Protected by Viper, Stand Back.
[Drawing of the young Fischer by Alex Roland - more here]
On erev Rosh Hashanah, mini clusters of Hassidic youth—all male—blanket the streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. With shofars in hand they huddle where the public is most concentrated—atop the stairs of subway exits at rush hour (before sundown), or around Grand Army Plaza, about a mile from 770 Eastern Parkway, site of the world headquarters for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and close to Bobby Fischer’s childhood home at 560 Lincoln Place, which, as luck would have it, is located two short blocks from my current abode. They approach with a simple question: “Are you Jewish?”
Sometimes, I’m caught in the right mood. I’ll smile and feel special, wanting to grip that rustic rams horn into my own hands and trumpet the Judaism my mother gave me unto the sundried masses along Franklin Avenue. One time, having already participated in the mitzvah, I rode my bike around Prospect Park shouting “chag sameach” to Jews and non-Jews alike, welcoming all within earshot into the newness of another year. Later, covered in sweat, and with my bike parked for a breather, three black-and-white clad boys with sunburnt faces and wide eyes walked my way, their payot swinging like slinkies. “Are you Jewish?” they asked from underneath the arch of the Brooklyn Quadriga. Who was I to deny this interaction? (And two times in one day?!) To experience a ten-year-old clench utmost his lungs and rip into a shofar like the health of the next 365 days of my selfish life depends on it—that’s a privilege.
Sometimes though, I feel embarrassed or vexed. Ad nauseum, it’s self-conscious inducing: Am I Jewish? What’s the tell? (Of course, I do know). And what if I weren’t? Am I not Jewish enough? Until these junctures, my Jewishness feels pretty sturdy, unchallenged and comfortable in its lox-and-post-grandparental-Floridian glory, save for when romantic relationships press at its seams, or during moments of what can feel like in-proselytizing, offers of comeuppance like this.
It’s the way I imagine Bobby Fischer—a Jew if only by birth—must have felt in his youth, even partly, as he would ascend the same MTA staircase I use daily, each step ever closer to escape. For Bobby, “Jews”, who he’d also call “absolute pigs,” would become the default nomenclature for anyone within his ire, whether Chosen or not. Leave me alone, he must have thought. I just want to play chess. [Read on…]