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Sunday, July 08, 2007

A great time... and a missed opportunity

The first time that Zahava and I went out for dinner with our friends 'Imshin' & 'Bish' (Imshin writes the popular blog 'Not a Fish') it was considered such a noteworthy event that Allison Kaplan Sommer of 'An Unsealed room' issued a mock press release

"An historic outing in the Israeli blogosphere.

David and Imshin double date.

Left meets right!
Religious meets secular!
"Settlers" meet North Tel Avivis!

And everybody has a good time! Let's all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya!""

Up until that moment I hadn't really dwelled too much on our potential differences.  All I knew was that Imshin had made us feel instantly welcome and comfortable at our first (and only) blogmeet, and we wanted very much to get to know her and her husband better.   

But after seeing Allison's tongue-in-cheek announcement, I realized that our respective backgrounds made us (Imshin and me, that is) fairly unlikely pen-pals, much less friends.

Despite the potential cultural differences, that first dinner with the Imshins went swimmingly, and over the following months we stayed in touch... reading each other's blogs and sending the occasional email to make a private observation... all the while looking for a suitable time and place for another get-together.  However, it wasn't for over a year that the stars aligned again to make another meeting possible. 

It turned out that Imshin and her family would be vacationing in the upper Galilee within days of the end of the war in Lebanon... and so would we.  In fact, we were staying less than five minutes from one another!  So one evening we all tucked in our kids and snuck out with our spouses to meet up for a wonderful evening of drinks and dessert under the stars at 'Dag Al HaDan'

Over the course of another year we somehow never found another opportunity to get together... but we stayed in touch. 

Then a couple of months ago Herod's tomb was uncovered on the slopes of Herodion and Imshin mentioned in a post that she was excited about the discovery.  Seeing as Herodion is practically in our back yard, I jumped at the opportunity and invited the whole Imshin clan out for a tour, followed by lunch at our place.

In the end we missed meeting their elder daughter because of a scheduling conflict, but Imshin, Bish and their younger daughter all made the trip out to see us (oh yeah, and Herod's tomb) this past Friday. 

I should probably point out that for someone living in Tel Aviv, trekking out to Gush Etzion is a big deal.  It means not only taking a long trip (something Israelis seem to loathe unless traveling abroad), but also potentially crossing comfort (as in OMG, is it safe???) and even ideological (as in OMG, is it in occupied territory!) boundaries.  I still don't know what personal demons the Imshins had to set aside to make the trip, but knowing how I feel like a fish out of water in Tel Aviv, I'm sure it was no small thing for them to come to our neck of the woods.

As always, we had a wonderful time renewing our friendship with Imshin and Bish... and their younger daughter (sandwiched in age between Gilad and Ariella) was a delightful addition to the bunch.

We drove out to Herodion and climbed to the top... and then down through the Herodian and Bar Kochva-era tunnels... before stumbling upon a tour group that had gained permission to enter the normally restricted tomb site.  Being good Israelis we simply waited until the gate was unlocked and snuck followed them inside as if we were part of the group  :-)

I'll leave it to Imshin to describe her impressions of Herodion since I've written before about my awe of Herod's desert refuge.  what I wanted to mention here was a small event that occurred while we strolling around lower Herodion where the Roman pool and ruins are located at the foot of the mountain. 

As we approached the lower ruins we noticed a couple of Arab kids walking towards us.  One was a pretty girl of perhaps 12 or 13, and the other was (I assume) her older brother who I'd say was 15 or 16. 

Maybe it's because I've done so much touring in the middle- and far-east, but I was instantly suspicious of the kids.  It was plain to see that they didn't represent a safety risk, but I guess I assumed they would be chatting us up for a hand-out or perhaps trying to sell us antiquities they'd found in the area.

So I simply nodded hello to them and wandered with Ariella over towards the ancient pool.  It wasn't until we were almost to the stone steps leading down into the pool that I noticed that Bish had stopped to chat with the kids.  Imshin, her daughter and Gilad were standing nearby as the 'conversation' unfolded.

I could hear some of it from where I was standing, but it was pretty clear that there wouldn't be that much actual communicating going on since the kids spoke only Arabic and a tiny smattering of English.  I say 'kids' but in fact it was the young girl who was doing most of the talking.  She had a quick, beautiful smile and seemed quite confident talking to strangers (Israelis!) despite her limited English vocabulary.  And the few English words she knew how to use were so deliciously accented that I wish I'd had a tape recorder!

It wasn't until we were in the car heading back to our house for lunch that I started to realize the enormity of the opportunity I'd missed. 

Perhaps because of my experience with street beggars... and equally likely because of my (yes I admit it) knee-jerk suspicion of local Arabs... I had instinctively veered away from making contact with the kids.  Bish, on the other hand, had instinctively engaged the kids and spent most of our time in lower Herodion trying to talk with them instead of touring the ruins.

