Apart At The Seams

I moved here to Israel two weeks after the Second Lebanon War ended, when the bitter taste of it still lingered. As the nation now prepares (or braces itself) for Lebanon War #3, people are looking back to last year and what happened then. I recently stumbled across this article (via Good Neighbors) and it threw me for a loop:

Together, Helen and I had tried to create a tidy little universe with a population of two. In this universe, it didn’t matter that I was a Jew and Helen was an Arab. We were beyond the politics….

Politics slumbered alongside us. Sometimes it spoke in its sleep, sometimes it rolled over, but it did not wake up.

And then, the war.

When the morning newscast announced that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped along the border of Lebanon, I felt the dream world that Helen and I had constructed around ourselves begin to evaporate….

As the war raged on, our morning ritual of listening to the news on NPR became agonizing. Helen still hadn’t heard from her aunts and uncles and cousins, and she feared the worst. I switched my alarm clock from “radio” to “buzzer.”

One morning, about a week after the conflict had begun, the tension was especially palpable. All of a sudden, Helen threw down her boots in frustration. Her fingers balled into fists.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I know,” I replied.
“You are so distant,” she said. Helpless and angry, she stared out the window.
I picked up Helen’s boots and brought them to her.
“I don’t even know what to say,” was the best I could do. I was afraid that if we talked, we would discover that we just could not be together. I was afraid of discovering that love had failed to elevate us to a place beyond politics. “Please,” I begged, “give me some time.”

….I was terrified. Terrified that someone from Helen’s family could get killed by an Israeli bomb. Terrified that every time I saw her Caller ID, I thought it would be our last conversation. I kept imagining her carefully chosen words, her contrite tone as she whispered through the tears, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore.”

My friends were supportive, and a few admitted to being inspired by us, framing our relationship in hopeful, hyperbolic terms, a microcosm of the peace process itself. When I expressed my own doubts, one overzealous friend scolded me, “You can’t give up! You owe it to humanity to make this work.”

As if I didn’t have enough on my mind. Now world peace hinged on my ability to find common ground with my girlfriend.

And so on. They go through some really rocky times, and the emotion is real and needs no hyperbole to validate itself. (Read the article itself to see how it turns out.) My issues with intermarriage and interreligious couples aside, it was touching.

In any case, after reading it, a memory bubbled up from the depths of my head – something I’ve hardly thought about in 3 years, even though at the time, it seemed like one of those moments, the ones you remember in a very real way. Back when I was in college, during my sophomore year, I was hanging out in my room in the CJL, the Jewish living house on campus. My door was open, and I heard (or maybe saw) a girl about my age wandering around cautiously. She clearly was looking for something and was not familiar with or particularly comfortable in our house. Being the friendly guy I was (am?), I walked out of my room to help her out. She her name was Tori (I think) and she was looking for the Hillel and I explained (as we often did) that we were not the Hillel, but I could show her where to find it. She dismissed my offer wearily, too emotionally drained to go wandering around another unfamiliar building. I invited her to sit down, she collapsed on the couch and started breaking down in tears.

The story came out: she was Jewish and going out with an Arab guy, I think a Palestinian. At some point, The Conflict came up. One of his friends said something negative about Jews, and she protested. Her boyfriend said “your people are f-ing unpleasant.” She was floored. She hadn’t expected this at all. From what she said, it seemed like that, and the brief fallout afterwards, were the last words they’d exchanged. He and his friend called several times during our conversation, but she hung up on them each and every time. There was no bridge-building here. It wasn’t even a consideration.

Back to her sitting on the couch, crying. Here I have a girl crying because politics and bigotry reared their ugly heads in this place she thought was safe. Tori felt so helpless, she told me, since she didn’t know much about The Conflict and couldn’t argue with them. I started to explain the issues and complexities of the whole messy situation in Israel, but it was clear (or at least, it’s clear to me now) that she didn’t need a history lesson. She needed a friend. She didn’t need someone to solve this; there was no solution. She needed someone to listen. And I did somewhat, and I hope it was sufficient. She left, with nothing resolved, nothing accomplished, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just missed an opportunity. But for what, exactly?

This story has a postscript. I emailed her shortly after her visit, offerring to help if I could. She didn’t reply in any meaningful way, and I didn’t hear from her again. Months later, I was leading a seder (among many others) at school, and who should show up at my table, but Tori. But not weeping, uncertain Tori. This was dressed-up, confident, sorority-girl Tori. And since I hadn’t met this version of her, she acted the part. There was a flicker of recognition, a brief nod, when I started pointing out that we’d met before, but then it was gone. We went through the whole seder and throughout, no one but us could’ve guessed that here was a girl who’d broken down crying and poured her heart out to me. I was like her psychologist; I had seen her at her most emotionally vulnerable. We’d been strangers from the moment she’d walked out of my room that day.

One Response to “Apart At The Seams”

  1. Chana says:

    This was such an interesting read. Thanks for making us aware of the unique perspectives on the issue- Arab and Israeli couples, wow. I suppose that’s like Romeo and Juliet but on the national level…Also, your conversation with Tori is pretty interesting. It doesn’t surprise me that she’d want to ignore it, afterwards, though- you probably helped her when it was needed but she might not have wanted to revisit what was potentially a very embarassing moment/ part of her life. Of course, that’s me thinking, so it’s quite possible that that’s not it…

    Anyway, really interesting outlook. Thanks.

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