Different

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.

13 thoughts on “Different

  1. How I ache for you and your mother! I have to say, I don’t understand your friend’s mother. If one of my children had invited you in, I would have been thrilled. It would be fun to share our traditions, and I would have asked a lot of questions about your celebration of Hanukkah. It’s one thing to read about a religious holiday and another to find out how someone you know celebrates it. I love you for who you are, and I wish I could have gotten to know your mother. I’m sending you 1,000 hugs.

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    1. Ah, but my friend’s mother was no Anne Mehrling!! She was an awful person. Never smiled, VERY strict with her daughter. Gail had a perpetually haunted look on her face. Even when I bumped into her years later, she looked like she was expecting her doom at any moment. Very sad… I would have loved to share Jewish info with you, paltry as it was. 😉 As I said, we weren’t really observant. OH how sweet of you, what you say! I love you too, Anne, and wow! You would have adored my mom! Thank you for all the hugs which should last me at least a few years! 😀 And I send the same over to you!! ❤ ❤

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  2. What a sad and terrible story. My heart aches for you, for your mom, and even for your friend Gail. It is a true evil to act out of prejudice and even worse, to teach that prejudice to your children. I hope Gail learned to reject her mother’s views.

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  3. My mother would have welcomed you into our Irish Catholic Montreal home, no problem. She loved us bringing everyone home.

    Jewish General, great hospital, I had eye surgery there back in 1972.

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    1. Thanks, Jackie McG! It’s heartening to know there were a lot of lovely people around then (and now of course)! Yes, it truly is a wonderful hospital. I once had such a caring nurse in the ER, that afterwards I wrote a letter commending her and sent it to the hospital’s director, with a request that he send a copy to her. He replied and thanked me, and said he would send it on. I think that, to balance complaints, we should give praise whenever warranted. That nurse was a gem! (A Muslim from Morocco, by the way.)

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  4. You mother’s story was awful. It was a great loss to her personally and to the wider community. I was also shocked by the treatment your friend’s mother gave you. At least your friend clearly seemed to know it was wrong. Bigotry like that is so sad and so stunningly stupid. There’s absolutely no justification for it whatever.

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    1. Thanks for your astute comments, Bun! I appreciate your empathy. The tree: who would’ve thought you had to pass a religion test to LOOK at one. And my mom – such a sad story. Thanks again for reading and understanding.

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