Sunday, June 28, 2015

Collegadox Goes Community

Three stories about determination that intersect, I promise.

It’s just after my first 9 to 5 workday. I’m tired, slightly annoyed and sitting on a carpeted hallway floor with 35 others feeling ticked off while watching the clock tick by. Arms at a right angle, the face reads 6:15. Some girls start complaining beside me wondering how much longer we’re required to wait for the teacher before we can leave.

It’s “unprofessional,” they say, “unfair.” I pull out a container of roasted broccoli from my bag, setting up camp, when a woman from the downstairs quickly strides down the hallway holding a piece of paper. She tapes it to the front door and turns to face the hallway. “Mr. Woo is on his way but is running 15 minutes late,” she announces.
A chorus of curses over missing the Hawks beat Tampa in the Stanley Cup Finals. The woman has her hands on her hips.

“Mr. Woo was on his way here a few hours ago, but got in a car accident. His car was completely totaled. He’s on his way straight from the hospital now.”

When Mr. Woo did arrive, he was smiling so much so, that I couldn’t see his eyes: a composite of exhaustion, relief, wrinkles, ethnicity and pure joy. Just three hours after his near-death experience,  the eighty year old Woo looked at his wrist with the ivory hospital band still fastened to it, and said “I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t understood a word of his Chinglish since that.

I’m part of a fellowship program for young Jewish professionals. We have seminars once a week in downtown Chicago where I get to ride a train with real conductors, cross over the beautiful Chicago River and gawk at steely skyscrapers wondering how enough people exist to sit in every window. Sometimes I’ll bring an extra Chobani for this homeless man on the corner of Monroe and Lasalle street. Sometimes I’ll remember to pack a Chewy bar, because I’ll remember not everyone likes Greek yogurt. He hasn’t complained yet.

During our seminars we meet with Jewish giants in the Chicago community- lots of CEOs, V.P’s, people with long titles that start with executive at the beginning-and we usually wrap up our seven-hours of lecturing with an exercise related to Jewish identity.

This particular session, we split into groups of five, and were given a cluster of papers reading “Marrying Jewish,” “Tikun Olam,” “Israel as a Home Land,” “Speaking Hebrew,” etc., and tasked with ordering the pieces from most to least important. Taking a frum from birth, two Reform, and two secular Jews, and making them produce a unified list everyone approved of, was not as difficult as it may sound. When you strip it down, I think we’re all more in sync than in-sects.

A top principle that most groups agreed were among the top two was “marrying Jewish.” Personal backgrounds, Talmudic codex and community norms were tossed into the air. Debates flew overhead, much like how I imagined ancient discourse among sages duking it out in the times of the Mishna and Gemarah. At the apex of intellectual-emotional crossfire, a gentle arm stretched high into the air like a white flag.

We all need to learn a lesson from our good friend J.K. Rowling, she said. She cleared her throat.

“We all know who the most noble wizard of all-time is. He had incredible adventures, killed Voldemort, and changed Hogwarts forever. His father was a wizard and his mother was a muggle. But even so, I don’t think anyone would disagree that Harry Potter was the most magical wizard in history.”

The room exploded in a round of applause. Trish, a half-muggle as she put it, dispelled the brief tension.

I’m writing grants this summer, fundraising for donors to sponsor programs at the Holocaust Museum. With the meter running and no change to spare before we lose the entire generation of survivors, we’re doing everything we can to document local stories on film. Interns and VP’s alike are encouraged to step away from the desk and attend the speaker filmings.

So far, I’ve listened to some supernatural survival accounts: one woman was a child saved on the Kindertransport from Germany en route to Britain, and met her husband there, also a Kindertransport survivor. One woman shared how she would protect herself against rape from guards in the ghetto, by cutting her arm with glass and dabbing blood on her underwear so they would be repelled by a menstruating woman.

There’s a nineteen year old German boy interning here completing a gap year program to repair relations between Germany and the affected Ally countries. Two weeks ago all the interns got a VIP tour with a docent. The docent asked us who the perpetrators of the Holocaust were. Someone answered “the Nazis,” another said “the economy.” I said, “anyone who has the choice to inflict evil and chooses to.”

I was totally unprepared for this boy’s answer.

“My grandparents” he said. “My grandfather. And my grandmother.”

Belly flopped before a computer screen trying to figure out what determination is, it’s these images that shuffle on repeat. An emigrated U-Chicago alumni, slightly senile, questionably sane, undoubtedly committed to teaching community college economics. It’s a girl with her bloodlines called under question, steadfastly committed to her Judaism, reminding us all to be a bit more human. A boy who strives day after day to undo the evil of his homeland, committed to reclaim the legacy of his own namesake. 



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