Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Friendships - A History

We, rather I in particular, prided ourselves on our kids' friends back in NY - from all walks of life. Living in Brooklyn for 20 years, we liked the fact that our block was multi-racial, that through the homeschooling world we had friends who were Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Mormon, Muslim, Agnostic, Black, Caucasian, Asian...and so on. Sure, our synagogue, Kane Street, provided an important point of reference for us as a family - we went every weekend, were involved in all sorts of projects, volunteered our time, shared meals with friends - and enriched our lives within the local, Jewish community but I always prided myself that I had stepped away from the ghetto that was my upbringing.

To be fair, I grew up in a lily white town, that wasn't home to so many Jews. Malverne, New York, on the South Shore of Long Island was a pleasant enough place to grow up in - tree-lined streets that were perfect for kickball with the local kids of whom there was always a group from which to choose up a team. (I'm reminded of Bill Bryson's reminiscences of his childhood. How there were always hundreds of kids waiting to play at every street corner.) But conflict simmered under the surface with some kids being more acceptable than others and nobody wanted to play with Anthony on the next block who was fond of making racial epithets and using language to which we had not yet graduated. Synagogue life was fairly dull for me. Problem #1, I was the Rabbi's daughter, making me already suspect to other kids and #2, I didn't attend the local public school, I went privately to a Jewish Day School in another town. So, I made friends but the friendships were tentative and not lasting. My sister's both were fortunate enough to make close friends who enjoyed getting to know our family and our different style of life - both girls were from Catholic families - but neither my brother nor I had the same luck.

Moving to Brooklyn as a newlywed was truly entering a new life. Aged, wizened looking ladies in black walked the streets, tough looking Italian guys hung out on street corners smoking, older men spilled out of the social clubs that were still found in the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens where we lived. When we moved to Boerum Hill, the demographics shifted yet again. Pacific Street is close to two housing projects and our block boasted a Latino population that had lived in the neighborhood through the tough years of the 60's and 70's. Read Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude for a sense of the neighborhood during that time.

We made friends on the block and grew to enjoy the mix that developed over our years on Pacific Street. Moving to Jerusalem in 2006, we weren't sure what to expect. We didn't move so that our kids would only have Jewish friends or so that I could stop obsessing about how they'd every meet nice Jewish girls - they met plenty of lovely non-Jewish ones - but I hoped that it would become a bit easier to do so. Our kids slowly made some friends, going through a series of short-term relationships (Gabe especially) until they really found friends for the long run. It is a bit more mixed that you'd think even if it's nothing like NYC. Yeah, almost all of them are Jewish but they come from a variety of backgrounds religiously - like Gabe's buddy the Hebrew Christian, or Natan's Druze friends in the army - and politically as well as financially. Not everyone is a lawyer or doctor here - strange to me after New York. Kids's parents work in the NPO world, in teaching, social services - often, I have no idea what they do. I find the political differences often more polarizing than the religious ones - a subject for another blog post.

Last Saturday night, I left the house for my usual post-Shabbat gym and swim. The house was in full swing, with Natan and a group of his friends, along with Gabe and the girlfriend, playing and singing Elton John (!) on the piano and guitar. It was such a nice scene - a sign of how far everyone has come in the past 3.5 years here and an indicator of future success and happiness. It doesn't take away missing what we left in Brooklyn but I'm glad for what they've found and worked on since we've gotten here. I guess as a Jewish mother, I wonder if their Jewish future is secure but remind myself that it's much too early to tell - where they'll go, with whom they'll be, what they'll want to observe. I guess living here in Jerusalem is only one step on their personal - and mine, too - journey.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It may not be Manhattan

But we can be at the Dead Sea in little over an hour. No skyscrapers, it's true but stunning views of rocky cliffs - brown, craggy hills tufted with swirling patterns of the sea perhaps created in some long ago millennium.

The view is truly an unusual one, and it's made even more so by it's proximity to the big city - Jerusalem. As one descends the road from town, the view becomes increasingly space age, as regular flora and fauna give way to brown - with little relief. Towns are tucked into the hill around you - Ma'alei Adumim and it's spinoffs - Mishor Adumim and Mitzpe Adumim. Bits of green abound near the towns - surprisingly lushly in spots, which always makes one wonder about the water used to grow such greenery. Bedouin encampments are scattered along the side of the road, some quite crude looking, others complete with satellite dishes and water tanks. I always think of the women and how they manage keeping house under such conditions - tin roofs, patchy walls made from fabric, tarp and other simple stuffs. Broiling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Even if one likes living off the grid, this doesn't look pleasurable to my modern eyes.

