My First Job and the Question of Identity

An elderly widow in Claremont, Mrs. Newell, owned a large, black Cadillac. She gave up driving but not the car, meaning that someone at either Stevens High or St. Mary’s got to be her after-school chauffeur, and to drive her and her friend Miss Baum to church on Sunday. When my friend Bob graduated in 1956, he chose me as his successor, which is how I got my first paying job. Mrs. Newell treated her student-chauffeurs extremely well, paying the unheard-of sum of $1.50 per hour. This was when babysitters got paid 50 cents an hour, 75 cents after midnight.

Mrs. Newell liked taking drives in the countryside, especially during foliage season, and we would talk as we visited surrounding towns. She was an educated woman (Smith College, Class of 1898) with many interests. One time, between Newport and Goshen, we got to talking about religion. I hadn’t thought about that conversation in a long time, but it came back to me recently when I read about Cardinal Lustiger’s funeral.

Aaron Lustiger was born in 1926, the son of Polish Jews who had emigrated to France after the First World War. In 1939, they moved from Paris to Orleans, and there the young Aaron converted to Catholicism and was baptized as “Aaron Jean-Marie.” The Lustiger family survived the war with one exception; his mother was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz and died there.

Aaron Jean-Marie became a Catholic priest, worked his way up in the Church, and became Archbishop of Paris in 1981. Two years later he was elevated to Cardinal, a Prince of the Church. Throughout his life he straddled the circumstances of his birth and his choice of religion and vocation. “I was born Jewish,” he said, “and so I remain. To say I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers.” As might be expected, he came in for criticism from both Jews and Catholics.

He remained steadfast in his belief that he knew who he was and was proud of his identity. Like his parents, he spoke Yiddish, and throughout his life he practiced at least one Jewish ritual. He went to the synagogue in Paris every year to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in his mother’s memory. (The prayer praises God and, interestingly, makes no mention of death.) At the beginning of his funeral, at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2007, his cousin said Kaddish for him. The prayer is said in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

By now you may be wondering what all this has to do with Mrs. Newell. On that autumn day, when the topic of conversation turned to religion, she confided in me, “I haven’t known many Jews in my lifetime.” Then she paused and added, “Of course there’s Miss Baum,” referring to the close friend whom we picked up and took to the Episcopal Church every Sunday. “She’s Jewish.”

2017-05-19T20:27:50+00:00 By |