Montreal, 1955, a couple of weeks before Christmas: It was the first time I was aware of how different I was from my friends.
I was 10. My school pal Gail and I were walking home from school, when she – usually very shy and passive – suddenly exclaimed, eyes shining, “Do you wanna come see our Christmas tree?” Well sure, I thought! As minimally observant Jews, in my house we lit the requisite number of Hanukkah candles and splurged on highly caloric potato latkes, but a Christmas tree certainly never graced our living room.
Gail and I climbed the outside steps of her stately dark-brick duplex, careful not to slip on their icy-slushy coating. As she turned the knob on the outside door, I was right behind her, but suddenly she hesitated and stopped. I almost walked right into her. She turned back to me and said softly, “Um… maybe you better wait here just a minute.” I opened my mouth to say – oh, I don’t know, either “Why?” or “Er, okay. Why?” But she’d gone in and gently closed the door in my face.
I stood outside for a minute. Two minutes. Three– The door opened about two inches. Gail’s face peered out at me, with a scared-rabbit expression. “My mother says you can’t come in.”
“How come?” I asked, perplexed.
She couldn’t look me in the eye, and hung her head, as she murmured, “Because you’re Jewish. I have to go,” and she closed the door real quick.
I was in shock – I couldn’t understand it. Until that day, I was only aware of being different because we Jewish kids (not many in my school) had more holidays. Also, sometimes other kids made fun of the “yellow” egg bread my mom used for my sandwiches. All their mothers ever seemed to use was pure-white “Wonder” bread.
My mother must’ve somehow made me feel better that evening when I told her what had happened.
Many years after this, my mom and I were having one of our heart-to-heart talks about all sorts of things. Part of the discussion was about one’s teenage hopes and dreams. She revealed that when she was about 17 years old, she applied to nursing school. She’d wanted to be a nurse for a long time. It was typical of my mother, a caring and altruistic person, to want to make a career out of helping others at their most vulnerable and needy. To her, it was a calling.
So off she went (circa 1930) to the nursing school attached to the Royal Victoria Hospital. She expected to be interviewed. But to her dismay and crushing disappointment, she was turned away – shortly after stating her name, “Ida Merovitz.” I don’t know if she was blatantly asked her religion, or if they just made the assumption based on her name. But she was refused.
I was aghast, hearing this. “That’s so unfair! What did your parents say to you, and all your sisters?”
My mom said softly, “I didn’t tell them.”
“What!” I shouted, upset and angry on her behalf. “But why not?”
She just looked at me with a little smile and said, “They all had their own problems. I couldn’t burden them with this too.”
I understand her point better now: serious financial hardship with so many mouths to feed, and a sister (the smartest one!) to support in college… But what I really don’t get is this: Where is the justice in depriving sickly patients of a kind and loving nurse?
I would have given up the sight of a million Christmas trees if only my mom could have seen her dream come true.
P.S. – Some years after my mother’s terrible disappointment, the Jewish General Hospital was created with the help of generous donors in the Jewish community – but open to everyone. It has become a shining jewel of research and services.