The Strangers Among Us
I met someone last night and...wow!
Have you ever come home after that first evening with someone new, overwhelmed by the feeling that all is right with the world, that it's open to all sorts of possibilities, that happiness will never leave your side again?
That was me last night.
The initial awkwardness of meeting a complete stranger dissipated quickly and the conversation flowed naturally from work to family to Judaism. Probing questions; profound answers. I have to admit that I rarely meet someone—particularly over 25—who is so open to new ideas. How refreshing.
As the evening ended, we put on our coats, walked outside, and said goodnight in the damp and cold New York air—agreeing to meet again next week and pick up where we left off. I walked home with an extra spring in my step.
And so begins another successful venture for Partners in Torah.
Ivan is an institutional equity trader, which means that, like me, he "works on Wall Street." Unlike me, his clients aren't millionaires—they're billion-dollar hedge funds. Nevertheless, we share a common bond for two stock jockeys.
Ivan is from Odessa, in the Ukraine. He arrived in this country fifteen years ago at the age of fifteen. When the first Jews began to trickle out of the former Soviet Union, in the late Seventies, Odessa's population was a majority Jewish. By the time Ivan left, he was the only Jew in his high school. Singled out as a zhid, he was hassled, harassed and hit. Although he is way north of six feet and broad, he never hit back. He simply learned to avoid trouble. Like every good player on the Street, Ivan knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
Upon arriving in this country, Ivan was not dumped into one of the Russian Jewish yeshivos that sprang up a quarter century ago. By the time he arrived in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood had become homogenized, no longer intimidated by the foreignness of America, eager to take advantage of their new democratic homeland. Attending a Jewish school was no longer a necessity and, consequently, Ivan never received even a rudimentary Jewish education.
When I mentioned the Book of Esther, Ivan didn't know what I was referring to.
What he did know is that he is a Jew. And he wanted to know what that meant. And God sent him to me.
Several years back I was called by my neighborhood’s local director of Torah Umesorah’s Partners in Torah program to give up one hour, one evening a week to study with a young man newly interested in Judaism. I agreed. We studied for a year and then he moved away and I got my Wednesday nights back.
Apparently, interest in the program waned because it wasn’t until last week that I got the call again. Would I be willing to study with Ivan?
Bear in mind: Ivan wasn’t looking for proofs; he wasn’t looking for an argument; he wasn’t looking to be convinced of anything. He simply wanted to know: What is a Jew?
Ivan is, quite literally, tabla rasa.
It is difficult to describe the privilege of being singled out by the Almighty to be the vehicle through which another one of His cherished, chosen children is introduced to the Torah. A great privilege and a grave responsibility.
So rather than open a book and start teaching from a text, I decided the best thing would be to give him a tour of the beis medrash—to show him the development of Jewish history and knowledge through the books on the bookshelves.
We began with the Five Books of Moses (Moses he had heard of—he had seen the Charlton Heston movie). I stated that the Chumash was written by God, that God had dictated every word to Moses, who wrote them down. I expected him to ask me how I knew this, but he didn’t. He simply nodded.
I then explained that there is another Torah—an oral transmission that was taught to Moses by God during the forty days he spent atop Mount Sinai. This Torah Shebaal Peh is the companion to the Torah Shebeksav, interpreting, explaining and expanding upon the words of the written text.
“But why,” he asked, “would God risk all the potential misinterpretations that come from not writing it all down? It’s like a game of telephone.”
“Because God doesn’t want the Torah to exist only on bookshelves,” I explained. “The point of the Oral Torah is that it should continually be analyzed and assessed, discussed and debated.
“It wasn’t written down,” I told Ivan, “in order that 3300 years after Sinai, you and I should be having this conversation.”