Eisenbud's Odyssey: Roots

An endless wanderer finally finds a home.

Eisenbud ID 311 (photo credit: New York Israel Consulate)
Eisenbud ID 311
(photo credit: New York Israel Consulate)
I’ve never really been from anywhere. Not in a conventional sense, anyway.
My father was a freshly minted Ivy League MBA and young executive at General Electric when I was born in Schenectady, New York, in the early ’70s. There, his corporate culture dictated that all true “GE Men” follow a peripatetic path along their stock-option-fueled trajectory to corporate greatness, lest they be seen as not having the right stuff.
None among them wanted to be viewed as a weak link in an otherwise incomparably powerful, lucrative and efficient corporate juggernaut that took the world by storm during the ’80s Zeitgeist – the very height of excessive power, prestige and wealth that spawned the “Masters of the Universe” that the Occupy Wall Street protesters now so vehemently denounce.
Indeed, in those days the GE culture practically singlehandedly proved Darwinian theory, became the most coveted paradigm for professors at the top business schools the world over and made the guys from Mad Men look like featherweights in tutus, nursing hangovers from their “girly” drinks.
GE guys were the true corporate warriors, end of argument.
FROM LIGHT bulbs and microwaves to nuclear warheads, you name it, GE likely brought it to life – without an ounce of fat or waste (except for that which was infamously, and surreptitiously, jettisoned into the Hudson River. But nothing that a fat check couldn’t fix) – and plenty of record-breaking quarterly profits to go around to reward those who helped live the dream.
But to me, it was like a corporate mafia where men didn’t go to get a job so much as an identity and an elite career defined by all the trappings of success one could ask for.
Luxury house in an upscale part of town? Check. Membership to an exclusive country club? Check. Paid vacations to tropical paradises – or any exotic locale you could think of? Check. Fancy cars? Check. Tiffany’s express account for the nagging, neglected wife? Check. Second home to vacation at when the first house (and first nagging, neglected wife) just seemed too stifling? You bet.
The perks were endless and awe-inspiring for high achievers like my dad, and divvied out by the all-knowing, feared and respected Jack Welch, better known as “Neutron Jack” to his detractors. (To the unindoctrinated, his nickname was due to his propensity for miraculously eliminating employees while leaving the buildings they once worked in, and profit margins, fully intact. A similar dynamic to the neutron bomb – minus, of course, the profits.)
But for all you MBAs and students of business out there, you’ll recall that Mr. Welch was just about as close to the Wizard of Oz as it got in the most fertile capitalist soil of the late 20th century. To this day I practically give a reflexive bow in deference, just a little bit, every time I hear his name.
HOWEVER, HIS reign resulted in a circuitous and tumultuous childhood for me and my older sister, Deb. Indeed, by the time she was a teenager and I was 11, we had lived in – and been abruptly uprooted from – four communities along the northeast of the US, only to move to a fifth “home” in a suburb of Philadelphia, where the prognosis of growing meaningful roots, or even fitting in, was 50-50 at best.
That said, I have never in my adult life spoken to, nor seen in person, a single friend that I made before the age of 11. They very much existed in their own worlds, but mostly became like ghosts in vignettes of Fellini-like recurring dreams that I occasionally revisited – while I was busy being the proverbial new kid, with a (now-corrected) speech impediment and weight problem to boot.
I was like catnip to bullies on every playground I dared to enter and was hypersensitive. Ah, the joys of youth!
It is only recently that the same friends who once defined the happiest moments of my childhood have come back to life, compliments of Facebook. The only catch is that now they barely remember me, and they look exactly as I remember their fathers, or worse.
I can just imagine catching up, too:
“Hey John! I see from your Facebook profile that you have a herniated disk, type 2 diabetes, a job that you absolutely can’t stand, are going through your second divorce AND have a son who really enjoys Judo!
“But do you remember the time we skateboarded in Mr. Jennings’s empty swimming pool and almost got grounded for life?!
“John? You still there...?”
It just doesn’t have the same panache anymore, you know?
SO TO this day, anytime someone asks me where I’m from, I always experience an awkward, almost Pavlovian, reaction. After all, how do you tell someone, “nowhere in particular” without coming across like a degenerate gambler, gypsy or fugitive?
This, coupled with being a first-generation American on my mother’s side, left me unanchored throughout my developmental years – and to a degree, to this day.
Compared to all the other kids I befriended on my many journeys to new “Pleasantvilles,” who grew up knowing their best friends since their mothers’ Lamaze classes, I was a man without a country. The very prototype of a wandering Jew.
And I was always acutely aware of this fact.
SINCE I moved to Israel a year and a half ago, I have been able to piece together a sense of belonging that had long eluded me. But it didn’t come easy.
Indeed, I still typically wake up in the early morning hours at least five times during any given week and have no idea where I am.
It’s not that I was up partying the night before, or taking some kind of mind-altering substance. It’s just that my subconscious mind still thinks I’m wandering on.
However, after a full year of jumping through Israel’s arsenal of bureaucratic hoops and acclimating to its “tough love” social norms, I have indeed gotten to the point where I feel at home.
This, of course, doesn’t take into account the fact that I now live in what amounts to a matchbox on a petrol-soaked football field, owned and operated by the most hostile, pyromaniac-inclined neighbors on the face of the earth.
Additionally, to my great chagrin, I remain profoundly Hebrew-resistant, and always assume that all the conversations going on around me are important and somehow mind-blowing – like regular people are talking about highly-trained assassin camels, or some prototype of a truth-serum humous that Baba Ganoosh is covertly working on with the IDF.
The list of foibles goes on and on, my friends…
BUT, AFTER slogging it out here for a good chunk of time, I actually got a pretty good job and made some of the best friends I have known since those short-lived “Wonder Years.”
Additionally, there is a seemingly endless chorus line of well-wishers who invite me to their homes for Shabbat dinners and appear to have limitless energy in the pursuit of finding me a wife.
I have also learned that while Israelis may be the toughest group I have ever tried to infiltrate (which is saying something), their friendship and loyalty, once earned, is pretty much uncompromised.
That is one profit margin that pays dividends in a way GE never could.
Indeed, there are moments – priceless moments – when I walk down the street as the sun is about to set (as it only can in Jerusalem), and feel like I have never been more home in my life.
Like I finally belong somewhere.
AND WHILE I don’t have any of the monetary trappings of success that corporations like GE once doled out to hardworking, highly intelligent men like my father, I do have something that I thought would dodge me for my entire life: roots.
They are a priceless commodity that cannot be bought or sold for reasons that you’d have to live here to fully appreciate.
And the best part is that these days, whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I no longer hesitate to answer.
“Israel,” I say.
And in my heart, I know that truer words have never been spoken.
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