Arts & Culture

Angetevka Days

I met him first in Jerusalem, and then not again for another twenty years. We were re-introduced and I almost got a marriage proposal. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but still. I’d gone to pay a shiva call in Teaneck, … Read More

By / October 15, 2008

I met him first in Jerusalem, and then not again for another twenty years. We were re-introduced and I almost got a marriage proposal. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but still.

I’d gone to pay a shiva call in Teaneck, the little shteibele over the Hudson. As is customary, the two mourners–my friend, Barry, and his brother, Paul, who’d flown in from Jerusalem–sat on low, hard stools in the living room, and in honor of their father, told stories of his life and passed around photographs. At one point, Barry pulled out a poster on which his son had charted his grandfather’s journey in 1939 from Poland to Vilna to Copenhagen to Paris to Marseille to Haifa to Beirut and then back to Haifa and eventually to America, staying one step ahead of the Holocaust. "It must seem strange to you," Barry said to me, "to see how uprooted and dispersed and broken apart Jews are."

"It’s been like that for 2,000 years," I replied. "I mean, it reached a pinnacle under Nazi Germany. But what I’m more surprised by is how incredibly connected Jews are with one another. There’s a cohesiveness and a continuity that is inexplicable." We talked for a while about origins, where you come from and how you get there, and how the Jewish people as a whole have a different sense of place and home, because whether they’d lived in a country for 500 years or 50, they had dwelled in justifiable fear that they might be kicked out–until the state of Israel was established and provided at least the option of not living under foreign rule.

Meanwhile, I overheard Paul speaking about psychiatric patients whom he’d treated for "Jerusalem syndrome," a term applied to people who, on coming to Jerusalem, suffer from the notion that they are John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary or some other mystical type of a person. When I lived in Jerusalem, I told Paul, a British woman and her two young daughters sat on Jaffa Road and begged. The mother thought that her dead husband was Jesus and would be showing up in Jerusalem any time, and so she’d brought her children to Israel to await his arrival.

"When were you in Jerusalem?" Paul asked.

"From ’81 to ’83, " I answered, wondering if he’d met these girls as well.

"By any chance, were you in Israel in 1987?"

I thought back–that was the summer I’d left a job, ended a relationship, and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, or at least for the rest of the calendar year. I had returned to Jerusalem, a place that felt like home to me, to try to sort it out. "Yes, I was."

There was a curious expression on Paul’s face, and after seeming to consider it for a moment, he asked, "Do you have a lot of siblings?"

While I will concede that psychiatrists can often intuit a lot about others given a minimum of information, Paul seemed extraordinarily insightful, even for a shrink.

"Yes," I responded again. "I do. I have nine brothers and sisters."

Finally, Paul said, "Could you have been at a Shabbat lunch with a family named Werman?"

"Golda was my advisor in college, and a good friend, and I was at her house a lot, so yes probably I was." I still couldn’t figure out how he had access to this information. My friend, Barry, was certainly not cognizant of these little details.

"I met you at lunch," he explained. "We sat next to each other, and I remember you telling me about your family, and you grew up in this strange Christian faith."

This was a not unusual Angetevka moment for me–discovering that I have met someone somewhere in that interconnected Jewish world I’d just referred to with Barry. I am only a bit surprised when this occurs, and am invariably pleased–I like the idea that goodbye is not goodbye, people are not lost to you, but they come floating back in some way, perhaps twenty years later and you can both say, "Hey."

I remembered this lunch, remembered asking my tablemate what the change from America to Israel had been like, and telling him that I was also thinking of moving to Israel. I recalled liking his ability to listen and how he seemed to really hear. And I remembered walking out with him and continuing our discussion on the empty Sabbath afternoon streets of Jerusalem. I had been seriously considering completely uprooting myself, voluntarily, and moving to Israel, whose ancient roots had wrapped themselves around me, and where I felt so at home spiritually. (I was probably suffering from a milder case of the Jerusalem syndrome though it had yet to be characterized as such.) I didn’t recall thinking he was interested in me romantically, but I was always singularly stupid when it came to that. Had he started unzipping his pants, it may have dawned on me that he harbored feelings of the "me-man, you-woman" variety.

"I was dating someone at the time," he went on, "but I remember thinking, maybe she’ll move here and convert…."

"You had only to ask!" I replied, both flippantly, and not. We laughed, because it was safe twenty years later to reveal ourselves to one another, and because there was a funny honesty in admitting to the oh-so-human urge to dwell on the could-have-beens. In retrospect, I could see that, for different reasons, we’d both been at that proverbial crossroads, ending something and beginning something else, and it was within the realms of possibility that had I stayed, I would have gravitated toward him, or toward someone like him.

Now that we’d established that we were long-lost friends, we caught up on what had happened in the intervening twenty years, but it was impossible on a shiva call to say anything more than the superficial, obvious things–we were both married, both had three children, and both happy with the way our lives had turned out. When I took my leave, we kissed goodbye and exchanged email addresses.

Two months later, he emailed me that he was in town for his niece’s bat mitzvah. So we met for coffee on my territory, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This time we immediately bypassed the surface details of our lives and he told me that his father’s death, followed by seeing me again, had triggered something indefinable but real in him. He’d become more distant with his family, contemplating the alternative life he might have had.

I can imagine, I said, playing armchair therapist, that your life sort of paralleled your father’s life: you uprooted yourself, though in your case voluntarily, and you moved to Israel and it seems that your life has worked out well… I wasn’t certain where I fit in with his crisis of uncertainty, this internal dislocation that he was describing.

"My father," Paul said, "only spoke to us in English. He never spoke Yiddish or Polish to us, just to his friends from Europe. My wife is Italian, and I’m American, and we speak to our children in Hebrew. Their English is-" He shrugged. "I wonder sometimes if I’d married an American woman, and we’d spoken English at home…"

Not for a second did I think that this was really about me, (though my ego was flattered at the possibility). Just as being in Jerusalem might induce the Jerusalem syndrome in various people, it didn’t actually cause the disorder. I thought that in some convoluted and complex way, seeing me had prompted a re-examination of the miracle that he’d once been seeking in Jerusalem, his own Jerusalem syndrome.

At the end of 1987, I left Israel and returned to the rocky relationship (my not being willing to convert had been one of the issues) that I’d left behind. The following year I became, unexpectedly, pregnant, and immediately realized that of course I would convert. Now, Paul walked me down Broadway where I was meeting my oldest son, the marvelous result of that unintentional pregnancy. I introduced the two of them, (my son bore a suspicious, protecting-his-mother’s-honor look on his face) and later, when my son asked me who he was, I said somebody I met in Jerusalem a long time ago.