis you. And then - everyone moves on. You may disagree and that's fine. Good people can disagree. But that is my view of the experience. Besides, does every single person whom you have affected in their life call you up 18 years later? Probably not.

As a post script, someone who read the article who was going to Bordeaux did deliver a copy of the article to Sammi's store in Bordeaux. If he didn't know in 1983 how grateful I was for his kindness - and I did let him know how very grateful I was at the time - he knows now. Case closed.

(27) jose nigrin, July 6, 2005 12:00 AM

Is worthed being a jew

The story is a beautiful experience of a jew, who had the opportunity, of knowing the value of judaism, by meeting other jews willing to invite him to their seders and Shabes. By being a minority the jewish people always will have, the attention of bigger populations willing to drown them with their greater resources. Only the Ghettos proved to perpetuate jewish as a way of life and religion. Israel is the biggest democratic Ghetto.

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