My Conversion to Judaism Shed New Light on My Mom’s First Boss, Mr. Eleven – Kveller
My children were to celebrate their bar/bat mitzvah. This would be the most significant day of their young lives. There would be lessons with the Hebrew tutor, as well as meetings with the cantor. There would be many suits and dresses for purchase, and big parties to plan. Naturally, I decided to have my own bat mitzvah one month later. This would result in economies of scale. Discount for two kiddush meals? A shared tallis
These benefits would not exist, unfortunately. No half price lox. No re-wearing our temple tops. There was instead triple the stress. In the months that followed, my children and I wandered around the house, muttering to each other our Torah portions. I grew to understand why one of my husband’s anxiety dreams is standing on the bimah at his bar mitzvah and forgetting every word. This is the power and potential of the bar mitzvah. It can still haunt a man 45-years later.
Why did I sign up for my own horror-inducing ceremony when there were other whitefish to fry instead? Because piling on is the Korean way of being Korean.
It had been almost four years since my conversion to Judaism. It was both spiritually and intellectually rewarding. The magic soon dissipated after my conversion. My rabbi was no longer my mentor and I became less interested in Judaism. I was able to light Shabbat candles biweekly instead of monthly. The most Jewish activity in my life was watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
I was going through a new type of conversion. I converted to being a twice-a-year synagogue attendee Jew. This was how I became an average American Jew. But through the filter of a Jew of Color, I felt like a fraud more than I felt “average.” I would be standing there on the bimah at my kids’ b’nai mitzvah without Judaism in my soul. The only solution was to become a bat mitzvah.
I enrolled in my synagogue’s adult bar/bat mitzvah class, and after hearing me speak about it, my mother-in-law, who grew up in a time when it was less common for girls to celebrate this rite of passage, decided to join me. My mother-in law and I attended our adult Hebrew school every Sunday for two years. While my children attended theirs, we attended ours together. I realized that Judaism was a part of my daily life. It was everywhere.
“Can you believe how Jewish my life has become?” I asked my mother.
“I believe it. Good to follow your husband and do like his family,” my very traditional Korean mother responded.
“What I meant was it’s interesting that my life is so Jewish when we didn’t know any Jewish people in Lynchburg!”
“Oh, we knew Jewish people! Mr. Eleven was Jewish.”
Mr. Eleven was the owner of the Dale Garment Sewing Factory in Lynchburg, Virginia, and my mother’s first boss. My mom had only just arrived in America and could barely speak English. It was difficult to find her a job. My mom was a skilled seamstress and the factory was looking for workers. Although the pay was minimal, the job seemed stable. A bonus was Mr. Eleven’s kindness as a boss. He was a name I knew from my childhood.
“Mr. Eleven always asked me first if I wanted overtime.”
“Mr. Eleven made me a supervisor even when I could barely speak English.”
“Mr. Eleven once sent me home early one day with full pay because of a snowstorm.”
My mother was in desperate need of Mr. Eleven, a Dickensian father figure who could be benevolent and kind. He promoted her to supervisor after five years and almost doubled her salary. On her first day as supervisor, a disgruntled employee made it clear that she did not want to take orders from an Asian woman and told her “F- you.” Did you know what that meant, I asked my mom. No, she replied, but I knew it wasn’t good. My mother went to Mr. Eleven’s office in tears and told him that she was not right for the job. He assured her not to worry, and that things would improve. That employee left the company the next day.
He was a legend in our family because of his generosity, but also, let’s face it, he was legendary because of his name. My brother and his unusual last name were always a mystery to me.
“Mom, are you sure he was Jewish?”
“Yes. I remember because he didn’t celebrate Christmas but always threw us a nice Christmas party.”
What could it possibly be? It hit me. It was like a ton mezuzahs. His name wasn’t Mr. Eleven.
“Oh. My. God. His name wasn’t Mr. Eleven, Mom. It was Mr. Levin!”
It was Levin. How could I have missed this? A man owns a schmatta business, and I assume he’s Episcopalian?
My mother looked at me and paused for a second before saying, “No, I’m sure his name was Mr. Eleven.”
A quick Google search revealed Mr. David Levin’s obituary. His name was printed was a great surprise. He really wasn’t Mr. Eleven. His obituary said that he was survived his two daughters. I was able find the number of one of them. As her father, she was generous and kind.
A few weeks later, an envelope arrived containing a photo book from Mr. Levin’s 90th birthday party. My mom wept as she turned each page. She noted how the husband and his wife looked exactly like she had remembered. I wondered if she was feeling sad as she thought back to those difficult years. Then I realized they were tears of gratitude.
As she closed the book, she said to me, “Mr. Eleven. I will never forget him.”