Thursday, June 02, 2005

This Normal Poetry

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. He was in town for a few months to try to get the “real story” behind the headlines. He’s been a regular reader of this column and figured I might be able to share some insights.

Besides which, he offered to take me out to lunch, his treat. We went to Olive and I ordered this chicken dish in a mango-pineapple-coconut sauce which was to die for. I can talk for hours if you give me a good meal.

“So what do you do on an ordinary day?” the reporter asked me.

“Well....I get up in the morning, help get the kids off to school, make lunches and that sort of thing,” I started. Then I usually go for a run and work out. Shower. Eat breakfast. Then I go to work.”

“OK,” the reporter said, looking a bit befuddled though, at this point in the conversation, I didn’t know why. “And what do you do at work?”

“I’m a writer, you know that, so I guess I spend most of my day in front of the computer...writing, using the Internet, sending emails. When I need to conduct an interview with someone in the States for an article, I do it via my broadband Vonage phone that gives me a phone number in New York that rings through to here. No one has a clue where I’m really located!” I laughed.

“Uh huh,” said the reporter, now looking more crestfallen than bemused.

“And then around 6:30, maybe 7:00 PM, I try to stop work,” I continued cheerfully, “have dinner with the family. Get the kids ready for bed. Maybe watch some TV. Every so often Jody and I will go out to eat with friends or catch a movie.”

The reporter stopped me. “What you’re describing sounds just like a suburban San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess it does.”

“So why are you here?”

I stared at him blankly. For a moment, I was speechless, despite the mango-coconut chicken.

The truth is, I didn’t have a good answer. Because if that’s all we’ve done, built a normal life, one that could exist anywhere, then why not do it in Walnut Creek or Danville? Why put up with all of the difficulties of Israel…the outrageous taxes. The rotten public services. The insane driving. The diminished job possibilities.

Is all that tsuris worth it, if all we’re getting is a normal life?

OK, that’s not fair. We have a rich Jewish life that you’d be hard put to duplicate anywhere else. But there are big cities outside of Israel where life is easier than in the Holy Land, still Jewishly-rich, and nearly as normal.

I found myself trying to fashion an answer in my mind to this reporter of what a supposedly super-normal life in Israel would look like.

If I walked to the Kotel every day for sunrise prayers, would that qualify for beyond-ordinary status?

If I demonstrated in front of the Knesset in order to influence the only Jewish State in the world on issues of social justice, would that constitute a life lived purposefully?

Maybe I should be flying one of those orange-starred anti-disengagement flags on my car window…or sporting an opposing bumper sticker in favor? Would an overtly political statement add more meaning than religiously watching 24 and Star Trek: Enterprise?

My dilemma reminded me of the time, several years ago, when we were coming back from a summer in California and I found myself not only able to imagine what it would be like to live there...but surprisingly intrigued.

But this was different. Then it was about wanting a lifestyle I didn’t have here. This time, I’ve discovered I already have the lifestyle...and am wondering what’s it all for?

Finally, I gave the reporter the only answer I could. One that seemed true enough.

I moved to Israel because I always felt like an outsider in the U.S. Because the calendar and the holidays and the passions that most captivated me didn’t match the calendar and holidays and passions that the rest of the country was operating on. In Israel, I said, I feel part of society. I’m on the inside.

“So you have a lot of Israeli friends?” the reporter asked. “You go to local theater performances and lectures?”

“Actually, no...” I said, more to my napkin than to the reporter.

What was this, an interview or a therapy session?

Later that day, as I was describing the interview to my wife Jody, it struck me that I’m just as much an outsider in this country as I was in the old one. There, the calendar was out of synch. But here, a combination of being an immigrant and suffering from perpetually poor language skills have kept me from fully engaging in all that society offers.

In the midst of what was shaping up to be a mid-life, mid-aliyah crisis, I found myself asking a not insignificant question: which is the bigger trade off? Where would I rather be an outsider?

As if to answer my unspoken question, eleven-year-old Merav announced that she had written a poem for a school assignment. She had never written a poem before. She stood up and with a dramatic flourish began to read.

I don’t know if it was just that I didn’t understand the Hebrew, but the language sounded sophisticated, mellifluous even. Putting aside my obvious bias and pride in my daughter’s first attempts at creative writing, the words were certainly well beyond the simple ones that I know from the local makolet. It even rhymed!

Whether or not we have the next Yehuda Amichai in house remains to be seen. But what was even more important to me were the insights – her poem was a first person monologue about what it’s like to be an eleven-year-old in Israel. The fact that she was able to express in writing so many of her fears and joys, concisely and with feeling, filled me with unbridled nachas.

I praised her as much as I could without sounding like a fake, which I certainly was not.

An hour later, she had written three more. And it occurred to me that she was teaching me something about the true nature of the word “insight.” Insight is the ability to communicate a personal perspective from deep within. I may be forced into the role of frustrated outsider wherever it is I seem to go, but my Israeli-raised daughter is unquestionably an insider.

Is that what it’s all about, then? The immigrant parents move to a new land and sacrifice so their children can feel they’re a part of something, that they belong?

No, that’s not it, not entirely at least. But it’s a good start.

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