There are certain episodes in my life that fill me with shame. Not because I did something very wrong—I was not creative or rebellious enough to do anything really wrong—but because I didn’t do anything right.
Usually it was a matter of sheer ignorance on my part, like when a friend told me she was cutting herself, and I didn’t know what that meant. And sometimes it was confusion over what’s right, because what I was taught didn’t mesh with what I knew.
The old Russian man was one of the latter cases.
There was a large ex-USSR community near my school. It was a mostly monolingual community of aging men and women with varying scars—some more visible than others—and no apparent means of self-sufficiency.
Some of the old men would congregate at the checkers tables on Ocean Parkway to play chess or backgammon with their long and otherwise empty days. Their games would be wrapping up around 5:15pm, when I passed by on my way home from school.
One of these players was a bald old gentleman who wore his threadbare military uniform, probably because he couldn’t afford anything else. He walked with a slow, limping gait, and his hands shook. At least once a week I’d run into him while crossing Ocean Parkway, and he’d request in pantomime that I help him cross the street. Ocean Parkway is a busy, seven-lane artery with a carefully choreographed light-sequence, and it could be intimidating to someone who couldn’t confidently get across in time.
I had no problem helping a lonely old man cross the street. What bothered me was that he would take my arm for support when I did so.
It wasn’t that I minded touching a stranger. But I knew that I wasn’t supposed to touch men, for reasons that had never been very well defined. We didn’t do hilchos negiya til 10th or 11th grade, and the basic summary was: don’t touch boys over seven years old, ever, no exceptions.
So here was a man who was touching me, and that was obviously wrong. But I was helping him cross the street. And that was obviously right.
At least once a week I’d be faced with this conundrum. It only got worse when, emboldened by my agreeableness, the man asked me to walk him all the way to his apartment. The apartment, ironically, was practically back at school. I’d imagine a teacher or fellow student spotting me walking with a gentleman on my arm and feel a panicked pre-emptive shame. What was I doing?!
My parents didn’t have a lot of input on this. As long as I didn’t go into his apartment, they didn’t see what the big deal was. But they also didn’t think I should be doing anything that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t really explain that my problem was about shomer negiya. Like many families, we talked often, but didn’t always communicate.
In the end, my fear of religion overrode my instinctive human decency. I started crossing to the opposite corner when I saw him patiently waiting on the median. I just couldn’t handle the long avenue block of sin that would inevitably result.
Eventually, I stopped seeing him. Maybe he couldn’t do the walk any more. Maybe he died. I often wondered. Maybe he was stuck up in his second-floor apartment, lonely, living on stale bread, because he couldn’t find someone to help him down the street.
About a year and a half ago my grandmother died. For the last few years of her life, she hardly ever went out. She used to try to make it at least to shul, but Park Avenue always got her. It’s eight lanes, wide and intimidating. She was ashamed to ask people to help her cross, and it was only worse when they would refuse. Why would anyone refuse to help an old lady cross the street?! We all wondered and shook our heads.
But I know at least one reason why.
They were shomer.