Friday, April 27, 2007

Remembering Steve

Last night was "Dining Out for Life" in Philadelphia and many other metropolitan areas. Participating restaurants donate a portion of their proceeds for the nights to local charities that provide quality-of-life services to people with AIDS. (And yes, there are kosher restaurants that participate). I make an effort to "Dine Out" every year, and it always reminds me of Steve, a person I knew in Georgia who died of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Apologies in advance to anyone from the old minyan who remembers this story differently; this is how I remember it:

I met Steve in the Fall of 1986, shortly after I started law school in Athens, Georgia. Those first few weeks in Athens were quite a culture shock for me, both religiously and generally. I was having a hard time getting my Jewish life in order in such a remote place, and it was very painful. I knew that the college Hillel had an egalitarian Orthodox shabbat prayer group, but it took me a few weeks to figure out where it was and get myself over there.

I walked about a mile to the Hillel, and I arrived at what I thought was a normal time for services, but no one was there. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, then gave up and headed for home, heartbroken. I was almost halfway home when I passed a tall, thin man wearing a kippah (yarmulke, Jewish religious head covering). I said "gut shabbes" to him, and he replied in kind. We both kept walking in opposite directions. It took me a few minutes to realize that he was obviously headed to the Hillel for services, so I turned around and followed him back. When I got there, we were still the only two there. He explained that it was still a little early.

I suppose I noticed that Steve was very pale, thin, balding, that his teeth looked unhealthy, but I just sort of assumed that was normal for him and didn't give it much thought. We talked for a while. I don't remember what we talked about; only that I was crying at the time, in pain with the culture shock and in joy that I had finally found the Jewish community. He acknowledged that it was a small community, that they almost never got a minyan (the ten people needed for a complete service), so they started late and ended at a normal time. After a while, the two of us started davening (praying). Eventually, several others joined us.

The next week, Steve didn't show up for services. I heard that he was in the hospital, but it was a few weeks before I heard anybody say anything about what was wrong with him. Even then, the disease was never named. Somebody mentioned the "stigma" of his illness, and I knew they must be talking about AIDS. That was late 1986, when people were still afraid to share a toilet with someone who had AIDS.

The group was very supportive of Steve. They helped get kosher food to him in the hospital; the hospital wasn't really equipped for that sort of thing.

Eventually, Steve got out of the hospital and started coming to services again. He was very weak from the disease, and it was quite a strain for him to walk to Hillel for services, but he did it anyway. He usually got there early, so he could take a nap after arriving. And I am convinced that his presence helped keep that group together, by guilt if nothing else: if Steve can make it to services on time in his condition, how can I do less?

He was taking one of the early AIDS drugs at $400 a month for treatment. At the time, that seemed like an outrageous sum of money, though with the insane rate of pharmaceutical inflation, that seems like peanuts today. He signed up for a trial of a new AIDS drug, but the rejected him because he was "too sick."

He held on for two years, but became too tired of fighting for his rights, and moved to San Francisco, where he thought things would be easier for him. He died there within the next year, if I remember correctly.


Amy Nicholson said...

Thank you for creating this blog. It is so important to remember the people who give human meaning to the causes we believe in.

I have enjoyed reading many of your blog entries as well as the comments of you readers. As a Gentile, I have profound gratitude and interest in the Jewish world and worldview. While in Moscow recently, I had the privledge of going with a friend to worship with some Messianic Jews (no Jew for Jesus, but a similar group I'm sure). They seemed to hold their Jewish-ness in very high regard and promoted Temple membership beyond their Messianic community. I was wondering how you personally preceive such groups?

mcobin said...

To Amy: Don't be fooled by the name. "Messianic Jews", "Jews for Jesus", etc. are evangelical Christian programs designed to missionize to the Jews. They target Jews who are estranged from their own religion and promote the idea that belief in Jesus as the Messiah is consistent with Judaism, which it is not.

There is nothing wrong with Christianity, but to dress it up as "Jewish" to make it "easier for Jews to swallow" is deceptive and repugnant to most Jews (and to most all people, I hope). For more on this topic, please visit

It is interesting that you encountered this messianic group in Russia. Many Jews there are 1-2 generations removed from practicing Judaism because of the oppression during Communism. Unfortunately, these Jews are being targeted by "messianic" groups.

Tracey Rich - you have a WONDERFUL website!

JewFAQ said...

Thank you, mcobin, and well-put.

I think the best analogy for J4J is the kosher meat market scandal that hit New York in August 2006. True story:

There was a kosher meat market in New York. They were selling meat that was USDA certified, fresh, perfectly safe to eat ... but not kosher. The owner simply purchased non-kosher meat, slapped kosher certification labels on it and sold it to his local Orthodox community as kosher meat.

It is the same with J4J: They take fundamentalist Christianity, slap a Jewish label on it and some Jewish packaging, and then they "sell" fundamentalist Christianity as Judaism to those who don't know better. They do this because, like the not-so-kosher butcher, they want to "sell" it to people who would not "buy" it if it were accurately labeled.

There is nothing wrong with Christianity for gentiles, just as there is nothing wrong with non-kosher meat for gentiles. But it's not kosher.