Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Greener Grass

My friend Ben’s nephew had his bar mitzvah last month. The event took place in New Jersey, and Ben flew home for a visit.

Ben is a member of our synagogue where bar and bat mitzvah’s are generally modest affairs. The most exciting food at the kiddush is usually warm Jerusalem Kugel. The cakes are cookies are a bit better than at a normal kiddush, and if we’re really lucky, we get herring. I once saw egg salad and tuna but never bagels. And meat, well, what is meat again?

After the Torah reading and candy throwing, there may be a lunch, and there’s usually a party in the evening where the bar or bat mitzvah kid repeats the talk given in shul (my favorite: “Thank you for not making a fountain pen”). His or her friends write a funny song set to an old show tune, and the parents embarrass the kids by going all gushy in public. Dress is casual, though sneakers are frowned on.

So the bar mitzvah Ben attended in New Jersey was a paradigm of culture shock. Ben knew what he was getting into: the invitation read “black tie optional.” That was more than “no sneakers.” Ben had a very nice suit, from Land’s End no less.

“You’re not wearing that to the party are you?” asked his father.

“Why not?” Ben asked.

“Here, I’ll buy you a new suit,” Dad offered.

“This one is just fine,” countered Ben.

Fast forward several rounds: Ben is at the reception, in his Lands End Suit, staring down a smorgasbord – a table filled with every type of delicacy: carving stations for roast beef, sushi, chicken wings, Chinese. And this is just the appetizers. There was a full meat meal after that.

And then the piece de resistance, the “Vienese Table,” a desert cart that is brought out in darkness then illuminated dramatically to carefully choreographed oohs and ahhs.

Ben related that at his wedding, also in New Jersey, they too had this Vienese Table; their Rabbi, who hailed from California, which is not known for Vienese Tables, was apparently unfamiliar with the custom. So when the lights went out, he muttered to Ben: “Oy, a power-failure!”

For Ben, there was an added element to all this extravagance: this was a life he could have had, had he chosen to stay in New Jersey. Indeed, his family has always viewed him as hovering somewhere between being a fool and a traitor for leaving all this behind. This trip was his first time back in this milieu since he moved to Israel over ten years ago.

So before going, Ben was nervous: would he feel the pull of what he’d given up? The friends he would meet there, many of whom he had known since childhood, were all probably making ten times in a month what Ben makes in a year in Israel. In the New Jersey suburbs, he most certainly would have owned a home whereas in Israel he still rents. He might even have had more than one suit hanging in his closet.

As he imagined strolling the smorgasbord, Ben wondered, would he taste the corned beef and sushi and quietly hope that this whole Israel thing was just one big dream? That he would wake up one day, like Bob Newhart next to Suzanne Pleshette at the end of Newhart’s second TV series in the 1980s, and realize that he had never left the first show?

How green would the grass shimmer after a weekend in his own garden of temptations?

I think many of us in Israel have had these feelings at one time or another, ranging from subdued musing to outright envy. On our summer trips back “home,” Jody & I often wonder what would have been for us if we had stayed in California.

One time I saw David Schwimmer as we dined in a fancy restaurant with family. Had we “stayed,” we could have driven there ourselves in matching Hummers before returning to cocoon at home in front of our DVD home theater with super sensational surround sound. Some of our friends really do that. We’re not so different, are we? Why did we give that up? Or at least give up the possibility?

Most of us who have moved to Israel have taken steps down on the career and financial ladder. There was a time, in the midst of the dot.com era, when it looked as if one could do as well, if not better, in Israel than in the States.

Now, times are tough everywhere, and I’d be disingenuous to posit that everyone in North America is doing so great, just as it would be untrue to claim that everyone in Israel is living on the poverty line (although a recent survey reveals that one in five are). Moreover, we’re not exactly starving. It’s just that we wonder…what if…how green is that grass?

In our early days here, we’d suppress these feelings with a smug rationalization that claimed some sort of superior spirituality here in Jerusalem. But as we matured, we began to appreciate the value in alternative lifestyles. We make our choices, and one choice is not necessarily better than another. Just different. Slowly but surely, we are learning how to embrace multi-hued grass in psychedelic shades of blue and yellow and red.

Maybe it’s also that I have everything I really want: my wife, my kids; a roof over my head. Sure I’d like to own the roof, but if that’s not to be my lot in life - whether here or there - am I so much the worse for it?

And so, we have no regrets. This Normal Life that we live is the one we have chosen and the one that we truly desire. Cautiously, I probed Ben on his return. After all that he had just been through, how would he respond?

To my relief, he felt the same.

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