Out There: Love the stranger
Even those few who articulated an interest in meeting some of the other folks at the celebration admitted – upon further probing – to utilitarian, rather than pure, motives.
Talking to strangers cartoon. Photo: pepe fainberg
Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. So went the saccharine-sweet
saying on popular posters in girls’ bedrooms back when I was in high school,
written underneath a rising sun over a green Midwest meadow, two horses nuzzling
neck to neck.
And in high school that saying – attributed to Will Rogers
– seemed so true, so deep, so profound.
Each new stage in life held out
the prospect of contact with new folks and, possibly, new friends. There would
be new adventures, new relationships, new perspectives, new
possibilities. Back then you actually wanted to meet new
That poster, those thoughts, came to mind last weekend when The
Wife and I were invited to a Beersheba hotel to celebrate the bar mitzva of the
son of good friends, the husband from the States, the wife from Brazil.
Sabbath hotel bar mitzva means not one but three meals around the table, and it
stirred within me a deep philosophical question: where to sit? Do I sit with
people I know and am familiar with, or with strangers? Do I stay the whole time
with the tried, the true and the comfortable, or go for the new, the untested
and the unknown? Were that high school poster my life’s guide, the answer would
be simple: the strangers, those friends yet unmade.
But that high school
poster is not my life’s guide, not by a long shot. It hasn’t been since, well,
THE HOSTS of the simcha sat all the guests at pre-arranged
tables, at least for the first meal, and organized the seating chart in a
logical fashion, based on geography. The Americans from our neighborhood at one
table; the Brazilians with the Brazilians at another; and the Brazilian- Israeli
or Brazilian-American couples at the table for mixed marriages.
meals we all plopped down at the same pre-assigned table. There was no
cross-sitting, no trans-migration from one table to the next, no brave soul from
the American table moseying over to the Brazilians and starting up conversation
with a brisk Portuguese, “Oi, como vai?” (“Hi, how’s it going”).
at my table mixing things up merely meant shifting a couple seats to the left at
each meal, so it would not be necessary to sit next to the same person at each
feeding. And even that degree of playing with the seating arrangement was deemed
Even those few who articulated an interest in
meeting some of the other folks at the celebration admitted – upon further
probing – to utilitarian, rather than pure, motives. Perhaps one of the other
couples had a son for their daughter; perhaps the Brazilian rumored to work in a
local council would be a valuable contact down the line.
poster illustrating this sentiment would be one skinny horse standing alone
eyeing three plump ones grazing happily together, over the words: “Strangers are
friends you don’t know yet, but who might be able to do something for you
MY OWN reluctance to reach out and meet new people is neither
inherited nor new. Back when The Wife was merely The Prospective Girlfriend for
whose affection I was vying with another, I told her bluntly she had a choice:
either me or the scrawny, boring, homely, obviously inferior guy with the pointy
shoes who was trying to win her over.
Wary of the expression used by so
many when breaking off relationships, “we can still be friends,” I pre-empted
and said there would be no friendship if she chose the other, it would simply be
over. “If I want friends, I’ll join a bowling club,” I said, a line I am still
proud of to this very day.
I was not looking for friends; friends I had
in abundance (okay, not in abundance, but enough for me). What I was looking for
was The Wife.
This disinclination to look for new friends carried over to
my days in the IDF reserves as well, and set me apart from a good pal with whom
I always did reserve duty. This fellow – big, cheery and gregarious – looked at
each reserve stint as a plum opportunity to meet new people.
into the mess hall on the first afternoon, and I’d sit at the corner of a table,
not talking to anyone, just wanting to be left alone to wallow in the misery of
being snatched for 30 days from home and hearth. Not Haim.
No, Haim – in
a heavy American accent which he did not seem a bit self-conscious about –
introduced himself to the fellows around the table as if he was running for
“Hi, I’m Haim, from New Jersey,” he’d bellow.
your name?” I sat silently.
Haim’s reserve stints were enjoyable, full of
meeting new people. Mine were lonely, punctuated only once in a while by the
opportunity to sit with Haim and his new-found friends.
actually thought Haim was my father’s real son, for my father also loves talking
to strangers. He loves it so much that he can’t ride a bus, or go into a store,
without striking up a conversation with someone. He loves it so much that my
daughter, when just a small girl, innocently asked, “Why does Saba always talk
to people he doesn’t know?” He’ll ask people for directions, and end up talking
for 15 minutes. He’ll strike up a conversation with someone in a restaurant, and
find out what’s good on the menu. He actually likes chatting to the person
sitting next to him on the airplane.
Me, I just want to be left alone on
the plane. I don’t need to know where the people sitting next to me are from,
where they are going, or the purpose of their journey. I resent them from the
moment they fill that seat – a seat I always pray will remain empty – and just
hope they keep their elbows off my half of the armrest.
Yes, I have
traveled far from those saccharine-sweet high school posters that I thought
contained so much wisdom. Were I to design a poster now reflecting my mindset,
and that of the other middle-agers at that Beersheba bar mitzva, it would not
feature a rising sun trumpeting limitless possibilities of new buddies. No, it
would picture a setting sun superimposed over the words, “Time is getting short,
do you really need new friends?”