A Jew At The Table
Irving A Greenfield
I am a Jew. That’s because I was born one. I had absolutely no say in the matter. The truth is that every human being hasn’t any choice as to whom his or her parents will be. It is decided for him or her at the moment of conception by the individuals in the act of copulation. Of course he or she could be born into one faith but raised in another, or if it suits their “spiritual or social needs” convert to another faith. But conversion, to my way of thinking, no matter how ardent doesn’t alter religious group into which he or she was born one wit. It is a patina that always needs reaffirmation.
I am neither proud nor disdainful that I am what I am with regard to my ethnicity. A word I use to substitute for religion, though I realize their meanings are not exactly congruent. But I use it because it fits me. I am not in the least bit religious; I am, in fact, an atheist or more precisely an existential relativist. But despite lack of religion and my disavowal of the existence of a supreme deity, I accept the fact that by the accident of birth I am and will always be a Jew; and that undeniable fact brings me to the story that unfolded on a particular summer morning at a small square, white table in front of the Inatteso Cafe on Little West Street close to the tip of Manhattan.
I’m there every morning, except Tuesday when I’m at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital on Twenty-Third Street. Though there are several more tables in front of the cafe, I always chose the closest to the door of the cafe because it’s less of hassle for me to get to it while holding a scone and paper cup of tea and milk in one hand and my cane in the other hand. If no one is there to hold the door open for me, I use my shoulder to push against until the opening is wide enough to pass through.
Once I am seated, I share my scone with the sparrows by crumbling a piece of it and placing those crumbs at the far right hand corner of the table. It is a daily ritual I thoroughly enjoy.
The particular morning in which the events of the story take place happens to be the Friday before the Labor Day weekend; the unofficial end of summer that really ends when the Autumnal Equinox takes place, the warm, humid morning augers for an even hotter and more humid day.
Even as I watch the birds, my brain is a swirl with thoughts having nothing to do with the birds that alight on the table just long enough to grab a piece of scone and then fly off, though sometimes one or two will stay to dine more leisurely. Mainly what I think about is my wife, Anita, who is a semi-invalid since her fall three years ago. She can’t walk without the Walker, a Rollator, or cane or me as support. These are not pleasant thoughts. They are a mixture of pity for her, self-pity, anger and the bleak knowledge that the situation will get worse.
Perhaps it is because of my melancholy frame of mind that the direction of my thoughts changes, make swift turn somewhere amid the tens of millions of neurons in my brain and I think about a book I finished reading some weeks ago, “ANTI-JUDAISM, THE WESTERN TRADITION, by “David Nirenberg.” A book that both angered and sorrowed me for two reasons: my ethnicity, I belong to the group of people he wrote about and it brought back memories of my own ugly encounters with antisemitism, which was quickly followed by the image of a Jew as written about by Shakespeare, Marlow, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many other writers all of whom were anti-Semitic. From there, my thoughts made the leap to the Holocaust that claimed the lives of relatives on my father’s side of the family, second cousins. They were people I probably would have never known about. But they were Grunfeldts, the Germanic way of spelling my sir name before it was changed by an immigrations person when my grandfather came to the United States from a small town, a shtetel, outside of Vienna, Austria.
While this interior monologue is going on, I am involved in a conversation with a friend, Salvatore, an Italian American, who also breakfasts at the Cafe. He’s a blond stocky man, who comes to the Cafe with his small, white boutique dog and sometimes his son, Andrew, a college student at John Jay School of Law. Andrew hopes to transfer to the Air Force Academy and through the Civil Air Patrol will soon have his license. But on this particular morning only Sal (Salvatore) and his dog are at the Cafe. He is young enough to be my son oldest son, both are sixty.
Sal reads the Wall Street journal; I, the New York Times. This difference is indicatory of our political antipodes; yet, we do agree on certain things such as the vast immigration problem from stemming from the various conflicts in the Middle East, and the political shenanigans in our country, which if played out on the stage would make good comedy. But national politics isn’t comedy. The fate of our nation at best rests in “the hands” of incompetents and at opposite extreme in “the hands” of those whose politics are still in the 19th Century.
It’s during our rambling conversation on the immigration problem that we see them, two young men on the promenade between Little West Street and the West Way, where the early morning traffic is already building. They look at Freedom Tower to the North and then at us. They spend more time looking at us than the Freedom Tower.
One of them is short and not particularly well dressed. The other one is taller, considerably thinner and better dressed than his counterpart. Their interest in us continues and from what we are able to see, perhaps sparks some conversation between them and then they come toward us.
Abruptly, Sal says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here,” I answer
He leaves the table just as the two young men arrive at where I sit.
“Semper Fi,” both say simultaneously.
I answer with the same two words. I suddenly realize the must have seen my red Marine Cap with scrambled eggs of its beak.
The heavier one says, “I’m Thomas McGinn and my buddy is Jessy Flanagan.”
I shake each of their hands and ask if they were in the Corps. By this time the McGinn is seated where Patrick sat and Flanagan has taken a seat in front of me.
“When were you in?” Flanagan asks.
“A long time ago, the beginning of the Korean war,” I tell them.
“We’re from Boston,” Flanagan says.
I nod and tell them I live around the corner. But their accent is wrong; it’s not New England and definitely not Boston, even with my hearing deficiency I am able tell that.
“Can I get you anything?” McGinn asks.
I thank him and explain that I already had my tea and scone. And suddenly, I’m uncomfortable. I can feel the increased thumping of my heart.
There’s an awkward few moments of silence before McGinn announces, “We’re Irish.”
It was more than a statement of their ethnicity. It was a challenge, but what kind of a challenge?
I decide to meet their challenge head on and say, “I’m a Jew.”
Immediately the two were on their feet. “We have to be somewhere else in a few minutes,” Flanagan says.
And without shaking hands with me, they walk quickly away toward Battery Park. I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or let loose with the string of profanity. I have been assaulted, pushed into the stinking mud of intolerance and trampled on; and I am impotent to do anything about it like all of those Jews who were stuffed into cattle cars to ride to their final destination, the gas chamber. But for me there isn’t a final destination; there’s only the bleak, horrific feeling that given the “right circumstances” the final destination could repeat itself. Even a secular Jew like me is and has always been “a fiddler on the roof.”