Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Conversation, Part 2


I couldn't help but remember a wonderful newspaper article I had shared with Barbara a few months back in which the writer was bemoaning the gradual demise of the grand old Israeli breakfast. I'm not discussing the harried mother who spreads 'choco' on a slice of bread for her already sugar-addicted darlings to take to school.  We're talking here about the lavish spread that used to be standard fare in kibbutzim and public places like hotels.  Our author then set out to describe the behavior of one out-of-control middle-aged Israeli who had recently found himself at such an old fashioned breakfast, his stomach stretching his shirt to the limit, eating everything in sight.  After expressing his total disdain for such gluttonous behavior, the writer admitted, much to his chagrin, that he was the Israeli under such self-scrutiny!

We had entered the dining room at the Palm Beach Hotel the morning after the wedding we had just attended.  It had, from our friends' account, gone on for hours and hours, with the sort of merriment you could expect at such a gathering, diminished not one whit by my early departure.  Most of the participants at the wedding had returned to their homes, but there remained a cadre of folks, the ones who had stayed overnight at the hotel: the bridal party as well as guests from abroad and from the far-flung corners of The Land.  Our friends had decided to host a breakfast for these worthies, including themselves.  My M.O. at any such situation when there's an inordinate amount of food laid out buffet-style is to make an initial reconnoiter, to check out what's there.  That way I won't miss out on anything I would really want amongst the cheeses, salads, smoked fish, breads, and pastries.  This was no time or place for the faint of heart.  Even if we hadn't punished our stomachs to the max the previous night, there is no way I could have done full justice to the bounty that was set out before us.  Making what we considered a judicious selection, Barbara and I filled our plates and looked for a place to sit.  The bride and groom and their crowd were in one section, our hosts and assorted friends and relatives were occupying another area.  There were any number of empty tables, so why crowd in?  We chose a table adjacent to where our hosts were sitting and started to dig in.  We figured if anybody wanted to join us, there would be plenty of room.

Sure enough, within a few minutes, a fellow came over and introduced himself.  His first words to us were that he and his wife were also friends from the groom's side; he admitted that he was interested in striking up a conversation, something which is surprisingly difficult to do at weddings.  There' are too many people, too much noise and hullabaloo, too much food; in short, too much else going on to exchange more than simple pleasantries.  Here was his chance: a couple more or less of his generation sitting by themselves.  Of course, we invited him to join us; and this is how the conversation got started. It took no time at all for us to find out that Barbara and I live in Ma'ale Adumim and he and his wife live in Cherry Hill, NJ; i.e., that we were residents of The Land and they were visitors, here for the wedding, taking the opportunity to see a host of distant relatives.  My affable wife asked the obvious question: how were they enjoying their visit so far?  The fellow began describing what they had done ; to which I responded -- and I was immediately given credit for my perspicacity -- that in a way they hadn't been  visiting Israel, they were visiting the living rooms of assorted family members.  He and I agreed that they could just as well be in Denver, for all they had seen of the country so far.  They did expect to get to Jerusalem and possibly Eilat in the remaining time they had, and they were certainly looking forward to that.

His turn to ask a question: how had we adjusted in the four and a half years we have been here?  We never miss an opportunity to sing the praises of our community, a little bit east of Jerusalem, and here was a chance to extend our winning streak.  We always stress the wonderful Anglo community here and the many fine friends we have made.  That remark started us on a conversation about the kind of friends the two families' have and how we interact with those near and dear to us.  He mentioned that he had a circle of male friends and his wife had a group of women who regularly met to involve themselves in matters Jewish; and that they had been able to integrate the two groups and their spouses at Friday night dinners.  We could have and would have continued talking and talking, but we all had to deal with the impending checkout time at the hotel. Barbara suggested that the four of us try to meet for lunch in Jerusalem, but it became clear that the timing for that would not work.  So we went our separate ways; who knows if we will ever see him or his wife again.  Barbara ands I got a cab back to the railroad station, heading back to Tel Aviv, where we spent a few hours first in the newly expanded Tel Aviv Museum and later at a housewarming party in  Tina and David's new place in Givatayim, a nice but less expensive section than the center of the city where they had lived before.

There was something about this conversation that kept rattling around my brain.  It wasn't as if the gentleman from Cherry Hill seemed to be in competition with me as to who had better friends.  It was more like "Your needs are being met where you are; ours where we are."  Fair enough.  In fact, I was complimented for not giving him the typical pep talk on Aliyah, a topic which he and his wife were not prepared to entertain.  The truth is that I have over the years learned the futility of giving people advise which you know in advance they have no intention of taking.  I don't mind whistling in the wind; just not talking to a wall.

But something occurred to me about our respective endeavors.  It's one thing to have friends.  It's another to have a group of people who, for any number of reasons, get together on a regular basis.  It's still another to commit to a common cause requiring the expenditure of effort and money, perhaps even creating a permanent organization or structure that you hope will outlive your personal efforts. Every step of the way, it gets harder and harder.  If you've ever had to sit through a Board meeting or try to deconstruct some organizational by-laws, you know what I'm talking about.  But if you think trying to forge a consensus on an eighth grade curriculum for a few hundred students is no easy task, how about growing a nation?  Especially when the only thing the six million occupants have in common is that all of them are stiff-necked.  It is a common source of amazement for all of us how much has been accomplished here when it would seem day-to-day that nothing ever gets done -- that everyone is arguing, that someone is always on strike, that no one can agree on anything.  Whenever I read about the shenanigans of some politician, rabbi, labor leader, or malcontent, I need to remind myself to take a deep breath and consider the enormity of the enterprise we're involved in and how many different points of view there are that need to be satisfied.

And that's what it comes down to.  It's not that what you're up to in The Exile to build friendships, organizations, and communities isn't worth much; it's worth a lot. But it's nowhere near as difficult as what is being accomplished  here almost despite ourselves, and therefore it can't be as rewarding.  I have no idea what the state of things Jewish will be in Cherry Hill twenty or fifty years from now, and I suspect that a lot of people scattered throughout The Exile are not giving that matter much thought.  But the future of Jerusalem and environs -- that's another matter.  You get my drift.

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