Izu Hersch had been walking for at least five miles when he decided to take a rest and walked into what appeared to be a grocery store. It was the middle of July and the dry desert sun had been beating upon his brow, shielded as it may have been with a black fedora, for quite some time. He needed to drink some water, something he was sure he could find with no questions as to the kosher status — even here in Yakima, he knew there must be bottled water for sale. A seltzer of course would be preferable but he was willing to take what he could find.
After locating a bottle of allegedly spring fed water in the refrigerated case, Izu went to pay for his drink. The man at the counter could not have been over seventeen and had slightly dark skin. He raised an eyebrow as Izu put the bottle on the counter.
“You come from far?” This was one way to start a conversation. Presumably he meant geographically although part of Izu’s mind traveled a bit further to his own past, when he was a boy around the same age as this clerk and was just starting university. He went by Jay then, and lived quite differently.
“Sir?” The boy was still talking to him and he had forgotten to respond. “From Brooklyn,” he said, “By means of Seattle.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a real Amish person,” the boy said.
“I’m not Amish. What makes you think I’m Amish? I think that the Amish people are quite pleasant, mind you. I just happen not to be one of them.”
“I thought because you are wearing a black suit and have a beard, that meant that you were Amish.”
“In this case it means that I am Jewish.”
“Oh,” he replied. “I don’t think that I’ve ever met a real Jewish person, either. I’ve seen people say that they are Jewish on movies and television shows I watch but you don’t look anything like them.”
Evidently, the boy had never seen the Israeli film Ushpizin. The film may have missed Yakima as it worked its way around the country’s various film festivals and most likely did not get screened alongside big budget blockbusters here, either.
“It’s funny, my mom told me that when she was a young girl she was Jewish, too but that was before she stopped believing in anything. She has always told me to believe in myself and not an invisible sky friend.” He took out his phone. “See, here she is when she lived in New York about thirty five years ago.”
The image was of a young girl standing amongst other young girls in what appeared to be Borough Park. She was dressed in a long black skirt and was wearing a long sleeved pink shirt. The other girls were dressed similarly.
“What is your mother now, if you say she used to be Jewish?”
“Well she doesn’t really pray or anything but she always says that she belongs to the church of the NHL. She is a big fan of the New York Rangers.”
“A respectable organization, to be sure. Listen, I’ve got to tell you something. You may be closer to having met a Jew than you realize, prior to my coming in here.”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s your name? I am Izu Hirsch.”
“Jose,” he said, stretching out his hand.
“Jose, has anyone ever referred to you by any other name? Yosef, perhaps?”
Jose scrunched his eyebrows together. “Nobody has ever called me that but the name is more than familiar.”
“What do you mean?”
“On three or four occasions I’ve heard my mother use that name when talking on the phone.”
“You didn’t wonder who that was she was calling Yosef?”
“Well it was usually at five in the morning and I didn’t want her to know that I had heard her. She usually was whispering. One morning I heard her say that Yosef was fine and not to worry about him, whoever he is.”
“I think that Yosef may be you, Jose.”
“Is it a coincidence that Yosef is the Hebrew translation of Jose and that your name is Jose?”
“I’m telling you, she must mean someone else. There is no way she is talking about me and not telling me about it.”
“Maybe so — maybe not. Maybe she thinks that somehow, not telling you is protecting you from a kind of truth that you’re not ready to hear.”
Jose didn’t say anything but looked contemplative. “I didn’t mean to shake a hornet’s nest, Jose.” He shook his hand again. After paying for the drink, Izu wished Jose well and went on his way. Were this the only time Izu and Jose crossed paths, the story would end on a dull note. It was not the last time, however — the next encounter happened three years later, on a different continent.
* * *
Izu looked around the beis midrash for his copy of Mikraos Gedolos, sefer Devarim, that he had received from his wife on the day they had gotten married as a present. She gave it to him on the condition that he learn it daily with someone who knew it less than he did. At Yeshivas Ohr Somayach this was not too challenging as young men regularly came to learn who had little or no experience learning in a formal yeshiva setting, some of whom were raised to believe that the holy Torah they studied was written by mortal man rather than by the Divine hand.
Izu went on another tour around the beis medrash and spotted his Sefer being learned by someone in a dark suit. That described about one quarter of the men there, and adding “with a black Borsalino hat” did not aid him to determine who had his sefer from behind. He approached the young man and tapped him on the shoulder and gasped when he found himself looking at Jose’s face.
Evidently, Jose was not expecting to see Izu either as he nearly fell out of his seat. He recovered and stood, opening his arms to embrace Izu. He looked at his study partner and said, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
His partner had no intention on leaving, naturally — it was a courtesy to him.
They stood in the hallway outside the doors to the beis medrash not saying anything for a couple of minutes, perhaps from the shock of seeing one another after a mere year.
“I wasn’t expecting to ever see you again, Jose.” said Izu.
“It’s Yosef now. If we merited to be redeemed from Mitzrayim because we kept our Hebrew names, I figure the least I can do is stick to that tradition.”
“Very nice. Yosef, then. How did you end up here?”
Yosef ran his fingers through a small yet developing beard. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what you said and finally had to ask my mother and she said that it was all true… after pretending she didn’t know what I was talking about. I said that I heard her on the phone using my real name and she turned pale.”
Yosef explained how he had told her about the visit from Izu and all of the questions that he had. She had said that she never thought she would meet another Jew like Izu if they moved to Yakima — and that was her chief reason to take Yosef there after her husband died not long after his birth. She couldn’t take the death as anything but a sign that there clearly was no meaning or divine power in the universe — why would any higher power choose to take away her husband and make her a widow?
Yosef asked his mother if it was true that he too was Jewish and she admitted that it was, but that it was his choice what to do with that information since she no longer wanted anything to do with Gd or their religion.
One thirst led to another – now both were sated.