Thursday, March 18, 2004

Lost and Found

I’m not in the habit of reviewing films in this column. But I haven’t been able to get "Lost in Translation," Sofia Copolla’s Academy Award-winning character study of isolation and loneliness, out of my head. Because, in too many ways, the film captures how I imagined my own life would be.

And because things turned out so totally different.

When I was growing up and I thought about what the future held in store for me, I always imagined it would be interesting. I loved to write and I loved to travel (still do). During college I worked summers as a tour guide, hopping on and off buses, imparting pearls of historical wisdom and telling lame jokes to a captive audience.

After graduation, I planned a grand adventure around the world. I would go gallivanting from one exotic location to another, soaking up the atmosphere and writing deep thought-pieces on global multi-culturalism. Maybe I would pick up a few tours along the way. Or stomp some grapes in the south of France.

But for some reason, I always imagined that I would be doing it all by myself, socially and spiritually alone. Wife? Family? Not in the cards for me.

Now don’t go and feel all sorry for me. Because I wasn’t particularly sad. It was more a matter of accepting who I thought I was: a guy who never quite found his place...but always had something interesting to say about it.

Unkept, untucked and mostly unshaven from high school on through university, I wasn’t a jock, a stoner or in with the popular crowd. I was a borderline nerd born too soon, before computers would made geeks chic.

I also spent my formative years as a Jew in a predominantly non-Jewish suburban community. Which I didn’t think mattered much to me.

Apparently, though, it did. I was searching for something. I just didn’t know it at the time.

I timed my travels to start right after the tour guiding season was over: that was December 1983. I had convinced myself that winter would be fine. That the lines would be shorter. As if the world were a grand and glorious theme park. When I landed in London, though, there was snow on the ground and it was mighty cold. I did a quick change of plans and booked a flight to Israel.

That’s right: the only reason I came to Israel in the first place was because it was cold in Europe.

I planned on staying a few months picking watermelons on some kibbutz in the desert until the weather warmed up on the continent and I could get back on the road. Instead I met Jody.

It wasn’t exactly mutual love at first sight.

We were introduced on a Shabbat afternoon in the Old City of Tzfat at the beginning of the summer. We had both signed up to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies that fall.

My first thought was: “Wow, I’d like to get to know this woman better!”

Jody’s internal monologue went slightly different. She thought: “Boy, if this is the kind of person that studies at Pardes, maybe I should go somewhere else!”

But something happened in the next year. I persevered. And she saw through my scruffy exterior. We did fall in love and you can read about the rest right here in this column.

How did this near-miraculous change come about? Was it just two people passing through a singularly right time and place? Like Bob and Charlotte in Tokyo – a chance meeting between souls searching for connection?

Or was it something more?

One of the most powerful elements of “Lost in Translation” is the way the city of Tokyo is used as a virtual third character in the drama. I’ve visited Tokyo three times, and Director Sofia Copolla totally nails the city – from the incessant electronic pings, dings and whirs that emanate from absolutely everything, to the inescapable conclusion that a non-Japanese gaijin can never, ever fit in.

Copolla turns Tokyo into a swirling metaphor for unrelenting alienation.

Bob and Charlotte meet, maybe fall in love, but are never able to transcend the sense of displacement that the neon and pervasive otherworldliness around them continually reinforce.

Jerusalem, the city where Jody and I chose to build our lives together is, by contrast, for Jews a metaphor for supreme inclusion. Certainly for someone like me who never quite felt he fit in, the city provides ample opportunities for finding and joining the right group. Heck, the whole country is like one big Jewish Community Center and you’re automatically part of the club whether you've paid your membership dues or not.

I am convinced that my personal transformation from befuddled outsider to satisfied family man is due in no small part to having found “my place.” Sure, I could tell you that I had some meta-spiritual post-Zionist re-awakening, but it was really simpler - the discovery of a sense of deep belonging that opened me to the possibility of becoming a part of something bigger than myself – a family…and a community. Israel as a whole – and Jerusalem in particular - can have a profound effect on those who love it and let it in.

That’s why Copolla’s tour-de-force grabs me by the kishkes – because when I watch the film, I know deep down that if I hadn’t serendipitously booked a flight to Jerusalem on a cold day in Europe, I might very well still be searching for meaning in Tokyo…and coming up short.

I know that there are still too many people in this world who have not found their place or partner yet, and I wouldn’t ever think to trivialize that pain. I know it too well. But sometimes at night, when I’m sitting around the dinner table with Jody and my three children Amir, Merav and Aviv, I allow myself to recognize how truly blessed I am.

My life has not been lost in translation. It’s very much been found…in Jerusalem.

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