It is easy to read about the deeds of those who have fought for their ideals and justice. I once marched along with several Black friends (they were actually called Negroes then, certainly not African Americans) in Syracuse, New York, joining the CORE movement for equality in hotel hiring and for equal pay. In my case, I must admit that part of the incentive was the attractive rabbi’s daughter with the long black hair which came down to her waist in a ponytail. I’m sure there was a speck of humanitarian direction, but had it not been for the cute girl, I probably would not have taken up the cause.
I had never known prejudice or inequality growing up in a middle-class doctor’s home with no suffering for food, clothing or entertainment. Except for one episode which I had forgotten until now. I was eight years old in 1949 and riding my bike from my home to downtown Syracuse to spend my weekly allowance buying old postage stamps at a stamp shop for my collection. I was almost to the shop, which was in a poorer section of town. I had been there many times and the area was mostly poor white and black families.
When I stopped my bike at a street light, there was another fellow about my age on a very stripped down, beaten up bicycle next to my shiny Schwinn. He looked at me and for some unknown reason recognized my religious background (I still don’t know how), and asked. “Hey, are you a Jew?” Surprised by the question I readily answered, “Yes.”
He actually spit on me and said, “I hate kikes”. And rode away on his bike. And I don’t think I look Jewish! Strangely I remember how confused I was. Most of my friends were Jewish; I was going to the temple every other Saturday with my father and looked forward to having a Bar Mitzvah so I could get money and gifts like all my friends.
I never told my parents about the incident and it certainly didn’t impact my life. I was never denied entrance to a restaurant or school and had not seen the horrors for African Americans that were occurring in the deep South. I guess I didn’t really understand my Jewishness and had very little knowledge or understanding of the Holocaust.
I would babysit for neighbors who were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but what does a nine or ten years old boy in America, isolated from all those occurrences and despair, know of anything about racial or religious prejudice? I barely understood what a ghetto was. The incident with the word “kike” disappeared from my memory. I was not beaten, maligned continuously, denied food or education, and was not thrown in jail.
We read the remarkable lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, and are transfixed by the dedication and commitment of Mahatma Gandhi; what they suffered and gave up for a cause. And I complain about the petty problems in my life, the shortfalls in cash I encounter and have to be reassured by a laughing friend that there are no longer debtor prisons.
Frankly, I can’t conceive of the dedication to a cause which has driven men to give their freedom and even their lives and it shames me to believe myself so shallow and egocentric.
What would I give my life for? Really? I read the autobiography and then watched a film about Nelson Mandela last night, the adaption of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I was not so moved by the script or the acting as I was by the nature of the man, who, forced into a life sentence in prison, eventually dedicated his life to the cause of the African National Congress, to the black South African people. I could walk along with him through his ordeal, admiring him and empathetic to his situation. There is a word, clairsentience, (clear feeling) which describes a somehow psychic ability to “feel strongly and sense the emotions and feelings of people, animals, spirits and places around us”. For a few moments during my reading of the story of his life, I had a great desire to enter the experience of the man, and actually see and feel what he felt through his own words. The last time I had that feeling was when I read the “I have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr., and at both those readings I had tears in my eyes and wanted to cry out, and actually did cry out in the solitude of my home.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison; like the dash between the dates, he was imprisoned and the day he was freed, there is too much misery and suffering to comprehend, more than can be expressed in a book or a film. This man embodies the highest and purest form of spirituality we can hope for in our short lives. I doubt, even under those same circumstances that I would survive either in body or in mind, and that makes me reflect and admire the man all the more. I know why those great men do what they do, and I also know why I could never do it. I love my work as a surgeon and as a writer, but I place so little value on everything else that my urge to stand for a principle is mere tokenism.
This makes me think of that abstraction called sainthood, and therefore I can understand that if indeed there are saints, then these individuals are them, and conversely, I am not.