True Story: A religious professor showed a college student how to place the mezuza on her front door, the one which faced the common hallway of the building. Some time later the professor again visited. But no longer did she see the mezuzah. It had been reattached on the inside of her dorm room.
The student explained that her Jewish friends had criticized her for putting up the mezuzah in such a public place. They told her that it wasn’t PC to push a Jewish symbol; that she was attracting undue attention, and irritating her non-Jewish neighbors.
It bothered the professor that, in this day and age, a Jew could be so intimidated. But the professor didn’t want to appear judgmental, so she decided to wait for an appropriate time to discuss the issue. It never came to be for only a short time later the student excitedly told her teacher that she had returned the mezuzah to its former place.
What happened? A package had come in the mail, but she wasn’t home. The mailman left her a note, explaining that he had left the delivery at a neighbor’s apartment. Going to retrieve her package from the elderly man whom she occasionally passed in the hallway, she thanked him for his trouble and he responded, “Shalom.”
“Oh, you’re Jewish,” she said. She had always thought he wasn’t. Immediately the old man’s demeanor changed. His eyes clouded over with bitterness and anger. He started mumbling to himself, “Yes, a Jew…a curse…a plague on my life…I am a Jew, unfortunately…” Slowly he became more coherent and told the girl the story of his life.
Like so many others, he had lost his entire family during the Holocaust. His wife and children died in the gas chambers. The only one to survive, his life since then had been bleak, a numbing succession of years of loneliness and pain. Ever since, he avoided anything Jewish, even to the point of not revealing his true identity to others.
The girl stood in the doorway wondering how to reply. Nothing seemed appropriate. Suddenly, in a gentler voice, the old man asked, “Why, dear girl, did you remove the mezuzah from your door?”
As if he were talking only to himself, the old man elaborated that when the mezuzah was outside, he would wait until the corridor was empty. Then he would stand near her door, kiss the mezuzah and weep. He said that his heart would find solace and some of his pain would be lifted away.
And that, explained the student to the professor, was why she returned the mezuzah to its rightful place.
At the very beginning of Jewish history, a rebellious mutiny reared its ugly head. Korach challenged Moses’ authority. In a behind-the-scenes dialogue Korach arrogantly asked Moses does a house full of holy books still require a mezuzah? Moses replied that it did. Korach scoffed at the idea. A house full of books with the entire Torah is insufficient, but a little mezuzah, containing but two chapters of the Shema will do the trick?! It doesn’t make any sense, argued Korach.
Why indeed is a small parchment on the door better than an entire library? One word: location! The books are inside. The mezuzah is outside. When there are Jewish texts in our study and living rooms, this indicates that this is a Jewish home. That is great. But how are we to be identified by others as being part of the tribe? Also what happens when we leave the comfortable confines of our home, do we cease being Jewish?
The mezuzah is at the juncture between our inner and outer lives. As we make the transition from private person to public citizen, we need to be reminded that we dare not hide our identity. Our Jewish pride does not need to be concealed. We should have enough self-confidence that we take our identity with us wherever we go. Remember well, says the little scroll, Shema Yisroel...Hashem Echad - There is only One G-d, whether in our private domain or in the big, wide world.
Well-known author Herman Wouk wrote a novel called Inside, Outside, in which he portrays his own inner struggles straddling these two worlds. His pious Talmudist grandfather had a profound influence on him, but so did Hollywood and Broadway. It took him a long time to find his way and settle into an observant lifestyle while still writing bestsellers.
Being Jewish “Inside” is relatively easy. It’s when we hit the “Outside” that we encounter temptation and turmoil. The challenge is to remain proudly Jewish even in the face of conflicting cultures, curious looks, and often, hostile attitudes.
In the German-Jewish community of old there was a slogan which has long been discredited. “Yehudi b’veitecha v’adam b’tzeitecha -Be a Jew in your home and a human being outside.” The Nazis did not distinguish between Jews who looked Jewish or those who had removed any visible identifying marks.
Today, traditional dress reflecting a national character is common, accepted and respected, from Scottish kilts to Arab kaffiyehs. The outlandish hairstyles of sportsmen are not only accepted, they are mimicked mindlessly. Is it too much to expect a Jew to assert his Jewishness in unfamiliar corporate territory, to keep the kipah on his head even when he walks out of shul, or to affix a mezuzah in a college dormiotory?
Moses rejected Korach’s argument, with good reason. The mezuzah does not replace the need for Jewish libraries, but it serves as a perennial reminder on our doorways. It beckons our neighbors to hold fast to their heritage and reminds them that Jews are never alone. It also reminds us to take our G-d and our Torah along with us.