In retrospect, I feel like I made a silly decision.  Those ruins aren't going anywhere, and I've actually seen them all before.  But the kids... the kids... who knows how many opportunities I'll have in the foreseeable future to be in a completely relaxed, non-political setting and play charades with a couple of Arab teenagers.

I have to be careful with what I say at this point because I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea.  But aside from the fact that Bish and Imshin are genuinely wonderful people and share many values and priorities as people, parents and Jews with us, a tiny part of the allure of maintaining a friendship with them is certainly the 'otherness' of who they are. 

They live in Tel Aviv... a world that may as well be in China for how mysterious it and its residents sometimes seem to us.  We also like the idea of 'representing' religious settlers since it's reasonable to assume that Bish and Imshin have as many preconceptions about people 'like us' as we have about people 'like them'.

In the end, if there's one thing I've learned from getting to know Imshin and Bish it's that there really are no typical Tel Avivis.  And hopefully they have gotten an idea that there are also no typical religious settlers.  In truth, what we rarely admit to ourselves is that most of the closely held stereotypes harbored by both sides of the political divide tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule.

But for all my cultural sensitivity about 'us Jews', I kinda missed the boat with a rare encounter with Arabs. 

Don't get me wrong... nothing, but nothing is going to convince me to wander into a cafe in Ramallah or Jenin any time soon looking for someone with whom to sing 'Koombaya'.  Statistically I would be very unlikely to meet someone who was prepared to actually do me harm... but politically, the gulf is still much too wide to risk such a visit.  But it was truly silly of me to squander a rare opportunity such as was presented this past Friday.

Who knows where those kids will be in ten years?!  It may be that this brief encounter ends up being the only thing on the 'other side of the ledger' from all the terrible things they are taught about Israelis.  While I certainly wasn't insulting or rude to them... I also wasn't particularly friendly either.  And while I haven't discussed it yet with Ariella and Gilad, I'm sure they followed my lead and ended up missing an extremely valuable opportunity to see some Arab kids their age up close. 

It's funny, but in our email correspondence leading up to the visit, Imshin wrote jokingly about being pleased that her kids would have the opportunity to visit a settlement and see that settlers don't have horns.  I think I wrote back something witty like 'thanks for the heads-up since we usually don't take our horns off at home'.

The irony is that our kids (like many Jewish children in post-Oslo Israel) are being raised with an extremely jaundiced view of Arabs... and when an opportunity presented itself for them to see two blameless Arab kids in a completely non-threatening, relaxed setting, I steered them away.

Anyway, as the title of the post sates, we truly had a great time playing host to Imshin, Bish and their youngest daughter... and can't wait for the opportunity to have them show us around their part of the country.  But at the same time, I'm really kicking myself over a missed opportunity that would have made the day that much more memorable.

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Posted by David Bogner on July 8, 2007 | Permalink

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You were given a gift to see those Arab kids through someone else's eyes, but don't discount your gift to us. Thank you for sharing your view from the frontier.

Posted by: Bob | Jul 8, 2007 4:32:58 PM

Dave, what a touching story.

And now for a little tongue in cheek... not that I am counting, but that is the second time in a week of posts that you choose to use the word "swimmingly". I've never heard the word used before, and thanks to you, I now have a new word added to my vocubulary but it seems such an odd word to describe a get together.

p.s. I have to admit, since reading your blog (3 yrs I think) my vocabulary knowdelge has benefited ... Thanks Dave.

Posted by: jaime | Jul 8, 2007 8:14:41 PM

Don't beat yourself up over it. For one thing, you've learned a lesson out of it... But secondly, I wouldn't necessarily assume that the incident would have been anything more than it was - a couple of minutes chatting with teenagers. I understand that it may be very rare because of the local atmosphere... but at the same time, although tiny incidents sometimes do carry significant consequences... most of the time, they are just small incidents that make up or life. So you shouldn't feel so guilty about squandering an opportunity... Who knows what would have come out of that, but the next time you'll have a chance, perhaps will work out better. Sitting here in NYC, I see all kinds of Jews - very secular, somewhat similar to what people describe as Tel Avivi, moderately religious, veyr religious, left-wing, right-wing, and all shades in between... so while I understand the rift you speak of, for me it's hard to understand why it becomes seen as something mysterious and overwhelming once it happens in Israel.

Posted by: Irina | Jul 9, 2007 6:07:02 AM

David,

Shalom, I loved this post. That's what makes reading your blog so enjoyable. You care !! You really do, and it comes through !! I understand very well what you mean about "missed" opportunities, but perhaps your seeing the glass half-empty, instead of the other option, of seeing it half-full. What do I mean by this ???
Well, it's like this, you see a missed opportunity because you resisted and did not engage the kids ?? Maybe showing the Arab kids the positive side of Israeli's wasn't the only opportunity and the greatest opportunity really wasn't missed at all. Maybe the great opportunity was for you to view them from a different prospective ?? You came away from this encounter, thinking a bit differently ?? With a little renewed hope for future generations of Arab and Israeli kids ?? Maybe the opportunity was for you to examine your pre-conceived notions about them and not just the other way around ??? Like you and your family have experienced with your friends from Tel Aviv, both sides seeing things from a new vantage point. So, maybe the opportunity wasn't "lost" after all ??? This is why I love your writing !! It challenges and makes people think !!!

