Some beliefs of mine that have guided this column over the years were well expressed by American author and essayist Elwyn Brooks White (1899- 1985), better known as E.B. White and perhaps best remembered for his classic children’s novel Charlotte’s Web. A decades-long contributor to The New Yorker magazine, he told an interviewer back in 1969: “A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter.”
White went on to state that he felt “no obligation to deal with politics,” but confessed, “I do feel a responsibility to society.” A writer, he said, “has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error,” and “he should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”
As White asserts, the very act of going into print carries responsibility; if not to society as a whole then to readers, who, pressed by complex and competing demands on their time, may reasonably expect to go away having learned something new, seen something old in a new light, enjoyed the writer’s use of language, or just been made to smile at a dash of humor or wit.
While I like the notion of it being a duty to be “lively, not dull,” what echoes in me is White’s conviction that a writer’s work “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”
While spurning the over-optimistic stance of a Pollyanna and always mindful of truth and accuracy, this “tendency,” in White’s language, “to lift people up” feels especially needful in our own current reality, amid a wave of Palestinian terrorism that shows little sign of abating and has ordinary citizens glancing over their shoulders in the street to see who might be sneaking up behind with murder in mind. (As of September 2015, 33 of our people have been killed and some 360 wounded in stabbings, shootings and carrammings.) With horror after horror spilling out of the media – here and in the West, which is facing colossal challenges of its own undreamt of not so long ago – the idea of a contemporary essayist “lifting people up,” if only temporarily, out of what could be a trough of despair is one that appeals.
I THUS make no apology for recounting a small but uplifting episode during a recent trip to Israel’s North, where, after taking in some stunning views of nature, we four friends – three Israelis and one regular visitor – settled down in the sunshine to a late lunch in the charming artists’ community just a short drive from the ancient talmudic village of Katzrin.
The food arrived in good time, attractively served, and we were well pleased with our choice of the kosher restaurant – until one of us extracted from between her teeth a curly bit of stiff metal that might have been part of a washing-up implement.
Everyone brings their own baggage to an experience, and while our friend – easygoing and resistant to fuss – adopted a cheerful attitude of “no harm done” and was ready go on eating, I was instantly transported back to 2008 and the Deplorable Incident of the Chewing Gum in the Teacup, which readers of my erstwhile Short Order food column might recall.
Briefly, I was draining the last of my English tea at a café-restaurant in a popular Jerusalem mall when a small grayish mound gradually came into view. This proved to be a chewed-up piece of chewing gum stuck inside the bottom of the glass mug, and I thought it worthy of a conversation with the manager.
This thin, young and unpleasant individual had clearly never heard that “the customer is always right” and, despite the evidence, stoutly denied the occurrence of any such thing. When our waiter, who had been clearing the table, backed up my story, he asked, ungraciously: “What do you want?” I answered mildly that some sort of compensation might be in order, to which he said I could have a free dessert, writing a note to that effect. Not only did I not stay, I have never been back to that establishment. Readers critiqued me for not “naming and shaming” it.
BACK TO the Golan in 2016 and a debate over whether we should let the restaurant know about our discovery of the foreign body in the food. Agreeing it was necessary in the interests of hygiene and safety, we informed our young waitress, who received the information lackadaisically. I prepared myself for a rerun of the chewing-gum saga.
Nothing like it. When she brought our bill, the waitress added, politely: “Naturally, we have canceled the charge for one main dish.” Before we could digest this welcome news, the chef (or manager) appeared, apologizing for the glitch and setting down a plate of four yummy-looking chocolate truffles.
A tiny episode, yes, in the grand scheme of things, but it was uplifting. We left reassured, not only for ourselves but for any tourists who might have a similar experience there, or elsewhere, and pack away a restaurant’s solicitousness with other positive memories of their stay in Israel.
Postscript: A favorite scarf I had dropped during our visit to the Katzrin village was located immediately after I called the reception clerk and returned when we drove back there after our meal, even though the site had officially closed for the day. Again, there was kindness and consideration where one might have expected brusqueness and indifference.
WHITE FELT “no obligation to deal with politics,” but here it’s difficult to avoid politics, local or otherwise. And the open anti-Israel hostility among the intelligentsia, on university campuses, and among ordinary people in much of the self-described civilized Western world may or may not be political, but it’s hard to ignore, and about as far from uplifting as you can get. Listening to local radio one morning during a trip to London, I was taken aback at the virulence displayed by some listeners who called in to a popular talk show.
It’s hard to banish the impression that latent or blatant anti-Semitism, mixed with ignorance, lie at the root of the malevolence routinely aimed at Israel as at no other country.
In a poll commissioned by the European Commission, Israel was believed by Europeans in 15 countries to be the greatest threat to world peace – greater than North Korea, Iran or Afghanistan. To those who know that Israel, while far from perfect, battling constant threat from its enemies, tries hard to maintain its moral stance, such findings are incomprehensible, bordering on makebelieve.
One wonders how E.B. White, who was quite at home with fantasy, would have reacted to the extraordinary, upside-down reality in which so many of those who claim the moral high ground, waving the flag of human rights, delegitimize the only democracy in the Middle East, preferring to take the part of brutal dictatorships that oppress their citizens, repress their women and persecute gays. Perhaps, like the heroine of Alice in Wonderland, he might have exclaimed, “Curiouser and curiouser!” White wasn’t talking about the world’s attitude to Israel, but he certainly could have been, when he wrote: “Prejudice is a great time-saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”