I was 2 years old when everything changed. My father, who was not yet 30, was a rabbi at a synagogue in Budapest. After multiple harassments, he decided with my mother that America would be a much better place to practice freedom of religion and raise a family. My parents told family and friends that we were vacationing in Yugoslavia when, in fact, we had no intention of ever going back. It was 1972 and we were escaping communist Hungary, the threat of imprisonment looming over my parents’ shoulders.
We arrived in the United States a few months later, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y., where my father would learn English and audition as an assistant rabbi at a Reform synagogue. For our part, my sister and I went with the flow, assimilating into American culture. We spent most days like those of our classmates at the Jewish day school we attended. Other days were different; after all, we were the immigrant rabbi’s kids.
Being the rabbi’s son seemed normal, maybe privileged at times. In some ways, I felt like a child star with a couple hundred fans. My father’s congregants doted on me as if I were their own. I attributed this affection to kindness, and probably much of it was. As I grew older, I recognized that part of this behavior was their way to get closer to my father. In some cases, it was to satisfy their natural curiosity about the “Man of God,” who was also a family man, their spiritual leader, marital counselor and adviser.
As the son of this complex figure, I felt I had to maintain a certain standard of propriety. In public I was, at best, charming, and at worst, pleasant. I endured the cheek-pinching and intrusiveness of strangers. I wore a suit at temple when my contemporaries wore regular clothes. I sat through services where I was probably the only one under 40.
Jon Raj is the managing partner of Cello Partners, a digital marketing consulting firm in San Francisco. His father, Rabbi Ferenc Raj, was the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley from 1995 to 2007. This piece first appeared at Kveller.com.