Backstory is a CJN column recalling some of the most bizarre, unique, and important moments in Jewish history. Click here for last week’s instalment.
Recently, I was in a relatively empty Toronto subway station waiting for a train to arrive. The overhead display said that it was due in three minutes. Since I was quite tired, I sat down on a nearby bench. A lady, perhaps in her late-30s or early-40s, must have had the same thought as I did. She walked over to the bench and sat down next to me.
As she sat, she remarked to me how beautiful the day was outdoors, which indeed it was.
She then noted that it wasn’t too hot and uncomfortable, though she doubted that this weather would last.
I agreed with her, but added that when the weather is too hot or too cold and nasty, I remind myself that at least it’s not a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a hurricane or a flood, or a fire like the one that almost wiped out Fort McMurray recently. When I’m uncomfortable with the local weather, I’m grateful that it’s not worse. I can live with a little discomfort.
When I finished my discourse, she smiled and said to me: “You must be Jewish.”
I acknowledged that, and asked her in turn if she was Jewish, too. “No,” she answered, “I’m Catholic. But I work in a store for a wonderful Jewish man on Spadina Avenue.” She mentioned the name of the store, which unfortunately I’ve forgotten. I wish that I had asked her to tell me more about the owner who treated his employees so well that they sing his praises in his absence.
The truth is that I was so taken aback by her initial observation about me, about her being a Catholic, and how much she appreciated her boss, that I just told her that I owe my life to a Catholic family who hid me during the war. She was astonished and intrigued, and probably would have wanted to hear more. But our train arrived, and we parted ways.
Later, I remembered a similar incident that took place a number of years ago when I was on my way to shul on Shabbat. I passed a house on a quiet side street where an old Italian couple lived. The first time I walked by the house, they waved and started speaking to me. On that occasion, or perhaps a later one since we often conversed when they sat on their porch, the wife volunteered that she had worked for years in the house of a Jewish couple, and that she had seen their children grow up. She added that she was treated like one of the family, eating her meals together with them. She was even invited to their children’s weddings when they were adults. A sense of pride and appreciation seemed to burst out of her
I have been thinking lately about that recent incident on the subway, and similar ones I have experienced. How wonderful it is when people take the time to be kind to strangers.
More important, however, are the tangible and intangible rewards that ripple out when employers not only treat their employees fairly – no matter what culture or religion they come from – as our heritage emphatically enjoins us to do, but also kindly. And the flipside to this – the arrogant mistreatment and denigration of people below one’s station, or outside one’s tribe – brings not only contempt, but sometimes horrible consequences years later far beyond the time and place where the original outrage occurred. This is true not only of employer-employee relations, but for overall human behaviour.
Our sages refer to positive acts of humanity as kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s name. The opposite is referred to as chillul HaShem, the desecration of God’s name. The consequences for both are profound.
Eli Honig taught physics at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto for 31 years, and for longer than that at the University of Toronto.