Before I ever realized anything about myself or the world, my father solemnly informed me on a Sabbath walk in 1971 that all the nations of the world had been offered the Torah by God Himself—and everyone but the Jews turned Him down.
My father was telling me one of the most divisive stories ever told—the legend confers on the Jewish people an elect status as “chosen,” even as it is framed as a fair offer extended to the whole world. Nevertheless, he told it with faith and excitement, infused with belief.
We lived then in Briarwood, a section of Queens between Kew Gardens and Jamaica that was nicknamed Stew Gardens. It was near JFK airport and for that reason the glamorous flight attendants—stewardesses, they called them then—rented short-term apartments there, in the shadow of the old SAS building on Queens Boulevard. The bottom floor of our apartment building was like a rooming house for an ever-changing crew of blond-haired young women in high heels with names like Pam and Cheryl, who worked for TWA, National, Pan Am, and Eastern airlines.
Sabbath light beamed off my father like the moon during these walks with his young son, and these blond starlets would wave to us. Though I was only 8 years old, these women held special allure for me, with their spiffy hats and uniforms, their air-hostess travel bags emblazoned with company logos.
“The gentile’s world is a world of enjoyment,” Dad inveighed. “They don’t want to be restricted in what they eat and what they wear and whom they marry.”
And that, he offered, is why they turned down God’s offer: “Probably, they agreed with God’s laws on some level, but they didn’t want to be told what to do. The Jews, on the other hand, when we were approached by God, we said, ‘We will do and we will listen.’”
As we had these walk-talks, tall, long-haired men called on these women in the downstairs apartments. I would see them from the corner of my eye, emerging somewhat rumpled from a battered Volkswagen Beetle or Chevy Nova. A few of them had beards and walked with a Nick Nolte swagger.
You wouldn’t have expected a rabbi and his young son to cross close paths with stewardesses and their “hippie” boyfriends, but this was Queens, 1971, and the old rules had been rolled back and new ones were being introduced. The country was in its Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice moment. People had started to “swing,” and strangers might meet in the street for the first time and say, “peace.”
I remember one such Sabbath afternoon that summer. Outside our apartment building, a young man slowly dragged a large sofa into the women’s apartment. Sandy and tousle-haired, with bell-bottom jeans frayed at the edges, he was rakish, but also had the dignified look of a young Civil War major in Lee’s cavalry. He put the sofa down, stood up straight, wiped his brow, and asked my father for help. My father, cleanshaven in those days and in his white short-sleeved shirt, had the earnestness of a Baptist minister. His sun-reddened hands never knew manual labor, but nevertheless held the fire of Scripture in them: “I would love to help you son, but it’s the Sabbath for me. I cannot carry.” Instead, Dad gave him his hand. “My name’s Chaim.”
The young man bowed slightly in deference to the rabbi and his Sabbath. “I dig, rabbi,” he said. “Peace, peace.”
“Seems like a nice enough guy. I wonder if he served,” my father commented as we walked on.
“Did you serve?” I asked him.
“Sure, I volunteered for the Air Force. I served at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, at Strategic Air Command 1953.”
I was captivated by this. These were men with blue shirts and blue wings and aircraft that flew faster than the speed of sound. Of course, I wanted my father to tell me tales of the Korean War, of dogfights and bombing missions, but unlike his older half-brother Gus, a veteran of the North African campaign in WWII, Dad had not seen any combat; he had been a chaplain. In fact, my father knew next to nothing about the conflict in which he had served. He had never even heard of the landing at Inchon, nor had he heard of Pork Chop Hill or any of the other iconic battles.
“Were you ever at least in a fighter or bomber jet?” I asked.
He nodded, yes. “I will tell you one story,” he said. “It was 1953 and I got a furlough—a short vacation they would sometimes allow soldiers and airmen, and I hitched a ride on an Air Force fighter-bomber jet flying from San Antonio to Boston. I had wanted a flight to New York to visit my mother; the flight officer knew this and gestured to the door and said, ‘If you are willing to bail out over Brooklyn, here’s a parachute.’ He was serious, too. All was well 30,000 feet in the air except that a hailstorm broke out in the sky over Brooklyn and they made a forced landing at Floyd Bennett Field. As soon as the plane landed, the door opened, I jumped out. The second I touched ground, the hail stopped. The flight officer said, ‘You [Jewish] people live right, Chaplain. Even the heavens stop for you.’ He closed the door, revved up the engine and took off.”
My father’s story puffed out my chest proud. We were the apple of God’s eye and on the day of our Sabbath, God was the apple of ours, too.
I got more and more drawn into my father’s world. Later that year, in the fall, my father had decided to return to the cradle of his spiritual birth: the yeshiva in Brooklyn where he had studied. It was in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah when the slichos, the penitential prayers, were said at first light.
