I was all bundled up for the cold; my coat was zippered up, hood on, gloves and a scarf I even found some boots to wear. I could see my breath as I walked. The wind chill factor made it almost freezing (it was not snowing yet), but really I was shivering from also my nerves. I had my kippah on, but it was hidden by the hood of the coat. I didn’t think I would stick out as a Jew; it was enough being white in that neighborhood. It wasn’t a place I like to visit, especially alone. It was in December of 1964 in the north of Philadelphia.
Unless you remember your history you may not realize why I was so nervous. June of that year, 3 young men, James Chaney , Andrew Goodman and Michael Schnwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan (the murderers never had to pay for their crime either). One was black and the other two were Jewish. They had just returned from Mississippi helping the blacks vote and were taken off the road near Philadelphia by the police never to be seen again.
Then in August that same year (exactly a year after Martin Luther King had told the world of his Dream) the blacks rioted over a rumor of a pregnant girl being beaten up. And that was where I was walking. I had promised my boss that I would check out some warehouse that was in the neighborhood and it wasn’t like he offered me a car or anything. So there I was walking by myself trying not to be noticed. It was early in the morning, because that was when the man told me to meet him. I didn’t feel comfortable.
I saw a van. It was creeping along behind me. It was full of men, like me bundled up. But not like me they looked tough. They were big and white, not reassuring. Considering that the KKK had such hold on the city then. They followed me for a while; there wasn’t much traffic that early in the day. There were not any other people on the street. I looked for a store that might be open, an alley way to run into, or any police officer but of course I didn’t see any refuge.
They pulled right up next to me. My instincts of how to behave around dogs kicked in. If you don’t act scared they won’t get fierce, well most of the time. Rolling down their window to talk to me, I pretended to myself that I was just fine.
“Hey, are you a Jew?”
Okay it couldn’t get more confrontational than this. “Why, what’s it to you?” I said in my toughest, carefree voice that I could.
“Hey dude, just answer. Are you Jewish or not?” The man said, not with malice, but what the hell was this guy asking me?
“Yes.” I said with defiance and as proudly as I could. I envision my martyrism equaling the great defying moments of my people.
Then they opened the door.
Was I really so brave? I started to turn and try to run.
“Hey man. Get in. We need a 10th man for the minyan[i].”
[i] (The demanded number for a group of Jewish men to pray)