NEW YORK (JTA) — It was 11 o’clock on a chilly September night and I was coming home from a gig — my first in New York City. I had just moved to Manhattan from Jerusalem a couple of months before to become a professional jazz bass player and would take any job I could get.
Now here I was, all 5-foot-3 and 105 pounds, lugging my giant instrument through the East Village, with only $30 in my pocket and tears in my eyes.
“Is this how Manhattan is going to be?” I thought to myself. I wondered if I had made a mistake.
Passing by a Greek restaurant with tables on the street, I locked eyes with a middle-aged man in a suit with blue eyes and gray hair eating outside with friends. He looked at me carefully while I was walking by and smiled. I politely smiled back and continued to make my way home when the man stopped me and asked what instrument I played.
I told him I was coming back from a gig where I played the bass. I needed to get home and could not afford a cab, but the man intrigued me. His accent was different, Middle Eastern, maybe even Israeli. I politely asked where he was from.
“I am from Palestine,” he said. “And you?”
Without thinking I blurted out, “I’m from Israel.” Only as I said it did it occur to me that I was talking to my enemy. My parents moved to Jerusalem in the 1990s from California and decided to buy an old Arab house in the Baka neighborhood, in the southern part of the city. Growing up I was taught to avoid contact with any unfamiliar Arab men. The only Arabs with whom I would be allowed to speak were my Dad’s Christian Arab friends who worked in our garden and lived in eastern Jerusalem.
“From Israel?” he said smiling, “Come join us for dinner. Let’s talk.”
As a lone 21-year-old woman, I politely refused his offer to dine with four strange men. Yet after more persuasion and warm smiles, I decided to join them. I was flattered — and pretty hungry.
Over the next hour we talked about food, argued over who had the best hummus in Jerusalem and who invented shakshuka, the Middle Eastern stew of poached eggs in tomato sauce. He and his friends told me stories about the treatment they received every morning at the Israeli-Palestinian border coming from Gaza, and I told them about how I hadn’t been allowed to take buses as a child to lower the risk of being in a suicide bombing.
We agreed on the music of Miles Davis, Umm Kulthum and Zohar Argov. We spoke English, yet we discovered that our languages, Hebrew and Arabic, share multiple words. Politics was not mentioned — just five ordinary people sitting around a dinner table.
Halfway through the meal, the suited man made a toast: “For peace, love and understanding.”
“This is not the people’s war; this is between our leaders,” he said. “If only they could sit down and have a conversation over dinner, they might realize that we are all human.”
After a Greek salad, two glasses of wine and some honey cake, the suited man explained to me that he was the Palestinian ambassador in the United States and that I was having dinner as well with the Palestinian coordinator for the United Nations and the son and grandson of the current Palestinian prime minister.
At first I didn’t believe them. There was no way I could have just happened to run into these four very important politicians and join them for a normal supper at a Greek diner. But the suited man wasn’t lying.
They treated me to dinner and gave my bass and me a ride home in their black car while listening to Umm Kulthum. I couldn’t help but wonder why I felt so safe. I would never get into a car with a Palestinian in Israel, let alone four. But in New York, my new city, somehow anything felt possible.
The suited man turned to me and joked, “Now that you’re in a car full of politicians, you’re not going to kidnap us and use it against us, right?”
I laughed, feeling reassured. Yes, anything was possible here.
We said goodbye and exchanged emails. They promised to let me know when they come to New York again. I’d let them know about my next gig. I climbed the stairs to my Hell’s Kitchen apartment feeling confused yet rewarded. One meal did not mean world peace, I knew, but for the first time in my life, I felt a glimmer of hope.
When I called my parents to tell them what happened, I was scared they’d be mad that I’d put myself in a risky situation. Instead they were amazed.
“I’m proud of you,” they said, promising to share my story with their friends who felt hopeless about peace throughout the endless negotiations between the two lands being revived by the U.S. government. (Maybe the solution to the problem should be to bring the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to the United States instead of trying to revive the talks in the Middle East.)
Not that I thought I would ever see the Palestinian men again. Our dinner probably did not have as much as an impact on them as it had me.
But a few months later I received an email from the ambassador inviting me to be his guest to the Seeds of Peace gala. I was anxious and a little worried. What if I didn’t recognize him? What if the whole thing turned out to be a scam?
When he walked in the room, I immediately remembered him. He had that same inviting and familiar smile that made me trust a complete stranger.
At the gala, the ambassador introduced me as his guest, proudly telling the story of how we met.
“Peace can be made,” he said, “if you are willing to let it happen.”