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 370 (photo credit: pepe fainberg)
Talking to strangers cartoon 370
(photo credit: 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 people.
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.
A 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, high school.
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.
For three 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”).
Indeed, 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 cutting-edge daring.
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.
The high-school 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 later.”
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.
We’d saunter 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 Congress.
“Hi, I’m Haim, from New Jersey,” he’d bellow.
“What’s 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.
SOMETIMES I 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?”