BTW, You've been TAGGED my me over at my blog:

http://aaronsrod.blogspot.com/

Please, when you have a few free minutes, check it out !!

Shalom,
Elaine

Posted by: Elaine | Jul 9, 2007 11:51:09 AM

I haven't been reading this blog long, but it has provided a wealth of information to me! Not being Jewish, and living in a community where Jewish-ness is rarely even noticed or commented upon (I couldn't tell you if any of my co-workers were Jewish, nor would it matter, I think, to any of us), the religious information I've gleaned from this blog is fascinating. And living in a (relatively) boring southern US city, I'm likewise intrigued by the worldview you provide, living where you do. The political and social climate in your region is something very difficult, in my opinion, for Americans to understand. We don't really have a frame of reference. To speak one day of a craving for blueberry coffee and a childlike delight in obtaining some, followed by a post about missed opportunities in Israeli/Arab relations and trips through occupied territory is almost mind-blowing to someone like me. I am learning a great deal through your blog, and other blogs you recommend, and am grateful to learn through them more about the world I and my children live in. The best part is that I'm learning, not from a sterile news source citing events and people I don't recognize, but from people and families living their normal lives. I'm grateful for this opportunity that you definitely have not missed!

Posted by: CamSavWin | Jul 9, 2007 6:36:31 PM

Hi David,

Do you realize that you are the exception rather than the norm with regards to Israeli-Arab interaction? The place where you live and your workplace make sure that you do not meet Arabs in an easy day to day encounter.

Lot's of Israelis have Arab neighbour (we do) and/or co-workers.

Posted by: Ruth | Jul 11, 2007 10:46:07 AM

Great post, David. Your ability to see "the other" from his side of the ideological divide is one of the reasons I enjoy reading you.

You remind me of an incident that happened in Towson, Maryland. I was wearing a gray sweatshirt-fabric dress, and the black and gray snood that a friend had made to go with it. And I was trying to find the mall. (Understand that Ruti can't find her way out of a paper bag with arrows painted inside.) So I stopped at a gas station to ask directions. A young black male with the most beautiful smile bounded up to my car. "Whatchew lookin' fo', Sistah?" he asked me, very sweetly. My face brightened up with that smile, and that surprisingly warm attitude. I explained, and he gave directions. "You take ca' y'se'f, Sistah!" he said to me, with a truly protective look. I drove to the mall, wishing all young black men could see human beings as family, as this boy seemed to.

At the mall, my day was further brightened by three young twenty-something black males, walking toward me with beautific smiles. "Hey, Sistah!" they said. "How ya doin', Sistah?"

I am a little slow, it is true. But I finally got it. The black snood, with the gray band (and my decidedly Irish-looking face underneath it), made me appear to them as a Catholic nun.

You have to understand the way things are here in Maryland. The hostility between blacks and whites, and maybe particularly between blacks and Jews, is palpable, if not openly expressed. Had I been dressed in a different "costume," those boys may have looked through me, or at me with barely-concealed violence. And I may have passed by them, as I have been trained, without looking them in the eyes, and with an impassive face. At best, we would have all looked passed each other with the traditional "Howya doin'," which is said with the clear inference that an answer is neither expected nor desired.

At that moment, I felt a bit wistful and sad. How I would love to have a grant to study the difference clothing makes! Those young men were all just boys for a few brief minutes. They were someone's lovable sons. For a moment, they were mine.

How beautiful and hopeful it is, when Hashem gives us a brief glimpse of what the world could be. And perhaps it can renew our vigor, when we press our faces upward, begging Him to hurry and give us the clarity we anticipate in the time of Moshiach. Bimhera v'ameinu.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jul 11, 2007 2:54:06 PM

Great insight into your own preconceptions. Glad you own them. And thank goodness for the cross-cultural relationship your family and Imshin's is developing. I engage in interfaith dialogs to help me get over my ignorance, biases, limitations. Engaging with folks beyond our comfort zones is one way to bridge the gaps that perpetuate shared tragedy. My Charedi cousin told me she could not join the Tel Aviv guided tour I had organized for my large family (all modern Orthodox). The dissenting cousin said she couldn't expose her family to the immodest dress style of Tel Aviv people. Since then, I could not cross over the line to her home in Ramat Shlomo. I need to make the effort yet when the situation has built-in preconditions and one side can move in a direction the other side will not, life is hard. If you have suggestions beyond getting over it, I'd love to hear them.

Posted by: tamar | Jul 15, 2007 3:53:30 AM

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