I was in the third grade when I first thought I might be the Messiah. This was back in the fifties and I was attending one of those elementary schools in Queens, New York that had no name, only a number, PS 46 or 192 or 238. It was the usual type of building, red brick with bars on the windows.
The thought came to me soon after an incident in the morning assembly. The principal, like usual, had walked onto the stage at eighty thirty a. m., flanked by two of the oldest teachers in the school, and told us all to bow our heads as he got ready to read us a prayer. This was before the Supreme Court had outlawed this sort of bowing in schools.
Seated in the audience, I remembered being told in Hebrew School that Jewish people do not bow their heads, at all, to anyone, except in G-d’s own house and to Him only. Bowing outside of G-d’s house would be to acknowledge a god other than the Almighty.
Back then I thought of Him in a very spatial way. He was The Man Upstairs, looking down on us all. And even though I had never met Him, at least not face-to-face, I clearly wanted no trouble with Him. Sure, I was very curious. I mean, He was quite a celebrity and I wanted to know all the details about Him, like what He looked like and if He held a grudge.
But none of the answers I was given made any sense. The adults that I talked with obviously knew no more about Him than I did. So, I wouldn’t bow my head. My unbowed head attracted attention. I was taken to the principal’s office and my parents were called.
I remember sitting outside his office. The halls were empty, as everyone else was still in the assembly. Despite the isolation, I felt safe, because wasn’t G-d who inhabits the heavens and created the universe larger than a principal who inhabits a dusty eight by ten office? The principal was physical, someone I could touch and see, but who could touch G-d? Who could see eternity? My math teacher couldn’t even define ‘eternity.’ And especially to the limited view of an eight year old, this principal could be defined quite easily.
As students and teachers began to crash through the halls to their classrooms, his secretary rushed me into the principal’s office. The move was so abrupt as to be almost violent, and I began to wonder what it was about my action that had brought this on.
For a moment I faced doubt. My knees began to shake. I felt I was walking a tightrope of mind, stretched between what I assumed to be Heaven and what I feared to be Hell.
Then the principal entered. He tried to look angry and severe but it was too difficult a job for him. Confusion seemed more appropriate. “How could this eight year old boy,” he must have been thinking, “defy my authority, defy my whole idea of what should be happening, defy my whole notion of God?” He didn’t realize that we were talking of two different deities, his and mine. His, I could defy quite easily. But not mine, not the Almighty, Blessed Be He. He was Christian and I was Jewish and I would not let my religion be placed second to any other.
I must admit that the whole incident might have arisen from my looking around for something to act up about. You know how life is; it just goes by, day by day, and we read about exciting and courageous deeds that other people do but we don’t see them, not often, not first hand. And to live one? To live a heroic moment, to live as the Hero of G-d—how could I give up the opportunity?….
To read the whole story, go to Heart And Humanity magazine.