Would I come with him, he asked me. The answer to him was always yes. Yes, I would. I was 8 years old. I would do and I would listen.
Before dawn, we crept out of our Briarwood apartment and into his 1970 champagne gold Chevrolet, down the Queens Boulevard chute into the Van Wyck Expressway and onto the Belt Parkway to Brooklyn. The lampposts on the parkway were wooden back then, as though we were going back in time. If that weren’t enough, we drove past Floyd Bennett Field, which had just that year been decommissioned by the Navy.
On the way, my father told me the story of how he had come to the yeshiva as a young adult to become a rabbi—something he had not expected to do. A friend of his introduced him to a great man, a mystic, the head of the yeshiva who knew “the whole Torah.” The man had fire coming out of his mouth and one could even get burned, but Dad said it was worth it because you had to expose yourself to fire, to be burned in order to learn. In fact, he said, “a young scholar is referred to in Talmudic language as a tzurva merabanan,” someone who is “burned” from the rabbis.
I thought we might get to meet this great man, but I was scared. To make matters worse, my mother had dressed me in a ridiculous red jacket. I was a little boy and could get away with wearing almost anything; still it was odd, one of my mother’s few fashion missteps. I cringe when I remember it.
When we got to the yeshiva, my father and I tentatively settled ourselves near the great man. But the master erupted at my father, something awful, in a screaming rebuke in Yiddish, so we moved back a dozen or so rows. I never knew what it was that caused the outburst, but on the way home to Queens my father said it is an honor to be rebuked by a great man—“there was love in that rebuke.” This made a profound purchase on my psyche; a rebuke can be an act of love.
I grew up a short, plump kid, with crazy stand-up hair like the actor Frank Sutton, the diminutive Sgt. Carter in Gomer Pyle. I lacked grace in sports and would not be chosen for teams and the like. Even back then I knew you can’t be chosen for everything, but I would try—in vain, mostly.
As I moved into my late teens, I began to feel betrayed by the myth of chosenness. Maybe if I weren’t chosen to carry my father’s teachings, which were presumably the teachings of the tribe, I could grow up to be like these ordinary men who had called on these peachy belles, these (to my young eyes) tanned hostesses of the heavens who lived downstairs? Maybe it was better to not be chosen.
Later, when I began to study psychoanalysis, I discovered that Freud held out a compelling idea: that we were all unchosen, that we were all quite ordinary, and that the need to feel chosen was in itself a resistance. I began to consider that perhaps our potent religion was based on a hallucination born out of a craving to be chosen and special.
Perhaps the highest thing in a man was to be “low”—low in the sense of ordinary—to claim from the world ordinary things from ordinary people in ordinary ways. I began to develop the idea that the point of psychoanalysis might be to help people feel ordinary so that they can have a chosen life—chosen by them, for them.
But as I got more involved in my professional work, I began to see yet another side. I saw the damage for some people in not having been chosen. One young man told me straight out: I have never been chosen for anything so I cannot choose anything in life. I cannot choose my life and I cannot even choose life itself.
I was shocked. I thought the need to feel chosen and special was a resistance. But yet again, I was taught otherwise. One might have needed to have once been chosen in order to choose. I now understood that chosen and not-chosen were neither bad nor good, but merely two psychological states that humans needed to have deeply felt at least at some point.
My mind then drifted back to those early, formative experiences with my father. I began to see him in a different light.
An only son to his mother, he was “chosen”—he was her prize, her relief from shame, her representative to the world and reason for living, but at the same time he struggled with both being special and being nobody. He sought both obligation and absolution in a rarefied rabbinical world that was isolated from the regular laws of social gravity, but in which I was his loyal, bewildered companion. Maybe that was his master’s rebuke in the yeshiva: Who are you, Chaim, to sit up front?
As it happens, later in life my father told me something quite different in the name of this very master: The Jewish people were not originally the chosen ones at all. In fact, the world had originally been created for man unadorned by religion or the Torah. After death had been introduced, man could no longer feel that the world had been created for him—quite the opposite: He is expendable since the world goes on after he is gone. The only way we could work our way back to transcendence was to submit to the divine law and to put it above ourselves—to do and to obey. Naaseh v’nishma. So in fact, we were not chosen at first, but we chose ourselves to put the law above us and in this way become truly ordinary—to know our place in the firmament and on earth in all our humility and glory.
With the passage of time, I could see it all differently. My father unknowingly and unconsciously—as parents sometimes do—inoculated me with a myth of chosenness that would help me withstand the inevitable put-downs of life, so that I could ethically swing for the moon on a thread of American dreams that spooled out of the Jewish story.
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