How a random encounter with a French Canadian woman in Atlantic City changed my life.
In retrospect, what a beautiful French Canadian woman said to me on the Atlantic City Boardwalk many, many summers ago should have made perfect sense. But at the time, it threw me for a loop. “Alan, what religion...you?” she asked, with fractured syntax but clear intent.
I was unattached, living the dream of a writer in that city by the sea, thrilled by what I was discovering by my words on paper and less than happy by my failure to make connections with people in the real world. I certainly wasn’t thinking about religion. Yes, I was Jewish, but since my Bar Mitzvah a decade ago I had rarely stepped inside a synagogue.
Only hours before that question about religion, I was sitting in the lobby of a fancy hotel watching a baseball game on a television that my small boarding house type establishment didn’t provide.
Suddenly, the game was drowned out by the sweet sound of young ladies laughing and speaking French. I looked up and saw these ladies walking through the lobby and out the door, no doubt excited by what awaited them. I was surprised to see that one of them had stayed behind, and she looked so lonely, like the rest of the ladies had abandoned her.
No one deserves to be alone. I was painfully aware of that myself.
I walked over to her smiling, and she smiled back. A connection that I so very much wanted appeared to be in the offing.
“Are you new to Atlantic City?” I asked.
Her face screwed up in consternation. She was struggling to make some sense of what I had said.
“Knew,” she said, in her strong French accent. “I know, he knows, he knew?”
“No,” I said, smiling. “Never mind.”
Through a lot of back and forth I learned that she was from a tour group from Quebec and that she understood English by conjugating verbs into a form that she understood. She was from a small farm and that the other girls in the group, from the bigger cities, had nothing in common with her and wanted nothing to do with her. I wanted to help her, to make her feel at home, that she belonged.
I motioned with my arm that she should come with me out the door and that I would show her around. “Please,” I said smiling, and her smile met mine in the sweetest connection I had known since I had come to Atlantic City a month ago.
As I showed her the sights, we got to know each other a little better. I asked her name and when she said it was Joanne, I told her that I had a friend named Joanne back home and that I had bought her flowers for her birthday.
“Bought?” she said, concentrating hard. “I buy. He buys. He bought.”
“Yes!” I said.
“Yes!” she said. We laughed.
And that’s the way the whole night went – me talking and her conjugating all my verbs. I was flattered. Unlike everyone else who seemed to be in a rush, she took the time to listen and cared about every word I said.
“Alan, what religion...you?” I was stunned. Where did that come from?
I took her on rides at amusement piers, I bought her an ice cream, I helped her pick our postcards and we did all the things that people do in the excitement of having first met.
By now, it was late at night and I led her to a bench looking out at the ocean. We listened to the waves gently lapping to the nearby shore. I was at peace and I felt a real connection to her.
Then she asked that question: “Alan, what religion...you?”
I was stunned. Where did that come from? Just when everything was going so well.
What scared me was that I had to think – only a half second to be sure – before I could come up with the answer.
“Jewish,” I said.
Gone was her smile. Her face screwed up in consternation.
“Ooooooooish?” she asked.
“No...Jewish,” I said.
“No understand,” she replied.
And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here I was feeling so connected to her and she didn’t even know the slightest thing about who I was. And what’s worse, I didn’t appear to know that much about it either.
Suddenly my connection to my Jewishness became very important to me. Here was a young lady from a distant small farm who had never heard of us and I was going to make sure that before we parted she would know who we were. I remembered something about how we’re supposed to be “a light unto the nations.” Well, now it was time for me to shine some of that light on her.
I conjured up every bit of learning that I could recall from my after-school rabbi who I went to for one year to learn my Bar Mitzvah parsha and whatever else he could get in.
I was telling Joanne, “You know, the people from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!”
“No...no...no,” she said.
“We were slaves in Egypt. God sent Moses to lead us out. God brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians...you must have heard about us!”
I told her about the parting of the Red Sea, how we were saved and how the Egyptians drowned. I told her, with great joy in my heart, how God led us to Mount Sinai where we got the Ten Commandments.
Joanne just looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, which of course I was.
“Oh well,” I said, conceding defeat. “I guess everyone hasn’t heard of us Hebrews.”
A flash of recognition flashed across her eyes. “Hebrews,” she said.
“It’s familiar?” I asked.
“Yes, Hebrews!” she said with great emotion.
“This is great. You’ve heard of us.”
“Yes, Hebrews,” and then added, “He bring. He brung. He brew.”
I held back my laugh and just smiled and she smiled back.
Through all of the verb tenses – past, present and future – I am a Jew.
Looking back at this many decades later, I see that Joanne’s non-sequitur question about religion made perfect sense. "He bring, He brung, He brew…" Through all of the verb tenses – past, present and future – I am a Jew.
Now married, religious and committed to living a Jewish life, I see how on that night God was watching over me, leading me away from connections that were not in my best interest toward deeper connections to myself and to my people, the Hebrews.