Monday, December 06, 2004

A Jew, A Muslim and a Gentile

The title of this post might lead you to believe that there is a bad or tasteless joke coming up. I assure you that this is not the case. Rather, I am going to recount some stories from my past and then make an attempt to use these experiences as context to explain what is happening in our troubled present. Read on, to discover what I mean.

It was a Saturday evening in 1962. I was seventeen years old and in high school. Weekends, I operated my first business, a teenage nightclub in St. Catharines, Ontario, where I lived at the time. On this particular evening, I was fiddling with the so-called sound system at my 'Club Unicorn.' It was almost opening time for the evening and the system wasn't working properly. I'm sure my frustration was evident. No sound system, no entertainment. No entertainment, no customers. No customers, no money to pay the bills.

As I worked away, a young man of about my age approached and asked if I needed some help. I had never seen him before. We introduced ourselves and after he checked things out and agreed that the system was inoperable, he said that he would be back soon with a solution. He left for thirty minutes or so, came back with some hardware of his own and saved the day. The Club Unicorn was open for business.

The young man was a Jew. He didn't introduce himself as a Jew, nor did I introduce myself as a German/Canadian Gentile. It mattered not at all to me that he might be a Jew, nor did it seem to matter to him that I was not.

I liked the lad. He was pleasant, well-mannered, funny. I would have been happy to have him as a friend. It was not to be. Why not? I met his parents.

From the moment I entered his home and I shook hands with his parents, the atmosphere was suddenly very, very formal. The parents were polite but clearly uncomfortable. I doubt that I was there an hour. I left as soon as it appeared reasonable, just to relieve the tension. After that day, my almost-friend never again visited the Club Unicorn. In fact, I never saw him again.

In 1963, I took some time off from high school. I sold the Club Unicorn and traveled around a bit, working here and there until I settled in Toronto for a while. I worked briefly selling shoes at the Eaton's flagship store in downtown Toronto. While there, I met a shy young man, probably about ten years older than I. He didn't interact much with other employees in the department, mostly, I think, because they perceived him as being too 'different.' He was fairly short, had pitch-black hair and wore eyeglasses with a yellow tint. I was the only one to make any effort to befriend him. I always went out of my way to be pleasant and helpful. After a month or two, he actually opened up to me and we exchanged more than just the customary hellos. He told me he was from Egypt. He was a Muslim. He invited me to his home to have dinner and to meet his father and sister.

From the moment I entered his home on the appointed night and shook hands with his father, the atmosphere was very, very formal. The father and the young man's sister, a beautiful and modest young woman, were polite and helpful, but I felt the chill. We managed to make it through dinner somehow, but after that evening the young man avoided me whenever he saw me at work. Whatever friendship might have developed between us was not to be.

It might be reasonable to deduce from these two experiences that I was simply a bad guest. Perhaps I was rude, uncultured, deficient in some way. I assure you that while I love to skewer politicians and other miscreants, I am usually unfailingly polite, have reasonably good table manners and know how to be a good guest. I think that the two budding friendships described above were doomed due to the religious and cultural paranoia of the parents. I saw two young men with whom I could have established friendships. I didn't see a Jew and a Muslim. I don't know what the two young men saw in me but they only turned away from me after they had brought me home to their parents.

Things have improved somewhat over the years. I have since had a number of Jewish friends. I have never cared about their religion or background, nor have they cared about mine. I haven't met very many Muslims since 1963, although there are many thousands of them living nearby. The ones I see in shopping malls and elsewhere are almost always in the company of other Muslims. I sometimes see Muslim children with non-Muslim kids, but never when there are parents around. I am not making a universal rule here, I'm just stating what I see.

Jews whom I have met personally have been open to interaction with Gentiles. In fact, I would be surprised if they even make that sort of distinction any more. I suspect that, on average, the same cannot be said for Muslims. I imagine that, in their eyes, I am just another infidel. Until we all realize that we are basically the same, that we have no real reason to revile and denigrate each other, the world will continue to be filled with hate, anger and strife. The strife will result in despair, which will cause more hate, anger and strife.

Let's stop the cycle.

I'll do my bit.

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