I was asked by a colleague to help out on a friend’s website. Nothing fancy, just a little advice to help the guy get up and running.
And, oh yeah, could I do it for free?
As it turns out, the website happens to be for a good cause, so I took up the challenge. After several hours over a period of weeks, I got to know the website owner pretty well. One day he dropped me an email.
“My daughter is having a bat mitzvah party at our house. We would be honored if you and your wife could attend.”
Well, Jody and I are always up for a simcha. And the bar mitzvah dad is a pretty funky guy, so I figured it would be a happening event.
But as we drove out to the party, in a moshav (communal village) perched on a picturesque hill about half an hour due west from Jerusalem, Jody and I started to feel uncomfortable.
“Do you think we should have brought a gift?” Jody asked, worriedly.
“Didn’t the work I did count?” I replied.
“I don’t think so...” Jody said, quickly reviewing in her mind what she knew about Israeli bar and bat mitzvah etiquette.
“You know, we don’t even know the bat mitzvah girl’s name,” I said.
“Have you ever met her father?”
“No. I’ve only spoken to him on the telephone. But I know what he looks like.”
“We should have at least brought an envelope,” Jody said.
“Want me to turn around?”
“No...let’s try to enjoy ourselves. Maybe we’ll meet someone interesting.”
The setting for the party was low-key and laid back. The afternoon summer sun was making a slow descent. A large pergola, ensnared in vines, served as a gateway to a lawn where several musicians were playing soft jazz.
Two large barbeques set up under the pergola were churning out burgers, kebabs and chicken wings at a satisfying rate.
“You must be Brian,” the bat mitzvah dad called over to me as we sauntered into the scene. I introduced Jody. He introduced his wife and some of his nine children.
“Did you figure out that Photoshop problem we were talking about?” I asked, trying to make conversation.
“Not now,” he said. “Get some food before it’s gone. And enjoy yourself.”
We sat down and ate our meat. Sitting at the table with us was a young girl, maybe 14, with braces and long wavy hair. She was all by herself. We said hi.
A bongo player had joined the band, seamlessly transforming their sound from jazz to jam with a little bit of Guster thrown in for good measure.
I turned back to Jody. She was deep in conversation with Tmima, the 14 year old.
“So what’s it like living here?” I heard Jody asking.
“It’s very pretty. We have six dunams of land,” Tmima answered, glancing towards the stunning view which stretched all the way to the Tel Aviv beachside. “Where do you live?”
“Jerusalem,” I told her, joining in.
“That sounds nice,” Tmima said. “It’s so boring here. There’s nothing to do at night.”
“Aren’t there other kids here on the moshav? Do you have a scout troupe or anything?” I asked.
“Well, I go to Bnei Akiva. But there are only six of us. And we don’t get along very well.”
“Do you have family here?” Jody asked. “In Israel, I mean?”
“No one. Other than my parents and brothers and sisters, of course.” Tmima said.
“We had three cousins here,” I offered. “But one of them was killed two years ago.”
I have no idea why I said that. It’s not something that comes up regularly in conversation anymore. At that particular moment, enjoying the view and the food and the cooling air, thoughts of Marla, our cousin who died in the bomb at Hebrew University July 31, 2002, seemed far away.
Or maybe they weren't. Maybe on some level I thought that in a land where everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by terror, that this would be a way to bond with an Israeli teen.
We both were silent for a moment.
Then Tmima said, brightly, “So what do you like to do? When you’re not working, of course.” She had snapped back from a moment of awkwardness just about as fast as the average Israeli bounces back after an attack. I don’t know anymore if that’s a good thing or a symptom of denial. After so many years, it just is.
We talked a little longer, and eventually Tmima got up to hang with her friends – all six of them, I suppose. Jody and I settled back to listen to more music which had now taken a definite Shlomo Carlebach turn. Smoke from the barbeque occasionally drifted across the lawn.
As we said our goodbyes a few hours later, Jody grabbed my hand. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t turn around?” she asked.
“Mmmm...” I mumbled, wordlessly agreeing with her.
Because between the music and the meat, you never know just who you might meet.