Once upon a time, I was a marrano, a secret Jew. It was such a secret that I was not often aware that I was Jewish. I was 11, living far away from home, a choirboy in Princeton, New Jersey, the only Jewish boy in the boychoir school. The repertoire from which we sang was largely sacred, and of course Christian. I loved the music, I loved singing it, the hymns, the masses, the carols.
It was the Christmas season in Princeton, and one night we went into Princeton to sing Christmas carols along the streets bordering the university where the professors lived. In front of each house, we stood on the sidewalk singing a carol, and the porch lights would go on shortly after we started to sing, and the residents would come out beaming and pleased with our unexpected serenade. In front of one house I heard a stir among the boys. Someone said, “I think this is Einstein’s.” The porch lights were unlit, but we could see figures in the house beyond the lace curtains. Mr. Huffman, our director, called out the carol. “Bobby,” he turned to me, “let’s do Oh Holy Night.” I swallowed hard, not knowing why, and listened for the starting pitch. Then, in my sweet small voice, I started the solo behind the other boys’ humming: “Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of our dear savior’s birth.” The porch lights went on, a rotund middle-aged lady came out onto the porch, beckoning to the figure inside. And then he was out on the porch, stooped, hair in a wild aura around his head, the sad eyes, wearing a cardigan sweater. The sight of him inspired me beyond the music I was singing, and I wanted to change the words to let him know I was a Jew and was connecting with him as Jew. I knew nothing really about his greatness, except that his name was synonymous with genius. But I knew by seeing him how powerful my submerged Jewishness was, and I knew that the Holy Night I was singing about was holy in a way very different from the words of the song. That night I was proud of my secret, and I knew then that there would come a time when it would no longer be a secret.