Once a month, I walk to my barber shop in Queens, to have my haircut by Jun, my Japanese barber who loves to talk about fishing. Jun is about 40 years old, razor thin, with long straight black hair. He came over from Japan four years ago, and lives in a basement apartment rental in Flushing, Queens, a neighborhood populated by Asian immigrants. Jun’s English is halting, his accent is strong, and sometimes he has trouble finding the words to express himself. But once a month while Jun cuts my hair, we talk about life in New York, philosophy, religion and fishing.
As Queens residents, we commiserate about the strange and unusual difficulties of living in New York. He told me about his roommate who got drunk and kicked down a bedroom door. The next day, Jun put an ad in Craig’s List for a new roommate. Jun told me about the flooding in his apartment caused by heavy rains, and how he lost all of his books, and most of his possessions, except for a water-proof vacuum cleaner. Not immune from the trials of living in New York, I told Jun about the New Year’s Eve fire in my apartment building, in which no one was harmed. A woman on the sixth floor fell asleep with a candle burning, and the resulting fire destroyed five or six apartments, while my one-bedroom palace was spared.
Often our conversations turn to religion and philosophy. When I told Jun that I am a rabbi, and explained to him what that meant, he started asking me questions. Jun asked why bad things happen to innocent people. He wanted to know why we are here and what our purpose is on the earth.
I did my best to explain to Jun a few Jewish answers. I told Jun that our world is mysterious, and sometimes we cannot comprehend why tragedy befalls some people and not others. I also shared with Jun that our world is broken in many ways. Judaism teaches that one of our purposes as humans is to repair the world by seeking to improve the lives of others. Jun explained to me that Japan is a secular society, and that religion does not play a role in his life. However, Jun was struggling as we all do, to understand what it means to be human. He was asking questions about his life and purpose that Judaism, and all religions, seek to answer.
As we got to know each other, I discovered that Jun and I both had a love of fishing. Every Monday on his day off, Jun heads to College Point in Queens, and fishes off the docks. Jun casts his bait into Long Island Sound, fishing for fluke and flounder. He often makes sushi out of his catch, and enjoys a meal of fresh fish.
When Jun told me that he eats the fish from College Point, and even worse, that he eats it raw, I almost fell out of the barber shop chair. College Point is an industrial area that remains active, and that part of Long Island Sound is very polluted. When I told him that the fish he eats could be harmful to his health, this is what he said: “I do not need to live a long life.” I was taken aback and silenced by his remark, which seemed so foreign to me.
Judaism teaches that life is precious, and that each day on earth is a great blessing. In the book of Deuteronomy, God says to the Israelites: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life.” Protecting our lives and health is a Jewish value. We believe in eating well, caring for our bodies, and avoiding unnecessary risks that could harm us, like eating fish filled with mercury and other pollutants.
When Jun said that he did not need to live a long life, I could have responded to him. I could have tried to convince him to stop eating those fish, or appreciate his life a bit more. But I just sat there in the chair in silence. Our conversation drifted to other topics. I left the barber shop feeling a bit saddened that day, because I did not want any harm to come to him.
Jun goes fishing every Monday, which is my day off from work too. Sometimes on Mondays while I am writing or shopping at the grocery store, I think about Jun sitting on a pier at College Point for hours. I hope that he is enjoying the solitude and harmony that I feel when fly fishing on a stream. Jun and I are both intrigued by the mysteries of life and fishing. I only hope that his life’s journey is providing him with moments of happiness, because he is my friend.