This morning at Z’s Divine Espresso, just about to coffee-up for the day, I was standing over a tableunpacking this computer when I felt something like feathers float over my ankles. I turned quickly to see the back of a young woman wearing a long white dress that I realized has just skimmed over my feet when she passed. She seemed familiar, even from the back so I looked at her as I plugged in the computer, trying to figure out if and how I knew her. She turned and was looking at me too, and so I tried not to look like I was looking as I quickly sat down and opened up the computer and put on my headphones.
“I like your necklace,” someone said to me, and so I looked up, and here was this woman. She smiled. I smiled. Then she went to the counter to order a latte.
What most people might not know is that she was speaking in code to me, and both of us know this code. It was code for “I’m Jewish too,” and in the largely Christian Midwest, this kind of transmission stands out for those of us of faiths largely invisible in the mainstream. My necklace, the same one I’ve worn since my mother gave it to me in the middle of my cancer treatment in 2002, is simply a gold C’hai, the Hebrew symbol for life, and with that, luck, and also the number 18 and the letter C’hai. Growing up in Brooklyn and then central New Jersey, wearing a C’hai was as ordinary as wearing a cross. People knew it was a Jewish thing, and a common one at that. But in Kansas, I’m asked often what the symbol is around my neck.
A few weeks ago, walking down Massachusetts Street (our main street in Lawrence), I passed by a young man with shaved head, worn cut-offs and lots of piercings, only to be surprised when he called after me, in an Israeli accent, ‘I like your necklace.” We smiled at each other. Transmission successful. Likewise, when I see people wearing C’hais, I tend to compliment them or just hold up my own.
One of the most moving exchanges happened with someone not Jewish — a woman who’s attended workshops I’ve offered over the years who, last spring, I noticed was wearing a C’hai. When I asked her about it, she told me that after reading in my memoir, The Sky Begins At Your Feet, how my mother gave me my C’hai, she realized that the C’hai was the symbol for her life too, so she looked long and hard (which a C’hai seeker needs to be in this part of the world) to find her own.
What we C’hai decoders are saying to each other is something like “I follow a faith that is largely invisible or misunderstood by most of the general public, not so much out of animosity but simply out of a lack of exposure, and I’m in solidarity with you not just as Jew but as anyone carrying in their hearts something other than what’s expected.” In many ways, this “other than what’s expected” would likely apply to all of us in one way or other, so here’s another way of saying all this that’s more in spirit with the C’hai: “To life!”