"Mom, can you take me to the Jewish Community Center?""Why do you want me to take you there?""So I can run laps.""You want me to take you to the JCC so you can run laps? Go run to the JCC!" Mom …
"Mom, can you take me to the Jewish Community Center?"
"Why do you want me to take you there?"
"So I can run laps."
"You want me to take you to the JCC so you can run laps? Go run to the JCC!" Mom snapped.
A little numb, I took her advice and ran to the JCC. Soon I was crisscrossing the eastern suburbs of Cleveland like Forrest Gump, long before jogging became the new fashion.
It was the fall of 1971 just after my bar mitzvah. Afros and long hair were in. The '70s were becoming mod. Computers had not yet taken over the world though science fiction was quickly becoming reality. We had made it to the moon. Walter Cronkite was the face of the nation as he perpetually and painfully informed us of the rampage in the jungles of Vietnam.
"Go get him, Tiger!" Joe Geiger, the high school varsity wrestling coach, spurred me on as I took on the junior varsity. On the adjacent mat, my brother Louie, as two brothers before him, would help lead the varsity.
Joe's timely words of encouragement and steadfast belief in me helped propel me to take on the world. Barely 90 pounds, he made me think I was big.
The previous two summers my eldest Woodstock brother Arthur (Aharon) had presented me the gift of a lifetime. He took Louie and I hitchhiking across our great country, even far north deep into the Canadian Rockies. I was hooked.
Throughout high school, Mom would often see me heading down the stairs with my backpack. "Where are you going now?" she said, hiding her tears. Clueless, I would just say, "Highway 271." Never standing in my way, Mom with a big hug and kiss would usher me out the door.
While still a teen, I amassed 20,000 miles hitchhiking from sea to shining sea. The families that picked me up would often take me into their homes. Again and again I experienced the burgeoning spirit of generosity that was the core of America's strength.
Cleveland Heights was a bastion of diversity. Near the Hebrew Academy, in "Little Israel," were my stomping grounds. Cain Park was literally in my backyard. Legendary Bob Hope and Robert Mirabal performed there. Corky and Lenny's, Coventry, and Case Western Reserve University were other Cleveland Heights landmarks. My high school of 3,000 was a grand mix of Jewish, Christian, Black and ethnicities from around the world. Hebrew was an elective. Synagogues were as prolific as churches.
My family belonged to the Park Synagogue. With its huge dome, it was home to 2,000 families. Park was of the conservative movement. Whereas, the orthodox cover their heads and the reform Jews do not, the conservative Jew keeps his yarmulke in the back pocket. Only in front of the Holy Arc was God ever mentioned. Religion was a club to belong to and not a club to beat someone over the head with.
On the Sabbath, the oak- and maple-tree-lined streets of Cleveland Heights were full of Jews walking to and fro. Doors were open as large feasts of special desserts welcomed visitors all day long. The funny thing about living in such a Jewish world, is it made being Jewish as trivial as it was important. Even though, under the surface, other trends could prevail, being Jewish meant being equal as much as being Chosen. Everyone was welcome and treated with equal respect. On the field, we all rooted for one another regardless of color or faith.
As I watch this country, and the world, slip into the chasm, I wonder will humanity recalibrate or will religious fervor plummet us into the abyss? Will our tongues sting or will our words mend? Will we build our walls with passion or as a nation with compassion offer a helping hand? As we pray to God to shed light, it is really up to us.
Every morning, I begin my day with the Hebrew prayer Modeh Ani, thanking God for restoring my soul and proclaiming God's faith in me. Mom, thanks for helping me to a running start. Joe Geiger, thank you for your encouragement making me good on my feet.
Now I say to America, Wake up! Wake up, America! Awake from your deep slumber! Remember your destiny. Remember your spirit of generosity. Open your heart. Reach out your arms. Be forever gracious and never greedy. Remember the Lady of Liberty. Be again a beacon to the needy.
Judah Botzer lives in Tres Piedras, NM with his dog Tzilah, and cat Yedidah. He is a massage therapist and Hebrew teacher.
In order to read our site, please exit private/incognito mode or log in to continue.