Signs along the road mark the descent in terms of sea level. The Dead Sea shimmers in the distance, an impossibly, still body of water, surprisingly blue from afar. On the other side of the coast, Jordan beckons, it's mountains rugged, red hued and impressive looking.

We turn right at the bottom, driving past signposts with an ancient pedigree - Qumran and Nahal Kidron. At Mineral Beach, we park and change into our suits in the car - one of my favorite rusticating things to do. We head for the hot pool and sink in with a grateful sigh. Lovely if a bit tingly in all the areas that you'd forgotten about - the cut on your hand, the rough patch of skin on your elbows, etc.  Follow that with a walk down to the Dead Sea itself and the obligatory mud rub and wash up in the Sea. Sit and relax. Eat a bit. Read. Work on the Sunday crossword puzzle. Get cold. Head back up to the hot pool for a final soak and float - we've gotten good at managing the weightless feeling in the water and can even do it on our bellies without getting any water in our mouths.

Driving back home after changing back into dry clothes - yes, we could have done it in the bathroom but we didn't want to - we feel rested, relaxed, sort of dry and salty but our skin is soft and smooth to the touch.  The road is quiet, the light softer as the day begins to fade towards evening.

And Manhattan glistens in the distance - a mirage, 6000 miles away.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Conversation about Healing

What makes people change their tune and decide not to fight anymore? How do people shed their old belief systems and move to new ones? Does acceptance really bring about healing and change?

I'm reminded of the 2005 Tsunami - amid the devastation in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, longtime rebel revolutionaries, the Tamil Tigers suspended their activities during the rebuilding period.  They didn't seem to undergo too much of a change because they returned to their anti-government activities and related violence some months later.

What about the Middle East? What would it take for peace to truly 'break out' locally? We know that much has to happen, from improving the well-being of Arab citizens of Israel to Palestinian school children being taught the real history of the region and not manufactured stories guaranteed to make them into the suicide bombers and militants of tomorrow. Both sides have to learn to trust again and to believe that peace would be better than the other alternative.

Last week I popped in for a cup of tea and a bit of chat with friend and feminist mover and shaker, Tova Hartman. I was greeted at the door by Racheli, Tova's middle daughter, who welcomed me inside even though Tova hadn't gotten home yet. Standard procedure for this household which always has friends and neighbors popping in during the day. Tova bustled in with groceries in hand and her elder daughter, Nomi, pregnant and feeling lousy with a flu of some sort - not Swine according to the doctor. Within minutes, the kettle was up and snacks had been dispatched to all in need. Tova joined me and we chatted about stuff - life, kids, aging parents (hers and my mother).

Tova commented - I'm not sure how we got to this part of the conversation - about what she felt was the missing link in achieving peace and healing in the region. She said, 'in order for peace to happen, defeat must be accepted.' It seems so simple, right? But let's consider what that might mean to our neighbors in Gaza. Palestinian peoples must deal with the loss of their land, their homes, their dream of nationhood in 1948, the sour taste in their mouths that the Jews won, the feelings of disillusionment with having become refugees for more than a generation.  Okay, big demand but then again, they've had 60 years to deal with the defeat - maybe it's time.

Of course, as I type those words I say to myself, 'duh,' this is not rocket science, but as Tova spoke further about healing being the result of accepting defeat the other day, I thought, 'she's right.' Loss is painful of course, loss hurts, loss sticks in your throat, especially when you've spent decades perfecting the art of loss - teaching it to your kids, living as a refugee - and the greater art of hatred as a result.

In life, one always deals with loss. Loss of job, loved one, dreams, hopes - these are the difficult emotions that can cross our 'desks' on a regular basis. I've dealt with the loss of intellect ever since Akiva was born. Not that he doesn't have intellect but I've had to accept that his is different and that he may never read or write or really converse with me in a meaningful fashion. Years of thinking about this has helped me cope with the daily insults of rearing someone with developmental delay in a world that isn't so willing to forgive him with what I've come to terms.

What about the acceptance that comes with defeat? Tova's line of reasoning continued with the thought that once you've accepted defeat, you can deal with it when it 'rises up in your throat' again and again. Again, a sensible response. Acceptance leads to acceptance or acceptance leads to understanding or acceptance leads to peace.

I know I don't always feel at peace with the things that I do accept in my life. I might feel a bit more at ease with them but I don't necessarily feel contentment. I'm a person who likes to do - acceptance is okay with me but change is even better. But you can't always change everything that you need to accept and sometimes you just can't do, you just have to let it be. 

May we all find some sort of peace and healing in 2010.