I walk in the shade of the tree-lined boulevard. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds, staring at me with a look of confusion. What am I doing here?

Eastern European accents drift through the balmy air of a Brooklyn spring, mixing with the squeals of children running up and down the boulevard, laughing and dancing as they play tag. The men, clad in dark clothing, pass me with hurried steps, the tall brownstone synagogue their destination. Clutching large, worn-out books to their chests, and weaving through the crowded sidewalk, they aren’t surprised at my appearance; they barely notice that I look so different. Perhaps they don’t feel different?

They barely notice that I look so different.

I wander by several stores, their signs printed in Yiddish—to me, a scribble of foreign words. One sells paints and hardware in addition to a host of small household products. Another offers children’s clothing with brightly colored posters stating “40%,” and a Yiddish word I figure must mean “sale,” or “discount.” Women with covered hair hold babies in their arms and converse in brief whispers by the storefront, smiling as they look from their baby’s sleeping face to their friend, and back again.

The street has a genial air, an almost utopian feel, but my heart doesn’t embrace it. An afternoon breeze blows gently, the springtime leaves waving in song, but my heart ignores the rhythm. Why do I feel so different?

We share the same history. Our ancestors walked the same path; we have triumphed together, we have suffered together, and yet we are so different.

I stop walking and stand surrounded by their darkness: dark blazers, dark trousers, dark hats and dark eyes, nearly swallowed by dark beards. Their pale faces peer at me from behind the cage of darkness, whispering something I cannot hear.

How can a 5,000-year-old heritage still leave one man feeling so distant, so estranged?

The sea of black continues to swell around me, and my thoughts stray from the street scene to this morning’s class: we were studying the Torah, the passage where the Hebrews camped at Sinai after their exodus from Egypt.

The Hebrews were likened to one man with one heart; whereas earlier in the story, the Egyptians were depicted as having one heart, like one man.

Why do I feel so different?

“Two kinds of unity,” the rabbi had said.

A flash of red tears me from my thoughts, but as I blink, the burst of color disappears in the sea of black. Where did it go?

I walk in the direction where I had seen it—the small dot of red burning against the dark backdrop—and my thoughts drift back to the Hebrews and their unity. There are two types of unity, he had said: one only skin deep, and one even deeper. What had he meant?

The small dot of red comes into view again, and now it is bigger and redder.

He had used the terms “collaborative unity” and “essential unity.”

Pharaoh’s troops, seething with rage at having lost their slaves, were trailing the Hebrews. Pharaoh himself led the charge. They were united, but only in their pursuit of the Hebrews; it was a collaborative unity, like having one heart.

The Hebrews, however, at the encampment at Sinai, were united in self, beyond cause or reason. They were as one man, with one heart: an essential unity.

Almost in a trance, I walk towards the red dot. Now even bigger, now a red T-shirt.

A young man, clean shaven, and wearing a red T-shirt, speaks with two chassidic men. With his hand he brushes aside his long hair, bending his head to put on tefillin.

They pronounce the words for him to repeat, and he does so with difficulty. And yet, they seem at ease with each other, the young man in his modernity and the chassidim in their tradition. They are, of course, wearing dark clothes—dark blazers, dark trousers, dark hats and dark beards—but their disposition no longer appears dark to me. Their eyes smile, and now I can hear the whispering of their pale faces.

Essential unity.

I smile, and continue walking.