Thursday, May 20, 2004

Mayors in our Midst

We know a lot of people named Meir. It’s a pretty common Hebrew name. So it’s not surprising when we told the kids we were having a couple of "mayors" for Friday night dinner, they asked “you mean like Meir and Miriam,” referring to friends whose wedding we recently attended.

“No,” I replied. “I mean like mayors – as in the head of a city. We’re getting San Leandro and Azusa.”

Which was, just as unsurprisingly, followed by a round of blank stares.

The occasion was the 22nd annual Jerusalem International Mayor’s Conference, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Jewish Congress which covers the costs of the mayors’ participation. 28 mayors from 17 countries descended on Jerusalem for a week, and we were asked if we’d be interested in hosting a couple for Shabbat.

It was very much an only-in-Israel experience. I doubt we'd ever have been asked to host a mayor when we lived in Berkeley...

All day before they arrived, I was jittery. I knew that whatever we said, whatever we did during their stay with us would probably be interpreted as how all Israelis really are. And they’d probably want to talk politics at one point.

The responsibility to represent our country in the right light was already weighing heavily when the doorbell rang. What would they be like? All official and mayor-like?

Standing on the other side of the door were Cristina Cruz-Madrid from the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa, and Sheila Young the San Francisco Bay Area burg of San Leandro.

They actually looked pretty normal…for mayors, that is.

Cristina brought us two glass mugs from the Azusa Light and Water Department. “We understand you have a water shortage too,” she said knowingly.

Sheila catered more to taste, presenting a box of Ghirardelli Chocolates.

“Isn’t Ghirardelli in Fisherman’s Wharf?” I said. “In San Francisco?”

“The factory moved to San Leandro in 1964,” Sheila beamed, whipping out a digital camera to snap our picture with the chocolates.

So far so good.

Perhaps to deflect all the responsibility from my own shoulders we had invited several other guests including our cousin Nehemia and good friends Adam, Lynne and their six-month-old baby. (You may remember Lynne...I had to "testify" to her singlehood before she and Adam could get married. Click here to revisit the story.)

Over dinner, we talked about what they’d done on their trip so far. The theme of the conference this year was “The Role of the Mayor in Times of Crisis,” and the tour program included visits to Hadassah Hospital’s trauma unit and the army’s Home Front Command to discuss emergency services and disaster preparedness.

We talked about lighter subjects - what it’s like to be a mayor and how long they’d been in office. We reminisced with Sheila about changes in freeways and shopping malls in our old stomping grounds and explained the various Shabbat rituals like Kiddush and washing before eating bread. Everyone complimented Jody’s salmon.

It looked like we might avoid politics all together when Cristina described the demographics of her southern California town. “It’s primarily Latino now. A lot of children of immigrants who came up from South America looking for better opportunities.”

Almost on cue, Adam jumped in. “I was just wondering...” he said, and the way he stretched out his preface perked up a vague sense of alarm for me. “...what your constituents think about what’s going on in this part of the world. Seeing as how they come from places where violence is not exactly unknown.”

Apparently Adam hadn’t properly familiarized himself with my list of acceptable questions.

But Cristina deftly deflected the question. “Truth is, they don’t really think about it at all. There’s so much unemployment and poverty and gangs; they’ve got enough on their plates with local social and welfare issues.”

Nice save, Cristina.

We passed around the chocolates and over the last sips of herbal tea, the conversation got around, as it inevitably does when visitors come from the “old country,” to the question of “why are you here” and “would you ever consider returning to California?” Normally we get this from friends and family and we go immediately on the defensive.

But this time, a different response had started to form in my mind. I turned to Cristina.

“Moving to Israel is kind of like...immigrating to Azusa,” I said. “We came here because we felt we could give our children a better Jews in a Jewish State. For us, Israel is our land of opportunity.”

The parallel wasn’t airtight. We weren’t in danger of being deported. We were full-fledged citizens from day one. But it was good enough.

Cristina nodded.

And if that was a semi-political statement, then I guess I’d crossed my own red line. But if I’d helped at least one mayor of one small town understand why a family of crazy Californians moved half way around the world – and choose to stay – in what’s perceived back home of as a war zone, then I’d acquitted my country with acceptable panache.

We said goodbye and Cristina and Sheila headed back to their hotel. Well, that wasn’t so bad. And they weren’t so intimidating after all.

But when we closed the door, six-year-old Aviv who trying to fall asleep on a nearby couch sat up for a moment, looking confused.

“I don’t understand," he said. "Where were the Meirs?”

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