It isn’t often that the Torah portion of the week and my getting a haircut coincide, but it did last week.
For years Susie Polin has cut my hair. She has a huge heart, is a artist who cuts hair for a living and a Sephardic Jew whose family origins are from Greece.
Last week’s Shabbat Torah portion included Exodus 34:6-7 (for Chol Hamoed Sukkot):
“Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet: notzeir chesed la-alaphim nose avon vafesha, v’chataah v’nakeh...”
“Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…”
Susie has lived in the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles for many years. Once a Jewish neighborhood, by the time she moved there it was African-American and she was “the only white Jewish girl” in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, she became close to her neighbors, especially the people next door. Five months ago the elderly woman who lived there died leaving her husband Johnny alone. Johnny had worked for many years for the LA Unified School District and had come into contact with asbestos, which sealed his fate.
After his wife died, Susie asked if she could do anything for him as he too was infirm. “Thanks Susie – I’m alright!”
“Do you have enough food in the house,” she asked.
“I’m good every day except Tuesday.”
“You can count on me, Johnny, to bring you dinner each Tuesday,” she generously offered.
So every Tuesday for the past four months Susie brought Johnny dinner that she bought at the local Gelsons take-out stand. When she explained to the Gelsons' workers that she’d be back every week to buy dinner for Johnny, they gave her double the food at the same price, food that lasted Johnny for days.
One day, Johnny asked, “Susie – is ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ the same?”
“Yes!” she said.
Susie explained that to be Jewish means to follow the Bible's commandments and to do deeds of loving-kindness for others. It’s all about love,” she explained, “because God wants us to love each other.”
“I love you, Susie.”
“I love you too, Johnny!”
Johnny died two weeks ago. When the day of his funeral arrived, Susie drove to the black church in South LA and was the first to arrive. She entered the church and sat down. As his family, many friends and care-takers arrived, those who knew her greeted her like a she was a member of their family. Soon everyone heard what Susie had done for Johnny, and that she was a Jew.
When she told me about her experience I was reminded of the famous story in the Midrash (D’varim Rabba 3:3):
“Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach one day commissioned his disciples to buy him a camel from an Arab. When they brought him the animal, they gleefully announced that they had found a precious stone in its collar. ‘Did the seller know of this gem?’ asked the Master. On being answered in the negative, he called out angrily, ‘Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Arab immediately.’ When the Arab received it back, he exclaimed: ‘Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel.”
I told this story about Susie and Johnny on Friday night to my congregation. There were many children present including our 6th grade Day School students and their Israeli exchange student friends from the Tzahalah Elementary School in north Tel Aviv.
I explained to them that we are all more than just individuals. We are part of a family, a people and a religious tradition, and what we say and do outside our homes and immediate communities not only reflect back on us, but also on our families and the Jewish people.
The way we treat others, whoever they are, Jews, Christians, Muslims, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Palestinians, immigrants, the poor, the powerless, strangers, the people with whom we work, the people who work for us, tells more about who we are and what we value than anything we say we believe.
Susie Polin is a special woman who gives of her heart and soul continually to others. Through her loving deeds the good name of the Jewish people and the God of Israel were enhanced in Johnny’s community, for Susie may have been the only Jew that Johnny and many in his community ever knew up close.
Torah can come to us at any time and in any place, even the barber’s chair.